- Infidelity is often preceded, not followed, by a gradual decline in relationship functioning.
- Partners who proactively pursue relational alternatives experience less moral regret.
- Discerning singles can perceive relationship potential through expressed views about infidelity.
Very few people embark upon a new relationship thinking about being unfaithful. Barring the notorious (and usually easy to spot) swinging single who believes that when it comes to romantic partners, the more the better, most people are looking for someone special. Yet, even people who seem smitten can stray. Why? Knowing the reasons that originally well-intentioned partners end up considering relational alternatives can assist in maintaining a healthy, quality relationship that will guard against the temptation to breach relational trust.
The Link Between Feeling Unhappy and Being Unfaithful
Olga Stavrova et al. (2023), in a piece entitled “Estranged and Unhappy,” examined the impact of both personal and relationship well-being on the decision to be unfaithful.1 They examined whether relationship problems prompt infidelity, or precede it, or whether both scenarios are equally plausible. Studying approximately 1,000 instances of infidelity among a panel of adults in Germany, they found that infidelity was preceded, not followed, by a gradual decline in relationship functioning.
By demonstrating that well-being begins to decrease before a partner decides to be unfaithful, their study provides corroboration for what many couples have experienced in their own relationships, particularly after satisfaction begins to decline. But there are exceptions.
Pursuing Infidelity: An Eye for a Wandering Eye
Other research failed to affirmatively link relationship satisfaction with infidelity—when examining a sample of people who sought out affairs. Dylan Selterman et al. (2023) in a study aptly entitled “No Remorse” studied a sample of Ashley Madison website users, a site geared toward enabling infidelity. For this sample, sexual infidelity was not clearly linked with relationship satisfaction or well-being.2
Completing questionnaires about their primary relationships (often spouses), as well as personality traits, motivations to seek extra-relational satisfaction, and outcomes, participants reported being highly satisfied with their affairs without suffering moral regret. This is despite the fact that only a small number of participants reported having “open relationships” with their partners, who knew about their website-facilitated affairs. Also contrary to previous research, Selterman et al.’s subjects did not report low relationship quality in terms of love, commitment, and satisfaction to be a major factor prompting the affairs. Conversely, the affairs did not predict a decrease in relationship quality variables over the course of time.
So what is the difference? Perhaps it's the type of people who were polled. Selterman et al. examined individuals who proactively sought affairs, which were not primarily motivated by poor marriages. Under these circumstances and for these people, the affairs did not seem to have a strong negative impact on their relationships, and personal ethics did not play a prominent role in their decision-making. Indeed, Selterman et al. note that their research outlined the experiences of people who seek and have affairs, which may help explain their results, which they admit are inconsistent with some of the conventional wisdom surrounding feelings about infidelity. Remember that their data were drawn from a population of “experienced and aspiring cheaters,” recruited through Ashley Madison, which is a website designed to enable “extradyadic experiences.”
Although other researchers have identified different motivations for pursuing affairs through the Ashley Madison website (see, e.g., Hackathorn and Ashdown, 20213), people who proactively seek affairs are different from those who end up straying without proactive pre-planning.
Taking this research together, it appears that susceptibility to straying might be manifest in attitudes toward infidelity, as well as personal predisposition. Whether commenting on public scandal or the reported exploits of personal acquaintances around the water cooler, some people reveal relational views vicariously by weighing in on the behavior of others.
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1. Stavrova, Olga, Tila Pronk, and Jaap Denissen. 2023. “Estranged and Unhappy? Examining the Dynamics of Personal and Relationship Well-Being Surrounding Infidelity.” Psychological Science 34 (2): 143–169. doi:10.1177/09567976221116892.
2. Selterman, Dylan, Samantha Joel, and Victoria Dale. 2023. “No Remorse: Sexual Infidelity Is Not Clearly Linked with Relationship Satisfaction or Well-Being in Ashley Madison Users.” Archives of Sexual Behavior, April. doi:10.1007/s10508-023-02573-y.
3. Hackathorn, Jana, and Brien K. Ashdown. 2021. “The Webs We Weave: Predicting Infidelity Motivations and Extradyadic Relationship Satisfaction.” Journal of Sex Research 58 (2): 170–182. doi:10.1080/00224499.2020.1746954.