If I Cheat, Will I Be Forgiven?

Perhaps, but research shows it might depend on your apology.

Posted Sep 21, 2020

Mindaugas Danys from Vilnius, Lithuania/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)
Source: Mindaugas Danys from Vilnius, Lithuania/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

We may never know how many men or women “cheat” on their spouses, largely because on questionnaires people do not always tell the truth about such matters. Cheating was defined by McAllister and colleagues as “a general term for extradyadic romantic or sexual behavior that violates expectations in a committed romantic relationship.” The key word here is “expectations” because some couples (again, we do not know how many) evolve implicit (“I’ll pretend it’s not happening”) or explicit understandings, such as open relationships with a (usually) mutual agreement about what “open” means. Surveys tend to reveal that explicit cheating occurs in a very small percentage of the total number of relationships—perhaps as low as 5 percent. Instances of implicit cheating are even more difficult to document; few people confess such behavior on questionnaires. What is known from a study by Richters and colleagues is that “the majority of respondents who had sex with someone else were in relationships that were explicitly or implicitly expected to be exclusive.” How large the absolute total is anyone’s guess.

If Cheating Is Discovered or Confessed

Regardless, if one is caught cheating, how best to recover and save the relationship? To address this question, psychologists Gunderson and Ferrari asked about 200 young women and men to respond to various scenarios about how they would react to a cheating situation. Several factors were considered.

First, how did the aggrieved partner find out? Did they learn from:

  1. Being told by a friend who believed it was in your best interests to know about the cheating?
  2. Walking in on the partner as they were having sex with another person?
  3. The partner admitting to cheating after they were confronted or questioned about the sex act?
  4. The partner voluntarily disclosing their cheating without prior suspicion or interrogation?

The authors concluded that it did not matter how the transgression was discovered. It was not important how the wounded one found out.

Second, the frequency of cheating did matter. The two options given were:

  1. This was an isolated event, the first time your partner cheated on you.
  2. During the course of your relationship, your partner cheated on you multiple times.

A single event was forgivable, but not if cheating was frequent. The researchers concluded, if the cheating only occurred once then the injured person “would be more likely to forgive the transgression and less likely to end the relationship” because it was viewed as a “redeemable offense.” That did not mean, however, that they would necessarily stop worrying about their partner’s future cheating. 

Third, most critical was “regardless of how the transgression was discovered, forgiveness was most likely when cheating was an isolated incident and when an apology was offered by the partner.” The process of healing and reconciliation would likely take less time and hope for the future of the romantic relationship would most likely be enhanced. Wrong-doing confessions reduced revenge desires and renewed the possibility of trust.

Bottom Line

One way to reduce cheating, of course, is to have honesty in the relationship, including the possibility or desire for extradyadic sex and/or romance. To be forthright with one’s partner about an open relationship with well-defined understandings (maybe rules) about what it means to have multiple sexual/romantic relationships. In my clinical work with gay male couples, communications about relevant basic rules include:

  1. How frequently can extradyadic sexual encounters occur (e.g., any time, once a month, rarely)?
  2. Under what circumstances (e.g., when one is out of town, when one is horny, when both partners are present)?
  3. What activities can occur (e.g., clearly specified, noninvasive, all but intercourse, your choice)?
  4. Where (e.g., other’s place, hotel, does not matter)?
  5. Is disclosure mandated, recommended, only if requested, or forbidden?

Otherwise, the best policy is don’t cheat but if you do, do it only once and apologize as if your relationship depends on it—because it does.

Image: Mindaugas Danys from Vilnius, Lithuania/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Facebook image: Prostock-studio/Shutterstock

References

McAllister, P., Henderson, E., Maddock, M., Dowdle, K., Fincham, F. D., & Braithwaite, S. R. (2020). Sanctification and cheating among emerging adults. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 49, 1177–1188. doi:10.1007/s10508-020-01657-3

Richters, J., Heywood, W., Pitts, M., Shelley, J., Simpson, J., Patrick, K., & Smith, A. (2014). Who’s cheating? Agreements about sexual exclusivity and subsequent concurrent partnering in Australian heterosexual couples. Sexual Health, 11, 524-531. doi:10.1071/SH14031

Gunderson, P., & Ferrari, J. (2008). Forgiveness of sexual cheating in romantic relationships: Effects of discovery method, frequency of offense, and presence of apology. North American Journal of Psychology, 10, 1–14.