Infidelity: Cause Or Consequence Of Poor Relationship Quality?
November 29, 2015 by Justin Lehmiller
Several studies have found that infidelity is linked to both poor relationship quality and divorce. But is that because infidelity is harmful to relationships, or is it perhaps because low quality relationships predispose people to cheating? As it turns out, research suggests that both explanations may be correct.
Let’s consider the results from a 17-year longitudinal study published in The Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. In this study, researchers considered data from a nationally representative U.S. sample of 2,033 married individuals. All participants were aged 55 or younger and, at the time the study began, none of them had ever committed infidelity before. Data were collected from these folks at 5 different points in time between the years 1980 and 1997.
What the researchers focused on was (1) whether marital happiness and “divorce proneness” at the beginning of the study predicted future reports of sex outside of marriage and (2) whether those reports of infidelity predicted subsequent changes in marital happiness and divorce proneness, as well as divorce itself.
Marital happiness was assessed with an 11-item scale that included statements such as “How happy are you with the amount of love and affection you receive from your spouse?” Divorce Proneness was assessed with a 27-item scale that included statements such as: “Has the thought of getting a divorce or separation crossed your mind in the last 3 years?” and “Have you talked with your spouse about divorce in the last 3 years?”
Results revealed that those who scored highest on the measure of divorce proneness on the very first survey were the most likely to report cheating later on. In other words, the more that people were thinking about divorce at the beginning of the study, the more likely they were to admit cheating down the road.
Reports of infidelity, in turn, were linked to lower levels of relationship happiness and higher levels of divorce proneness in the later waves of data collection. Infidelity was associated with an increased likelihood of future divorce, too. The link between infidelity and divorce appeared to be at least partially explained by negative changes in relationship quality (i.e., reduced happiness, more thoughts of separating) that occurred following cheating.
In sum, the results of this research suggest that infidelity can be seen as both a cause and consequence of a deteriorating relationship. In other words, people in poor quality relationships appear more inclined to cheat and cheating, in turn, can lower relationship quality even further.
That said, it’s important to note that cheating doesn’t always destroy relationships. And, sometimes, people in perfectly happy relationships cheat on each other. Thus, when you look at the broader research that’s out there on infidelity, the picture is a bit more complex than what this study might lead you to conclude. That said, more often than not, infidelity tends to be the sign of a troubled relationship, as well as a likely sign of more trouble to come.
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To learn more about this research, see: Previti, D., & Amato, P. R. (2004). Is infidelity a cause or a consequence of poor marital quality? Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 21(2), 217-230.
mage Source: 123rf/Tatiana Gladskikh
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Dr. Justin LehmillerFounder & Owner of Sex and Psychology
Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.Read full bio >