Cheating and Getting Even
The psychology of retaliatory infidelity.
Posted Dec 02, 2018
A student of mine, Ben Warach, and I conducted a study looking to see what personality variables predicted cheating on one’s partner as well as being cheated upon by one’s partner. The research literature suggested that personality variables such as the Dark Triad of narcissism, Machiavellian intelligence, and psychopathy, as well anxious and avoidant attachment styles, predicted tendencies to be unfaithful. The research literature didn’t have much to say on the personality characteristics of betrayed partners, though a considerable amount of research suggested that betrayed partners suffer PTSD-like symptoms subsequent to sexual betrayal (Warach & Josephs, in press). So, Ben and I conducted a study administering a bunch of personality measures and assessed to what degree those personality variables were associated with a history of cheating or being cheated on. We replicated the usual findings from the research literature of the personality variables that predicted infidelity. The findings were significant, but the effect sizes tended to be small. None of the personality variables predicted who was more likely to get cheated on (Warach, Josephs, & Gorman, 2018).
What we discovered that surprised us was that the best predictor of cheating was a history of being cheated on. What goes around seems to come around. The effect size for this result was moderate. That means that a history of being cheated on is a better predictor of infidelity than any personality variable. And even though there is no particular personality variable that predicts being cheated on, if you are cheated on, you are significantly more likely to cheat, and the effect size is not small. Why is that?
People engage in infidelity for many different reasons. The usual culprits are sexual boredom or frustration in a relationship or the lack of emotional intimacy. But, evidently, a not-uncommon reason for being unfaithful is to get even (Josephs, 2018). The research literature calls this “retaliatory infidelity.” You suffered a relational transgression in your relationship (it doesn’t have to be infidelity), so you cheat to punish your partner for the transgression. The punishment is to make your partner suffer in the hopes that exposure of the infidelity will wound and humiliate your partner the way you felt wounded and humiliated by your partner’s original transgression. The idea is to give your partner a taste of his or her own medicine, so your partner can appreciate what it feels like when the shoe is on the other foot. Getting revenge as a just punishment for a relational transgression, at least in the moment, seems to restore one’s self-respect. That’s why revenge is sweet. Nevertheless, though revenge seems to right a wrong, it can lead to an escalating blood feud that only makes reconciliation all the more difficult.
Joe and Mary came for couples therapy as they had both cheated on each other. Mary was the original cheater, and she felt for good cause, because Joe had stopped having sex with her. It didn’t seem reasonable to her to resign herself to a sexless marriage at a young age, so she felt her infidelity was justified. Joe felt his infidelity was justified as punishment, because he felt that he was a good husband, and Mary shouldn’t have cheated on him just because they were having problems in bed that weren’t entirely his fault. I noted that neither felt the other’s infidelity was justified and that if they ever hoped to reconcile, they would need to rise above their need to get even and learn how to forgive each other. Getting mired in endless self-justification of their retaliatory infidelities wouldn’t help in fixing the underlying sexual problem in the relationship. They needed to learn to become more interested in each other’s sexual happiness than in making the other suffer as a justified punishment.
Getting even is part of human nature and maybe adaptive in certain respects. It makes people think twice about messing with you, because you’ll make them pay a price for dissing you. But all adaptations involve trade-offs, and there are costs as well as benefits to getting even. The cost is usually that people feel that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime, so they then have to get even with you for being unreasonably punitive to even the score. In a long-term intimate relationship, getting even just leads to escalating power struggles, and retaliatory infidelity usually seems like hitting below the belt.
In an intimate relationship, subsequent to a relational transgression the transgressor may have to spend at least some time in the doghouse as a reasonable punishment to give the betrayed partner time to heal from the deep emotional wound that betrayal inflicts. That may be adaptive, because sentencing your partner to the doghouse while you take the time to heal may be used as a test of how much your unfaithful partner “actually” loves you, rather than just professes to love you. If unfaithful partners genuinely regret their transgressions, want to make amends, and really love you (i.e., will make painful sacrifices on your behalf), they will good-naturedly and patiently endure living in the doghouse to give you time to heal until they can win back your trust, love, and respect. Nevertheless, at some point, you have to be willing to forgive the relational transgression, rather than just holding it over their heads for the rest of their lives as a bargaining chip.
How to Cope with Relational Transgression
1. Allow your hurt and anger. You’ve been wronged, so you’re entitled to your well-justified hurt and anger, as well as time to heal.
2. Express your feelings with dignity. Don’t sink to your partner’s level and go tit for tat. Don’t engage in retaliatory infidelity or become verbally abusive. Express your anger in a self-contained and dignified way. Speak slowly, calmly, quietly, and firmly. It will have a much greater impact on the transgressor.
3. Let your partner live in the doghouse. Yes, your partner has lost your good graces. Your partner gets the cold shoulder until your partner earns back your trust, love, and respect through the test of time. Your partner isn’t entitled to quick forgiveness. Your partner has to tolerate the fact that healing a relational wound (i.e., an attachment injury) takes time.
4. Reward your partner for good behavior. If your partner shows patience and sensitivity in dealing with your hurt and anger and with having to live in the doghouse for a while, give them credit where credit is due. Relational transgressions are usually committed by partners with low frustration tolerance and low empathy. You want to help your partner develop higher frustration tolerance and greater empathy, so you want to reward baby steps in the right direction to get the kind of partner you want and deserve. Don’t withhold rewards until they get all the way to the finish line, and don’t over-reward either for every little nice thing they do. Give modest rewards for incremental steps in the right direction.
Josephs, L. (2018) The Dynamics of Infidelity: Applying Relationship Science to Psychotherapy Practice. American Psychological Association. Washington, D.C.
Warach, B., Josephs, L. & Gorman, B. (2018) Pathways to Infidelity: Self-serving bias and betrayal trauma. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy.
Warach, B. & Josephs, L. (in press) Aftershocks of infidelity: A review of infidelity-based attachment trauma. Journal of Sex and Relationship Therapy.