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QUATROY, K. A. (2000). The Relationship Between Experience of Infidelity and Perception of Infidelity. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 3. Available online at http://www.webclearinghouse.net/volume/. Retrieved October 6, 2022 .

The Relationship Between Experience of Infidelity and Perception of Infidelity

Sponsored by: MUKUL BHALLA (bhalla@loyno.edu)
The hypothesis stated that college freshmen who have been unfaithful in a monogamous relationship are more likely to be permissive of infidelity in a monogamous relationship than are those who have been faithful. The participants, 7 men and 43 women psychology freshmen, were given a questionnaire that assessed past experience with infidelity, the independent variable, and evaluated permissiveness, the dependent variable. The six hypothetical relationships presented in the questionnaire included varied degrees of cheating and asked whether the participant would remain in that relationship. Two of the six scenarios had significant results supporting the hypothesis, while four were not significant. Of the four that were not significant, two were in the correct direction.

Infidelity within monogamous relationships is a common occurrence among all age groups from adolescence to adulthood. There has been much research done in regard to infidelity. Major researchers have evaluated the causes, frequency, and effects of infidelity. Research has shown that reasons for infidelity range from gender differences to attachment styles. Though it is difficult to establish the purposes behind infidelity, it has been shown that infidelity is an incessant problem in many physical relationships. Cheating is not only classified in terms of marital relationships, but in dating relationships as well. Feldman, Cauffman, Jensen and Arnett (2000) theorize that infidelity may stem from ideals that are formed in late adolescence that are carried into dating, adulthood and marriage. These ideals about infidelity are formed from encounters with both betrayals in friendship and in romantic relationships. These betrayals result in a violation of trust and can cause the person to view relationships in a new light. As Wasson (2000) states, Feldman et al. (2000) consider infidelity to be sexual betrayal, which is characterized by petting or sexual intercourse with a non-partner in the face of an agreement to be monogamous. Feldman et al. (2000) found that more than 60 percent of college-aged students have reportedly experienced sexual betrayal. Those numbers differ greatly from the reported 38 percent of college students who claim to have been cheated on as reported by Knox, Zusman, Kaluzny and Sturdivant (2000).

The discrepancy in these numbers could be due to many factors. The main difference in the work of Feldman et al. (2000) was that betrayal in friendship as well as betrayal in romantic relationships were addressed. Yoking these two types of betrayal together could have tainted the research causing the participants to access their schemas of friendship betrayal and omantic betrayal simultaneously, therefore presenting a confound. Because of the dual objectives of Feldman et al., the questionnaire consisted of vignettes describing circumstances that tested for the acceptance of lying to parents, acceptance of cheating in school, acceptance of giving a classmate a bloody nose in an altercation and acceptance of date violence. The ambiguous nature of the scenarios presented another confound to the research. Since what was being studied was never actually tested for, how can the results accurately portray the respondents’ attitudes toward sexual infidelity? The results of Knox et al. (2000) more correctly convey attitudes toward infidelity. The method of testing included direct questions about infidelity and what reactions and actions would occur as a result of experiencing infidelity.

Knox et al. (2000) reported that 69.4 percent of college-aged students would end a relationship if their partner cheated. In fact, 45 percent said that they already had ended a relationship due to infidelity. However, several factors decide if one will end a relationship due to infidelity. The chance of the relationship ending due to unfaithfulness is greatly increased when the persons in the relationship are in love, or if the partner who was cheated on has been physically or sexually abused in the past. Another factor that greatly influences a person’s decision to remain in a relationship after infidelity occurs is marriage. It was found that not one respondent among 50 married couples would automatically end their relationship over just infidelity (Wallerstein & Blakeslee, 1995). This is due to the great amount of commitment that a marriage demands. Typically, married couples have been together longer than a dating or cohabiting couple, therefore the married partners have invested more into the relationship and have more at stake should the relationship fail. Due to the permanent nature of marriage, children and finances being two examples, married people have more to think about when it comes to deciding what may be a valid reason to legally terminate the marital commitment. Drigotas, Safstrom, and Gentilia (1999) address the prediction of infidelity through an investment model. Investments are categorized in terms of material and non-material. Investments can range from buying dinner for someone to being engaged, even married. Predictions about whether couples would stay together once infidelity occurred depended upon the nature and the extent of what was invested into the relationship. It was shown that couples were more likely to stay together when more was invested into the relationship. As was the case with Wallerstein et al. (1995), when a couple has more to lose, the decision of whether to leave an unfaithful partner becomes more substantial.

