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Forgive a Cheater? Could You?

Everyone seems to agree that infidelity is just about the worst thing that can happen in a romantic relationship. In many societies across the world, adultery is more likely to end a relationship than infertility, personality conflicts, inadequate money, and conflicts with in-laws. 1 Perhaps that’s also the reason why infidelity is a common reason for taking revenge against romantic partners.2

But not everyone’s experience with infidelity is the same. Some cheaters are forgiven, and some relationships actually survive. Research tells us that there are two possible reasons why adulterated relationships persist and cheaters are forgiven. One reason has to do with how the infidelity is discovered. To be sure, there are no “good” ways to find out that your partner has been cheating on you. But some ways might be less destructive than others. Given a choice, which of the following would you rather experience?:

(a) have your partner tell you that he/she had been cheating before you suspected or asked about it

(b) find out about it by investigating your suspicions

(c) catch your partner in the act

(d) find out about it from a third party

If you are like the participants in Walid Afifi, Wendy Falato (Nichols), and Judith Weiner’s study,3 your relationship would get worse regardless. However, people whose partner told them about it without first being asked showed the smallest decline in relationship quality. The biggest declines in relationship quality came from catching the partner in the act, and from finding out from someone else. Interestingly, people who first heard about it from their partner were also more likely to forgive him or her.

A second reason that relationships survive and cheaters are forgiven involves how the victim thinks about it. Julie Hall and Frank Fincham asked victims to explain the event, indicate how much they forgave their partners afterward, and whether their relationships ultimately survived or ended.4 Their study showed that people were more likely to forgive their partners – and stay in the relationship – when they made more benign explanations for their partners’ behaviors. That is, they believed that their partners cheated on them just that one time, only because of a difficult situation, and that it would not happen again. In contrast, people were less likely to find forgiveness and stay together if they explained it in more negative and durable ways. For example, those people believed that their partner cheated because he or she is untrustworthy in many different circumstances, and was unlikely to ever change.4

In the end, cheating will inevitably harm even the most solid of relationships. But the ways in which it gets managed and perceived might change what happens afterward. Relationships appear to be more likely to survive and cheaters more likely to be forgiven when the infidelity was disclosed first by the person who cheated, and when the conversation about it gives the victim a reason to believe that this was an unusual, one-time event that happened for some reason other than the cheater’s malicious intent.

1Betzig, L. (1989). Causes of conjugal dissolution: A cross-cultural study. Current Anthropology, 30, 654-676.

2Tafoya, M., & Spitzberg, B. H. (2007). The dark side of infidelity: Its nature, prevalence, and communicative functions. The Dark Side of Interpersonal Communication (2nd Ed., pp. 201-242). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

3Afifi, W. A., Falato (Nichols), W. L., & Weiner, J. L. (2001). Identity concerns following a severe relational transgression: The role of discovery method for the relational outcomes of infidelity. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 18, 291-308.

4Hall, J. H., & Fincham, F. D. (2006). Relationship dissolution following infidelity: The roles of attributions and forgiveness. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 25, 508-522.