Dating & Relationships

If You Knew Someone Who Was Being Cheated On, Would You Tell Them?

March 8, 2017 by Justin Lehmiller

People who cheat usually try to keep it a secret; however, they aren’t always successful.

So, let’s imagine for a moment that you find out someone you know has committed infidelity. What would you do: keep it to yourself, or share it with others? According to a recent study addressing this very question, our decision to reveal others’ infidelity is complex and depends upon multiple factors.

In this study, published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, 487 college student participants (the vast majority of whom identified as female and were age 19 on average) completed an online survey in which they were given the following instructions:

“Please imagine that you know someone who is in a relationship (Person A). You find out that A’s partner (Person B) has had penile-vaginal sexual intercourse with someone else (Person C). Please indicate how more or less likely you would be to tell Person A about the event. Please judge each item individually and independent of anything else.”

Participants were then provided with information about the person who was cheated on, the person who cheated, the third party, and the circumstances surrounding the infidelity. Each of these pieces of information was rated on a 5-point scale in terms of whether it made participants more or less likely to report a given instance of infidelity.

Generally speaking, providing any additional information about the situation made people more likely to report the infidelity. Indeed, for 89% of the contextual items provided, participants said they were more likely to report that cheating had occurred; however, some items made people more likely to expose infidelity than others.

First, one’s relationship to the cheater was important. People were more likely to report infidelity when a close relative or one of their own children was being cheated on versus when one’s own relative or child was doing the cheating. In addition, people were more inclined to report cheating when a close friend’s partner had committed infidelity compared to when their close friend was the one who had cheated.

Second, the characteristics of the cheater mattered, too. People were more likely to report cheaters who were being financially supported by their partners than cheaters who were providing financial support to someone else. In addition, people were more likely to expose a cheater who had a long history of cheating or who was abusive to their partner than they were to inform persons with these same characteristics that they had been cheated upon.

Lastly, people appeared to take into account the nature of the cheater’s relationship and the circumstances surrounding the infidelity. In particular, people were more inclined to expose cheating when the cheater’s relationship was on the brink of a major transition (e.g., if they were getting engaged), when the cheating behavior was ongoing (i.e., not a one-time thing), and when the third party was known to be carrying a sexually transmitted infection. These three factors were rated as the most influential of all in terms of making participants more inclined to reveal infidelity.

Of course, there are multiple other reasons beyond those discussed above that might impact one’s decision to reveal another’s infidelity. For example, people with strongly held religious beliefs might make fewer distinctions among the circumstances surrounding infidelity (e.g., maybe they’re more likely to reveal any and all kinds of cheating). Moreover, it is possible that the results could be different in a more diverse sample. As one example, older adults who have personal experience with infidelity and/or being cheated on might differ in terms of the opinions they express.

It is also worth noting that this study defined infidelity very narrowly as having penile-vaginal intercourse outside of a primary relationship. It is possible that when infidelity involves other sex acts–things like oral sex, mutual masturbation, and kissing–or when cheating occurs among partners of the same sex/gender, people may evaluate it in very different terms.

With all of that said, this study provides a preliminary look at the myriad reasons people might choose to expose others’ infidelity. It also suggests that certain kinds of cheating are more likely to be exposed than others.

So what do you think? Would you ever reveal an instance of discovered infidelity? And what would make you most inclined to do so? Weigh in with your thoughts in the comments section below.

Want to learn more about Sex and Psychology? Click here for more from the blog or here to listen to the podcast. Follow Sex and Psychology on Facebook, Twitter (@JustinLehmiller), or Reddit to receive updates. You can also follow Dr. Lehmiller on YouTube and Instagram.

For further information on this study, see: Kruger, D.J., Fisher, M.L., & Fitzgerald, C.J. (2015). Factors influencing the intended likelihood of exposing sexual infidelity. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44(6), 1697-1704.

Image Source: 123RF/Fabio Formaggio

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & 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.

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