A new study has identified a pattern of gradual relationship decline prior to one person having an affair – and that once the affair happens, very rarely does a healthy relationship occur afterward. The results suggest that there are clear decreases in well-being prior to such a dramatic event, which may help explain and identify why such choices are made in relationships.
“Infidelity is largely believed to have damaging consequences for personal and relationship well-being,” write the authors.
“Yet the empirical literature remains inconclusive regarding whether infidelity leads to relationship problems, represents a mere symptom of troubled relationships, or both.”
The study hoped to offer insight into whether relationship problems actually precede affairs or whether they mostly happen afterward (or even both), so researchers from Tilburg University analyzed a large cohort of around 1,000 German adults and followed them for an average of 8 years to show how events impact their relationships.
A total of 947 people (609 perpetrators of infidelity and 338 victims) were included, and the majority of those completed the study until the end. Each person was in a committed relationship and had experienced infidelity, and another group was matched to them that had not.
Each person’s well-being was tracked using self-reporting, including overall psychological well-being as well as relationship satisfaction.
Firstly, the results showed that the obvious happens following an infidelity event – people that cheated on their partner reported lower self-esteem, lower relationship satisfaction, and lower intimacy. Interestingly, victims of the event only reported lower self-esteem and more conflict, but other measures of well-being did not decrease.
However, prior to the events were when there were often dramatic changes in the relationship. Almost all relationship well-being indicators gradually declined leading up to the affair, with more conflict and less satisfaction being reported by both parties leading up to the event.
Following the event, the vast majority of the relationships did not recover, though with unfaithful women and couples with lower relationship commitments this was not always true.
Sadly, for years after the event, affairs were different from most other life events: while most people recover their well-being after various serious events, people involved in infidelity did not recover.
The study was published in Psychological Science.