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New research published in the journal Psychological Science suggests that conflict and relationship stress precedes romantic infidelity.
Using a long-term study of family dynamics over 12 years, researchers Stavrova, Pronk, and Denissen (2022) assessed a representative sample of German adults and their primary romantic partners. They found that both individual and relationship well-being before the onset of infidelity decreased for members of the couples who participated in the infidelity and for their partner who was the victim of infidelity.
Does relationship stress precede romantic infidelity?
Infidelity has long been associated with relationship problems and is a major reason for seeking couples therapy. However, as the authors contend, it is difficult to determine whether infidelity causes or stems from relationship disorders. Stavrova et al. suggested that infidelity can make unfaithful partners feel guilty, hide secrets from their partners, and even feel depressed, leading to increased relationship conflict and stress.
Similarly, feeling detached from a long-term partner and a lower sense of attachment to that partner could also lead to an increased likelihood of being unfaithful to that partner. Causal relationships are difficult to identify from non-experimental data. Therefore, the authors used unique methods to attempt to assess whether relationship dissatisfaction precedes or follows experiences of infidelity.
In the current project, the researchers accompanied couples in long-term relationships over an average period of five to eight years. The researchers collected data on self-reported instances of infidelity from the main respondents (both infidelities reported as those involved in the infidelity referred to as “perpetrators” and those who were cheated referred to as “victims”) . The researchers then examined “discontinuous change models to track changes in well-being in people who have experienced infidelity.”
These models allowed the researchers to determine whether the diminished well-being preceded or followed the couples’ experiences of infidelity. The larger study was designed to assess family dynamics and therefore included assessments of individual well-being, such as life satisfaction and self-esteem, and measures of relationship well-being, including relationship satisfaction, intimacy, and perceived conflict.
In addition, the researchers compared couples who experienced infidelity to matched control couples who did not experience infidelity in their relationships. These couples were matched based on characteristics such as age, gender, marital status, relationship length, education, income level, and number of children, all factors related to the likelihood of infidelity in romantic relationships.
Finally, the authors considered survey responses completed by both individuals and their romantic partners to determine how the affairs affected the well-being of perpetrators and victims of infidelity. However, it should be noted that only the main respondents were asked to report occurrences of infidelity, so it is possible that some of the partners involved in this project were not aware of the infidelity behavior.
Reported incidents of infidelity included 609 people who confessed to cheating on their partners and 338 people who reported their partners had been unfaithful to them. (The authors also identified 111 couples in which one partner reported mutual infidelity. However, the researchers found that there were not enough couples in this category to conduct meaningful statistical analysis.) In this dataset, most people reported that only one affair had taken place, although some individuals reported as many as six separate affairs.
The researchers found strong evidence that experiences of infidelity “preceded a gradual decline in personal and relational well-being in both victims and perpetrators.” The authors argued that this decrease in factors at the individual and relationship levels may have prompted perpetrators to seek alternative romantic relationships for those who initiated affairs. Additionally, after an affair, “infidelity events were not followed by steady patterns of recovery.”
Neither the partners involved in the affairs nor the partners who were victims of infidelity regained their basic well-being after reporting/discovering the infidelity. Instead, couples who were more engaged in their relationships prior to infidelity worsened in their well-being after their infidelity experience. In particular, people who reported having had affairs themselves showed a greater decline in well-being after infidelity than those who reported their partners had been unfaithful.
Because the sample of people who confessed to cheating on their own partners was almost double the sample of people who reported that their partners had cheated, the authors speculate that many couples may experience infidelity affected by the physical partner is kept secret. Keeping this infidelity secret may play a role in the steeper decline in well-being evident in perpetrators versus victims of infidelity.