- Affairs can lead to many reactions, ranging from sadness to verbal assault.
- Terminating the relationship is a very common response.
- Seeking advice from others such as friends and therapists is a more positive reaction.
Infidelity in the context of a committed relationship can be one of life's most stressful events. Cheating and affairs wreak havoc on relationships both when they are kept secret and when they are disclosed. Yet reactions to affairs are difficult to predict, so Apostolou and colleagues (2022) set out to conduct two studies to identify the most common reactions to learning that your partner is having an affair. These two studies are important for many reasons but especially for the clinical implications. Therapists may be guided about what to ask and how to approach treatment. Assumptions about reactions are problematic. Individuals may react in a myriad of ways.
Additionally, infidelity is not an uncommon event and reactions can range from anxiety to physical violence. There are various estimates of the frequency of infidelity but the numbers are probably inaccurate because self-report measures often provide inaccurate information. Suffice it to say that most of us have either attempted to help a friend who learned of a partner's affair or have learned of our own partner's extramarital affairs. Perhaps, some of you who are reading this post are currently involved in an affair and are terrified that your partner will find out. This may cost you a lot including the dissolution of your marriage, shame, and perhaps significant financial stress.
Affairs are not a one-time event. The sequelae of an affair can go on for years. Consider two former partners who now despise each other and are dragging each other into court year after year. Consider the kids who are asked to deliver messages from one parent to another. Extramarital activity is associated with a lot of loss including potential loss of dignity, family, financial well-being, and even friends. It is crucial that we learn more about how affairs impact us so we can move ahead with more care and knowledge about reactions.
In this first study by Apostolou et al. (2022) the responses of 226 Greek-speaking individuals who had at least some prior experience with infidelity were analyzed. These individuals either suspected or learned of a partner's infidelity. In this study, they were asked how they would respond to unfaithfulness. The results indicated that there were 94 reactions to learning of unfaithfulness. Not surprisingly, ending the relationship was the most frequent response.
In the second study, 757 Greek-speaking individuals were given a survey and asked to choose how they would react to learning of an affair by choosing from the 94 reactions found during study #1. Here, the authors found that the reactions fell into four main categories that included these 94 reactions. These categories included reactions falling under the category of: 1. Why it happened, 2. How to proceed with the relationship, 3. How to retaliate, and 4. Taking others' opinions and reactions into account. To see each of the four categories and the 94 reactions that loaded into these domains, please see the research.
Overall, the findings indicated that experiencing negative emotions was among the most common of the reactions. This included experiencing despair and humiliation. Other common reactions were to end the relationship, maintain physical distance from the cheating partner, and to seek more information about why the infidelity occurred. An important gender difference for therapists to be aware of is that while males are more likely to become physically violent in response to learning of infidelity, females were more likely to become verbally abusive. There was also a reaction based on age which therapists should also be aware of. Older individuals were less reactive to infidelity and appeared to be more tolerant of it. Perhaps they have more invested in the relationship in terms of years.
Keep in mind that while the results of this study are very important, they are limited to hypothetical reactions to infidelity. Future studies should look at real life reactions occurring in real time. Additionally, factors that are related to reaction style would also be helpful. Perhaps a more forgiving individual would be more likely to seek therapy. Or maybe not. This area is wide open for research.
Apostolou, M.,Constantinou,C. and Zalaf,A. (2022) How people react to their partners' infidelity:An explorative study.Personal Relationships.913-932