Attachment schemas also greatly influence a person’s attitudes about monogamy and infidelity. Etherton and Beach (1999) explored attachment style, how this affects partner commitment, and ultimately whether or not a partner will tolerate infidelity. The research shows that depending on one’s adulthood attachment style, one will feel differently about relationships and infidelity.

Gender difference and evolution are other factors that may influence a person’s election to end a relationship due to cheating. Although the results found by Knox et al. (2000) revealed that college men and women do not illustrate significant differences in opinions about infidelity, the work of Wiederman and Kendall (1999), Feldman et al. (2000) and Buss et al. (1999) contradicts these findings.

The factor that is perhaps most widely noted in research on infidelity is the relationship between gender and infidelity. The work of Wiederman et al. (1999) explored sexual evolution and how it affects a person’s perception of cheating in a relationship. Evolution and gender differences refer to the gender biases that are imparted on our ideals of infidelity. These biases have been a working part of many societies since the beginning of civilized man. Regional tenets may vary due to culture and irregular rates of sexual evolution, but research shows that there is a constant gender bias when it comes to infidelity. It was found that there is a significant difference in reaction to infidelity depending on the sex of the participant. Males in general were more permissive of infidelity. This number is greater for physical infidelity than for emotional infidelity. Inversely, women are less permissive of cheating, especially when it is emotional in nature. The results of Feldman et al. (2000) and Buss et al. (1999) were strikingly similar, despite the fact that each study dealt with different parts of the world such as Japan, Sweden and the United States.

Past research, though, has not thoroughly addressed the relationship between a person’s experience with infidelity and that person’s perception of infidelity in terms of acceptance. The current study planned to do just that. Instead of addressing many types of relationships and many reasons that a partner would be unfaithful, our research concentrated on one salient factor. "What effect does infidelity have on monogamous relationships?" was the research question used for the current study. Since cheating has been found to be such a large problem in relationships, this research seemed relevant and useful. Cheating, or infidelity, was termed by Feldman et al. (2000) as aforementioned. Monogamy was labeled as being in a physical relationship with only one person at a time, this being mutual. It seemed apparent that one who would commit partner betrayal would be more permissive of infidelity, but how many of the relationships that encounter infidelity actually end due to that fact? How does the condition of cheating, the independent variable, affect the level of permissiveness, the dependent variable? For the current study, it was hypothesized that among college freshmen, students who have been unfaithful to a partner while in a monogamous relationship are more likely to be permissive of infidelity in a monogamous relationship than are those who have not been unfaithful.


Psychology freshmen from Loyola University New Orleans were the participants. All 49 participants were over the age of 18 and the ratio of males to females was 7 to 42. They were recruited through a method of convenience sampling. Some of the participants received course credit for their efforts. All participants gave informed consent and all were treated in a manner that was consistent with the standard ethical practices of research for human participants.

Two Informed Consent Forms, which included the telephone numbers of Loyola University’s Counseling Center and the Department of Psychology, were the first materials used. One form was given to each participant to keep. The other form was kept on record with the researchers. A two-section questionnaire that was devised in order to assess the participants’ attitudes toward infidelity was also used. The survey evaluated whether or not the participant had ever committed or experienced infidelity and how the participant would react to infidelity in a relationship. Section 1 included six scenarios of couples in relationships that are faced with questionable situations. The scenarios were meant to determine the participant’s opinion of cheating and whether or not the participant would tolerate cheating within a monogamous relationship (based upon their own personal definition of cheating/infidelity and an operational definition of monogamy that was provided by the researchers). The scenarios depicted fictitious characters that were involved in long term or short-term relationships. The length of time of the relationships ranged from four and a half months to five years. The type of relationship and the situation in which the infidelity occurred varied in each scenario and the scenarios explored different ranges of cheating in relationships. Section 2 determined whether the participant had ever been unfaithful to a partner or had experienced a partner’s infidelity (based upon an operational definition of cheating/infidelity provided by the researchers).

The Informed Consent Forms and the questionnaire were provided to the participants by the primary researchers. These materials are available for reference the Appendix. The questionnaire was answered in either pen or pencil. The writing instruments were also provided to the participants if needed.

