When And Why Do We Choose To Expose Others’ Infidelity?

Imagine you just discovered that someone you know has committed infidelity. Would you keep this information to yourself, or would you share it with others? A new study just published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior suggests that there is no simple answer to this question. One’s decision to expose others’ infidelity is complex and depends upon many factors.

In this study, 487 college student participants (67% female, 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 given information about the victim of infidelity, the person who committed infidelity, the third party, and the circumstances surrounding the infidelity. Each piece of information was rated separately on a 5-point scale in terms of whether it made participants more or less likely to report the act.

Results revealed an overall trend for people to be more likely to expose infidelity when given any additional pieces of information about the situation in question. Indeed, for 89% of the contextual items provided, participants said they were more likely to report the infidelity; however, some items made people more likely to expose infidelity than others.

For one thing, your relationship to the cheater mattered. For instance, people were more likely to report infidelity when a close relative or one of their own children was being cheated on compared to when a close relative or child was doing the cheating. Likewise, people more inclined to report cheating when a close friend’s partner had committed infidelity than they were when their close friend was the one who cheated.

Second, the characteristics of the cheater mattered too. For example, people were more likely to report cheaters who were being financially supported by their partners compared to cheaters who were providing financial support. 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 characteristics that they were being cheated upon.

Third, the nature of the cheater’s relationship and the circumstances surrounding the infidelity also mattered. People were more inclined to expose cheating when the cheater’s relationship was on the brink of an important transition (e.g., when they were about to get engaged), when the cheating behavior was ongoing, and when the third party was known to have a sexually transmitted infection (STI). Indeed, these three factors were rated as being the most influential of all in terms of making participants more likely to reveal infidelity.

Of course, these factors do not provide a full accounting of all possible reasons people might decide to expose or not expose infidelity. For instance, people who hold certain religious beliefs very strongly may make fewer distinctions among the circumstances surrounding infidelity. Moreover, the results could be very different in a more diverse sample. Perhaps individuals who are older or who have more personal experience cheating or being cheated upon would have differing opinions on the matter.

This study also defined infidelity in relatively narrow terms (i.e., as penile-vaginal sex). It is possible that when infidelity involves other sexual acts (e.g., oral sex, mutual masturbation, kissing) or when cheating occurs among partners of the same sex, people may view it differently.

That said, this study at least provides a preliminary look into some of the myriad reasons people might decide to expose infidelity or not and suggests that some instances of cheating are more likely to be exposed than others.

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To learn more about this research, see: Kruger, D. J., Fisher, M. L., & Fitzgerald, C. J. (in press). Factors influencing the intended likelihood of exposing sexual infidelity. Archives of Sexual Behavior.

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