Stick or Twist: Deciding to Leave or Remain in a Relationship After Infidelity
How do we decide to stay with or leave a partner we discover is cheating on us?
Discovering that your partner is a cheat can be devastating. As well as dealing with the revelation that a partner has been unfaithful, the victim of infidelity must answer a difficult question: “should I stay or should I go?”
How do we decide whether to end or continue a relationship with a cheater? Which factors would be integral to your decision if you were to find your partner had strayed?
Rosie Shrout and Daniel Weigel of the University of Nevada, Reno, have studied this question and recently published the results of their research in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
For their first study, Shrout and Weigel recruited 200 student-aged men and women who were in committed relationships. The volunteers were asked to imagine that, after fighting with their partner, their partner went to a party where they had sex with someone else. Afterwards, the partner expressed a desire to move past the infidelity and remain in the relationship.
Next, half of the volunteers were asked to imagine that most of the people in their social network had advised them to stay in the relationship. The other half of the volunteers were told the opposite: that their friends and family had said they should leave their partner.
As well as indicating whether they would end or continue with the relationship in these circumstances, the volunteers completed a series of questionnaires. One of these measured their forgiveness of the partner. Another measured the extent to which they attributed the cause of the infidelity to the behavior of the partner: was he or she to blame?
The psychologists found that the decision to stay or leave was best described as a sequence of processes. The volunteers’ perceptions of their social network members’ approval influenced their attribution of blame, which in turn influenced the extent to which they forgave their partner, which led to their decision to stay or go. So, people whose friends and family thought they should leave their partner were more likely to blame the partner for the transgression, were less likely to forgive the partner, and less likely to stay with the partner after the infidelity. The process was reversed among volunteers whose social networks preferred sticking with the relationship.
These findings were supported by a second study, in which the volunteers were victims of genuine (rather than imagined) infidelity and reported on the real opinions of their friends and family.
Of course, this study can’t tell us exactly how we would respond to discovering that our partner is a cheater. Everyone’s circumstances are different. It’s also difficult to disentangle the effects of our social network’s opinions from our own: we are likely to be embedded in social relationships with people whose opinions match our own. And, as the researchers point out in their paper, the decision-making process is likely to be more nuanced among older people, who may have to consider finances, children, and living arrangements when pondering whether to stick with or ditch a cheater.
But what this research does reveal is that, when our lives are adversely affected by the actions of others, how we feel and behave in response to this adversity can be further influenced by the attitudes of others: our friends and family. If you are ever in the unfortunate position of discovering a partner’s infidelity, you may like to reflect on how the advice of others might sway you from responding how you think is best.
Shrout, M. R., & Weigel, D. J. (in press). “Should I stay or should I go?” Understanding the noninvolved partner’s decision-making process following infidelity. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. View summary
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