The participants used for this study were acquired through convenience sampling. The research was quasi-experimental in design since the cheaters and non-cheaters were the specified groups. The independent variable was the condition of cheating (infidelity), with cheating or not cheating being the levels. Cheating and infidelity were both operationally defined as petting or sexual intercourse with a non-partner in the face of an agreement to be monogamous. The dependent variable was the participants’ level of permissiveness of infidelity in a relationship. Level of permissiveness was also separated into tolerance or intolerance of infidelity. The level of permissiveness was assessed in terms of whether the participant answered "yes" or "no" to the selections in Section 1 of the questionnaire. This would qualify as permissive or non-permissive because the participant was choosing whether the character in the scenario should stay in the relationship, thus permitting the cheating, or if the character should end the relationship, thus being non-permissive of cheating. Since only information among college freshmen was desired, class level was set as a control and it was ensured that all participants met this requirement.

The participants were seated comfortably in one quiet room of the Psychology Department of Loyola University. The primary researchers proctored the questionnaire and remained in the room for the entire length on the experiment. The number coded testing packets, which consisted of two Informed Consent Forms and the questionnaire, were handed to the participants by the primary researchers. Pens or pencils were provided to participants if needed. The participants were first asked to read and to sign their Informed Consent Forms. The participants were assured that their information would be kept strictly confidential and that there would be no way to trace their identity, as no demographic information was collected and their data were only associated with a number code. The participants were also told that questions could be asked at any time during the experiment. They were assured that if at any time during the experiment they wished to drop out, they could do so without penalty. Once the forms were read and were completed, the participants were prompted to answer the questionnaire. As described in the "Materials" section, the questionnaire included scenarios that were devised to test how cheaters and non-cheaters reacted toward infidelity in a relationship. Once the participant was finished responding to the questionnaire, he or she was asked turn it in to one of the primary researchers.

As each questionnaire was completed and returned, each participant was debriefed. The debriefing statements established the purpose for the research, as stated in the introduction, and the expected results of the questionnaire. The researchers explained their method and any final questions that the participant had were answered. Each participant was thanked and was reminded that the telephone numbers of the Counseling Center and of the Department of Psychology were located on his or her copy of the Informed Consent Form. The participants were urged to use the provided information should they experience any discomfort as a result of the experiment or if they desired to acquire additional information after the experiment was finished.

The original hypothesis, which stated that among college freshmen, students who have been unfaithful to a partner while in a monogamous relationship are more likely to be permissive of infidelity in a monogamous relationship than are those who have not been unfaithful, was not supported for the total sample of cheaters. The highest possible score for permissiveness for each participant was six. Cheaters (M = 2.2353, SD = 1.522) scored higher than non-cheaters (M = 1.5, SD = .984), unequal t(23) = 1.80, p = .084. Though not statistically significant, these results did support the trend that cheaters would be more permissive.

Because the initial analysis did not yield significant results, an additional statistical analysis was conducted. The items on the questionnaire (Q1- Q6) were individually scored. The results are reported in percentages of participants who said yes to each question. These results can be seen in Table 1. Question one (Q1) included an incident of cheating in form of kissing among people who are in love. Q1 elicited a large number of positive responses from both groups. Q2 included a small incidence of cheating, but no mutual love. Q3 and Q4, which included mediocre relationship lengths and medial incidences of cheating supported the hypothesis and were statistically significant. Q5 illustrated a relationship with long- term investment and mutual love. Q6 provided a scenario that portrayed a couple deep in love with a large investment. Neither Q5 nor Q6 showed statistical significance, yet both were in the proper direction. Cronbach’s alpha (a ) reliability coefficient was .5658.

The original hypothesis stated that among college freshmen, students who have been unfaithful to a partner while in a monogamous relationship are more likely to be permissive of infidelity in a monogamous relationship than are those who have not been unfaithful. The research of this hypothesis did not yield statistically significant results for all scenarios, and therefore, the researchers generally failed to reject the null hypothesis. Though 4 scenarios did not render statistical significance, two of them did. Due to the few statistically significant values, it must not be assumed that the permissiveness of cheaters and the permissiveness of non-cheaters would be the same in the population. It is possible that a connection is present between permissiveness of cheaters and non-cheaters.

Although this research did not support completely the general anticipated results, several other ideas were supported. The results of several scenarios of the questionnaire strongly upheld different theories on cheating. Q1 presented a short-term relationship that included love and was faced with a female who kissed someone other than her partner. Q1 received a large number of positive responses since it depicted a small incidence of cheating and the people were in love. The participants are familiar with a menial incident of this type and respondents felt strongly that this scenario did not warrant termination of the relationship. Q2 showed a small number of positive responses and did not support the hypothesis. Q2 presented the same incidence of cheating, but love was questionable in the relationship of Q2. The incidence of cheating was the same as in question one, yet love was present in Q1’s relationship. Due do this difference in the scenarios, permissiveness was found in Q1’s results, but not in those of Q2. This supports the love hypothesis (Wallerstein & Blakeslee, 1995) which states that when people are in love, they are more likely to stay with a cheating partner.

