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Suspected Infidelity May Impair Mental and Physical Well-Being

Responses to mere suspicion include anxiety, insomnia, and risky behavior.

Key points

  • The suspicion of infidelity can have serious negative consequences for well-being.
  • Women are more likely to suffer physical symptoms such as insomnia while men more often report risky behavior such as drug use.
  • These effects may be explained by transactional stress theory, when people are stressed beyond their ability to cope.
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Researchers estimate that up to 20 percent of marital relationships and up to 75 percent of dating relationships involve either sexual or emotional infidelity. The experience of infidelity in an intimate relationship is associated with negative consequences such as stress, anxiety, jealousy, and depression; but even just the suspicion of infidelity can have serious negative consequences for both mental and physical well-being.

New research published by Weigel and Shrout (2021) in the March issue of the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships suggests that “the mere suspicion of a partner’s infidelity can have powerful psychological, physical, and behavioral consequences in romantic relationships.”

The researchers surveyed over 200 individuals who suspected that their partners might have been unfaithful in the past three months. These individuals were recruited from a university in the western U.S., were primarily female and heterosexual, and had relationships lasting for an average of almost two years. Most of these couples were dating exclusively but were not living together. The participants self-reported their physical health symptoms over the past two weeks as well as health behaviors, feelings of distress, anxiety, depression, and relationship satisfaction.

According to the authors, “When participants reported greater suspicion of a partner’s infidelity, they experienced higher suspicion-related distress, depression, physical health symptoms, and risky health behavior.” Furthermore, women were more likely to disclose more distress and more physical symptoms such as headaches or trouble sleeping while men were more likely to reveal riskier behaviors such as alcohol and drug use in response to their suspicions. Interestingly, the researchers also found that “only people who were satisfied with their relationships experienced high levels of infidelity-related distress.”

The authors interpreted these findings through transactional stress theory, which states that “stress occurs when individuals perceive the demands of a given event or situation are beyond their ability to cope,” and can then trigger “various harmful consequences, including lower subjective well-being (e.g., depression and anxiety), physical health (e.g., somatic health symptoms), and behavioral well-being (e.g., risky health behavior).”

Because this research was correlational in nature, the authors also investigated the reversed model, testing whether impaired well-being might lead individuals to be more suspicious of a partner’s potential infidelity. However, the authors found more statistical support for the original model, suggesting that reduced well-being is most likely the result of the suspected infidelity. The researchers recommend future longitudinal research to strengthen the validity of these findings.

The researchers also acknowledge that their research was based on the self-report of college students; however, one might posit that the suspicion of infidelity in non-college student samples might yield even more negative outcomes for couples. The authors conclude that “worry and perseveration about a partner’s possible cheating could be just as stressful as an actual infidelity.”

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Weigel, D. J., & Shrout, M. R. (2021). Suspicious minds: The psychological, physical and behavioral consequences of suspecting a partner’s infidelity. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 38(3), 865-887.

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