If you or your partner cheat, is it the end of your relationship? Dr. Rachel Vanderbilt, the Relationship Doctor, talks about the complex issue of cheating and what it may mean for your relationship.
A listener recently reached out with a common question: "Is it possible to trust again after your partner has cheated? Is it worth trying to repair the relationship?" While this is a common concern, there, unfortunately, isn't a very clear answer because this issue is so complex.
So, to start, let’s talk about how prevalent cheating is today. Infidelity is not uncommon behavior. A 2021 survey found that 46.1% of people in seemingly monogamous relationships have reported cheating on their current partner. In a given year, nearly 2 to 4% of spouses report having cheated on their partner, according to one study. In data from 2018, men were more likely to report cheating on their partners than women, and people older than 55 were more likely to report cheating than their younger counterparts.
It is surprising, however, given how prevalent cheating is in relationships, that it is nearly universally considered unacceptable and inappropriate behavior—there are very few people who believe that cheating is an okay thing to do.
The biggest complication to providing a solid answer to this listener’s question is that cheating is a fairly broad term, and different people have different thresholds for what behaviors qualify as cheating. When we enter into a relationship, we form a sort of contract for behaviors that are acceptable or unacceptable in the confines of that relationship. Sometimes, these contracts are negotiated explicitly, while most times people adhere to broader social expectations for relationships. For example, when people start exclusively dating, there is an unspoken expectation that we won’t have romantic or sexual relationships with other people.
One study asked people to rate different behaviors based on whether or not they thought the only explanation for that behavior would be that their partner is cheating on them. The specific examples they were looking at took place between their partner and a member of the gender(s) that their partner is attracted to. 13 behaviors rose to the top of the list, with a greater than 50% chance that their partner had to be cheating if they engaged in them. These behaviors included the obvious, such as having sex or taking a shower together, but also some less obvious behaviors like staying in the same hotel room, forming a deep emotional bond, and spending lots of time together.
Borderline behaviors included going out to dinner with that other person, receiving a call from them for help with their romantic issues, or sharing secrets.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, some behaviors that had no indication of potential cheating included a call when that person was upset about work, giving a quick hug, or giving $5 to the other person.
What are the outcomes of a relationship transgression?
If someone has cheated in the past, does this have implications for cheating in the future?
In a longitudinal study that followed participants and their initial partners for 5 years, researchers asked participants to self-report their own infidelity as well as perceptions of their current partner’s infidelity. People who had cheated in one relationship early in the study were 3 times more likely to report cheating in a subsequent relationship later on in the study compared to people who did not report cheating in their initial relationship. Meaning, people who cheat once are more susceptible to cheating in their next relationship.
After cheating has occurred, research has found that there are many deleterious effects on the remainder of the relationship. People who have been cheated on experience poor physical effects, mental health issues, a reduction in relationship satisfaction, an increase in the likelihood of relationship dissolution, and sometimes an increase in the likelihood of domestic violence.
Beyond the obvious potential consequences for having been cheated on, it's easy to fall into poor relationship behaviors, such as obsessive social media monitoring. The less a person finds in a partner’s social media or phone, the more they feel their partner must be hiding something from them. The absence of evidence is an indicator of guilt instead. People who know about a partner’s infidelity are more likely to perceive future infidelity, both with that partner or with future partners, even if it isn’t actually happening.
Some of these consequences and a person's ability to forgive will depend on the manner in which they find out about being cheated on. There are four manners in which a person can discover the infidelity of their partner. The first is through unsolicited admissions from their partner, which is when the person who committed the transgression tells their partner about it without prompting. The second way is through solicited admissions, when the partner who cheated admits it after being asked outright by their partner. The third way is being caught red-handed, in which a partner finds their partner in the act of committing unfaithful acts. The final way is through a third party, where someone outside of the partnership lets a person know about their partner's cheating.
One study found that people who found out about their partner's infidelity by their partner coming forward on their own volition still experienced a decrease in relationship satisfaction, but that it was less severe than finding out through the other manners. Those partners were more likely to forgive their partner than were those who found out in other manners, as well. The worst outcomes occurred for people who found out about a partner’s infidelity through a third party or by being caught red-handed.
Should you forgive your partner?
There are a few questions to ask yourself as you consider whether or not to forgive your partner:
Are both you and your partner committed to your relationship? If your partner made a one-time mistake, that is very different than if they had a long-term affair. In thinking back to the time before the infidelity, did you feel totally happy in your relationship, or were there issues simmering? Both of you need to make a conscious effort to move forward whole-heartedly and put in the effort to make this work if you are going to choose to stay together.
How much have you invested into the relationship so far? This consideration could be based on money or the amount of time you’ve been together. It may involve whether you have children together, or have shared assets, like a house. Are you married or otherwise legally bound to one another, or are you dating and unbound? These are all considerations you may want to think about as you make this decision.
Has your partner apologized and made a plan to move forward with you? An apology with no plan or a plan with no apology are not recipes for success. Your partner should express regret and acknowledge their behavior. You together need to come up with an action plan for moving forward. How will you work to rebuild trust? How will they modify their behavior to reduce the likelihood this will happen again? How will you both work together to set your relationship up to succeed from this point forward?
Ultimately, there is no easy answer to this question because everyone’s situation is different. The majority of people who find out their partner cheated will wind up breaking up or divorcing eventually. Without effort from both partners to mend the relationship, it will be very difficult to move forward. This effort should involve some sort of formal couples therapy to work through these complex issues.
The reality is that there are many reasons a person may choose to forgive their partner and try to work through it, particularly if they are married, with children and shared assets. If you are otherwise unattached or in a fairly early phase of your relationship, cheating doesn’t bode particularly well for the relationship foundation you are setting. So, the answer is, given your situation, do you feel that your relationship is something worth fighting for, or do you feel that it may be time to move forward?