Q3 and Q4 depicted relationships of substantial length, though the relationships do not span an extremely extensive amount of time. Also, the incidences of cheating were not overly extraordinary. These scenarios are the types the participants would be most familiar with. These questions showed statistical significance because of the mediocrity of the situations that were presented.

Q5 obtained only a small number of positive responses. The direction of Q5 was correct, yet the results were not significant. Q5 posed a relationship of considerable investment where the cheater in the scenario was remorseful and the incident of cheating that was rather extreme. Q6 supports this same trend, but in a more profound manner. The investment is larger and the remorse is more considerable. Q6 elicited a very high number of positive responses because a large amount of love and time had been put into this scenario’s relationship. This supports the investment model as studied by Drigotas, Safstrom, and Gentilia (1999). More people would permit cheating, even a large occurrence, when a great amount has been invested into the relationship.

Interestingly enough, some fascinating results were found in addition to the main results. Although they were not included in the original hypothesis, those who were cheated on were also studied. It was found that among those who had been cheated on, the permissiveness level was nearly as high as cheaters. The permissiveness level of those who had been cheated on was even higher than the levels of those who had never experienced infidelity (those who had never been cheated on and those who had never cheated).

The small sample size presented a confound in the research, possibly leading to inaccurate results. The distribution of cheaters to non-cheaters was skewed at a ratio of nearly 2 to 1. This inequality of the subsamples introduced another confound. Had these aspects been changed in some way, the power of the research would have increased greatly. In addition, many of the supporting results would have been statistically significant since a larger sample size would more accurately reflect the population. Social desirability was also a limitation to the study. Though the questionnaire was anonymous, a participant may still have felt compelled to provide the moral answer to the question instead of his own opinion due to the ethical implications of infidelity. Reliability (analyzed by Cronbach’s reliability analysis) was also an important issue in this research. The scenarios did study extremes, but the content of the scenarios varied greatly. This affected the reliability because each question did not study the same type of infidelity, compromising the integrity.

Given the results of past studies, the results of the present research were not entirely inaccurate. If this study were to be replicated, it could prove successful if certain issues were addressed. For the benefit of future research, it would be advantageous to increase sample size and to recruit an equal number of cheaters and non-cheaters if possible. Also, since the questionnaire was not reliable according to reliability coefficients, a new questionnaire could be devised. The revised questionnaire should include questions that are more similar and that target traditional situations of infidelity.

If the theoretical and practical problematic points were approached, this study could potentially provide very useful results about infidelity. As some results were significant, the present research has shown that relationships do exist between the experience of infidelity and one’s permissiveness of the act of cheating. Though the specifics of this relationship have not been determined, improved research could help further explain what terms promote and inhibit tolerance of infidelity.

Buss, D. M., Shackelford, T. K., Kirkpatrick, L. A., Choe, J. C., Lim, H. K., et al. (1999). Jealousy and the nature of beliefs about infidelity: Tests of competing hypotheses about sex differences in the United States, Korea, and Japan. Personal Relationships, 6, 125-150. Drigotas, S. M., Safstrom, A. C., & Gentilia, T. (1999). An investment model prediction of dating infidelity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 509-524. Etherton, J. L., & Beach, R.H. (1999). Perceived Partner Commitment and Attachment Style: Clinical Implications of a Cognitive Perspective. In J. M Adams (Ed.) & W. H. Jones (Ed.), Handbook of Interpersonal Commitment and Relationship Stability (pp. 363-378). New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers. Feldman, S. S., Cauffman, E., Jensen, L. A., & Arnett, J. J. (2000). The (un)acceptability of betrayal: A study of college students’ evaluations of sexual betrayal by a romantic partner and betrayal of a friend’s confidence. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 29, 499-523. Knox, D., Zusman, M.E., Kaluzny, M., & Sturdivant, L. (2000). Attitudes and behavior of college students toward infidelity. College Student Journal, 34, 162-164. Wallerstein, J., & Blakeslee, S. (1995). The Good Marriage. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin. Wasson, K. M. (2000). Young men, women show different attitudes toward sexual infidelity, scholar finds. [On-line Review Article]. Available: http://www.stanford.edu/dept/news/report/news/may17/feldman-517.htmlWiederman, M. W., & Kendall, E. (1999). Evolution, sex, and jealousy: Investigation with a sample from Sweden. Evolution and Human Behavior, 20, 121-128.

