Study Examines How People Decide to Stay in or Leave Relationships After Infidelity

Rosie Shrout and Dan Weigel at the University of Nevada, Reno talk about their paper on the decision-making process following an intimate partner being unfaithful, whether to stay in or leave relationships after infidelity, recently published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

Infidelity is one of the most stressful events that can happen in committed relationships. It can take a huge toll on everyone’s emotional, mental, and physical health. One of the decisions that must be made is whether to stay with the cheating partner. Our study is about how people decide to stay in or leave dating relationships after they have been cheated on. We looked at how social, cognitive, and emotional factors played a role in people’s decisions.

What We Found

In two studies, we surveyed 313 people’s reactions to a partner’s infidelity. What we found was that deciding to break up or stay with an unfaithful partner is a complex process. People consider several factors as they decide what to do. In addition to experiencing very strong negative emotions, people first look at what they think their family and friends would tell them to do. Individuals who think their friends and family disapprove of the relationship are more inclined to break up with their partners, whereas those who believe friends and family approve of the relationship are more likely to stay and work through the infidelity. These views of their social network can guide people’s initial reactions to the infidelity.

People then look for information that supports the expected advice from their social network. Those whose friends and family think they should continue the relationship are more likely to focus on the information that allows them to stay, such as their partners only cheated this one time or had been drinking. On the other hand, when friends and family think they should leave, people focus on the details that suggest they should break up, such as believing their partners might cheat again.

This information helps people determine whether their partners caused the infidelity and should be blamed. Information suggesting the partner did not cause the infidelity, such as the other person initiated it or the partner hasn’t cheated before, leads people to think their partners should not be blamed. In contrast, information suggesting the partner is the cause, such as the partner initiated the infidelity or previously cheated, leads people to think their partners should be blamed.

Finally, who people blame for an infidelity impacts their willingness to forgive and ultimately their decisions to stay or leave. People who blame their partners are less likely to forgive them for cheating and typically decide to end the relationship. However, those who blame the situation or someone other than the partner are more likely to forgive, ultimately deciding to stay and work through the infidelity.

Take Home Messages

When it comes to infidelity, we often think about the anger, betrayal, or stress it creates. Our findings suggest that infidelity also influences how people think about the situation. For some, the decision to stay or leave may be immediate. Others may weigh a number of factors—what are the details involved in the infidelity, was the partner at fault, and what would family and friends say? Although the emotional experiences after infidelity are generally recognized, it is important to acknowledge how social factors and cognitions affect people’s relationship decisions after they are cheated on. In talking with people who have been cheated on, practitioners may want to help them systematically consider their cognitions, such as how their cognitions may or may not be helping them work through the infidelity.

External Links

Link to the paper Shrout, M. R., & Weigel, D. J. (2017). “Should I stay or should I go?” Understanding the noninvolved partner’s decision-making process following infidelity. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. doi:10.1177/0265407517733335

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More About the Authors

Rosie Shrout is a doctoral candidate in the Interdisciplinary Social Psychology Ph.D. Program at the University of Nevada, Reno. Working with Dr. Daniel Weigel, her research examines how romantic partners cope with various stressors, including infidelity, conflict, and chronic health conditions. Additionally, Rosie studies how these stressors relate to health-compromising behaviors and mental and physical health.

Dr. Weigel is a Professor of Social Psychology, Human Development & Family Studies, and Cooperative Extension at the University of Nevada, Reno. His research focuses on interpersonal communication and commitment in romantic relationships. He explores cognitive, affective, and behavioral elements of commitment, and has employed social cognitive, developmental, and communication frameworks.

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Latest update: January 10, 2018
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