Around 20 percent of North American adults admit (at least to a psychologist) that they have had sex with someone who isn’t their primary partner at least once.
This raises an interesting question: How do cheaters justify their behavior?
Nobody wants to see themselves as a villain. Prisons are packed with violent criminals who claim it was the other guy’s fault and fraudsters who insist they were framed. Infidelity isn’t illegal, but are love-cheats just as prone to leap to their own defense?
Benjamin Warach, along with his colleagues at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York, decided to find out.
First, they asked over 300 men and women to imagine that they were in a relationship with someone and that the relationship had been going through a rough patch. Half of the volunteers were then asked to imagine that they had cheated on their partner by having sex with someone else; the other half were put in the role of the victim. The "cheater" was asked to imagine they then came clean to their partner and explained that they behaved as they did, because “their needs were not being totally met in the relationship.” The "victim" was asked to imagine hearing this from their partner.
Afterward, all of the volunteers rated the extent to which they, their partner, or circumstances were to blame for the infidelity. They also rated the likely emotional impact on the victim.
Warach found that "cheaters" blamed themselves less for the infidelity than they were blamed by the "victims." And remember, these people were randomly allocated to the cheater and victim roles. Simply imagining themselves in the shoes of a cheater or victim made the volunteers see things differently, with hypothetical cheaters less willing to take responsibility.
However, regardless of role, all participants agreed on the blame due to the "victim" and circumstances and on the harm to the "victim."
It’s About to Get Real
Next, Warach followed his first study with research on genuine cheaters and victims. He asked these volunteers to reflect upon the most recent time that they had cheated on—or been cheated on by—a romantic partner. They then answered the same questions from the first study about blame and emotional impact.
Here, the results were quite different.
Unlike in the first study, actual cheaters did not blame themselves less than they were blamed by actual victims.
However, cheaters did tend to blame victims more than victims blamed themselves. Cheaters were also more apt to blame circumstances than victims were, and thought that the emotional impact of the infidelity on the victim was lower than the impact reported by victims.
Now, few of us are free from all guilt or irredeemably bad. Many have both cheated and been cheated on. How do people who have been both victim and perpetrator of infidelity apportion blame?
Warach found that, when these people transgressed, they were more likely to blame their partner than they were to blame themselves when their partner strayed. In other words: If I cheat on you, it is your fault, and if you cheat on me, it is still your fault.
Cheater/victims were also more likely to blame circumstance and to estimate a lower emotional impact on the victim when they committed infidelity compared to when they were the victim of infidelity.
Warach calls this double standard “sexual hypocrisy” and an example of the self-serving bias. Whether we are the victim or a perpetrator of injustice, we seek to feel better about ourselves by placing the blame on the other person or on uncontrollable circumstances. For the victim, this is justifiable; for the perpetrator, perhaps less so.
With over half of those who enter couples therapy doing so in the hopes of resolving conflict stemming from infidelity, Warach points out that sexual hypocrisy may stand in the way of reconciliation.
But perhaps his first study shows the way forward. When we imagine ourselves as a cheater or a victim, we shift our perspective. Perhaps by considering hypothetical infidelity rather than the real thing, with all its complexities and baggage, we might be better able to empathize with the victim.
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Warach, B., Josephs, L., & Gorman, B. S. (in press). Are cheaters sexual hypocrites? Sexual hypocrisy, the self-serving bias, and personality style. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. doi:10.1177/0146167219833392