 Table 1

Permissiveness (%) of Cheating Among Cheaters and Non-Cheaters______________________________________________________________________________

Cheaters Non-Cheaters

Items (n = 17) (n = 32) x²(1) p______________________________________________________________________________

Q1 70.6 75.0 .11086 .73917

Q2 0.0 6.3 1.10771 .29258

Q3 35.3 3.1 9.38226 .00219

Q4 17.6 0.0 6.01535 .01418

Q5 23.5 12.5 .98861 .32008

Q6 76.5 53.1 2.548 .11038______________________________________________________________________________


QuestionnaireSection 1: Please read each of the following scenarios about relationships and answer each question based on your own interpretation of the situation. *For these questions, monogamous will be defined as having a physical relationship (such as kissing or intercourse) with only one person at a time.

Marianne and Mark have been dating for six months. They consider their relationship to be good and potentially plan to remain together long- term. Although they had a mutual agreement to remain monogamous to one another, Mark slips up one night. He goes to see a movie with Jamie, a long time friend of his, and they end up kissing. After this happens, Mark feels horrible for deceiving Marianne. He apologizes and says that he will never do it again.

If you were Marianne, would you stay in the relationship with Mark?

Yes No

John and Heather have been in a relationship for 4 and a half months. Since John really likes Heather, he plans to stay monogamous. Although Heather really likes John, she is not sure if she wants to be with only one person at this point in her life. She tells John that she will remain monogamous, but she meets up with Adam one night and kisses him. When John finds out, Heather apologizes and tells John that she does like him, but she is not sure that she can handle being monogamous. However, she tells John that she would like to remain in the relationship.

If you were John, would you stay in the relationship with Heather?

Yes No

Rob and Mindy have been together for over one year and they really believe that they are in love. They have discussed marriage, but no serious plans have been agreed upon. So far, they have both been completely monogamous. By month 15, Mindy becomes restless and she decides to go on a date with one of the guys who she works with, Jared. She does not plan to become intimate with him, but after the date is over, she is invited back to her co-worker’s house. She agrees to go and before she really knows what she has done, she has sex with Jared. The next day, she confesses to Rob the mistake she has made and she lets him know that she is truly sorry for hurting him and she says that she will never do it again. She asks him not to leave her.

If you were Rob, would you remain in the relationship with Mindy?

Yes No

4. Rebecca and Stephen have been in a relationship for two years and they both have seriously agreed to be monogamous. Both Stephen and Rebecca have cheated in the past, but not on each other. Stephen, easygoing as he is, meets a girl at the mall one day when he is shopping and they engage in some casual conversation. She tells him that her name is Carly and she offers him her phone number. He takes it with the intention to talk to her as a friend. One night, Carly wants to meet up with Stephen and have a few drinks. Stephen agrees, but tells Rebecca that he is going out with friends. Stephen has a good time with Carly, but he feels guilty for lying to Rebecca. His guilt, however, is evidently not consuming enough. Carly initiates sex and Stephen shows no signs of resistance. Later, when Rebecca finds out that that Stephen lied about where he was going and that he ended up having sex with someone, she is very upset. Stephen tells Rebecca how much he loves her and that it was an awful mistake and that he would never hurt her like that again. Rebecca does not know if she can trust Stephen.

If you were Rebecca, would you remain in the relationship with Stephen?

Yes No

5. Selena and Scott have been together for over 3 years. Selena and Scott are monogamous. Although she has been faithful for 2 and a half years, Selena has cheated on Scott before. After she did it, she felt worse for it that anything she had ever done. Scott truly loves Selena and he knows that she loves him too, so he stayed with her despite his fear. Lately, Selena and Scott have been talking about marriage very frequently. Selena begins to feel smothered. She goes out one night and has sex with someone that she just met. After she realizes what she has done, she is confused and upset. She tells Scott what she did and she explains that she really did not mean to do it because she loves him very much. She begs Scott to give her one more chance.

If you were Scott, would you remain in the relationship with Selena?

Yes No

Joseph and Ann have been together for almost 5 years. They have had their share of ups and downs, but have always worked it out. In this relationship, they have had problems with fidelity in the past, but since they want to stay together they have agreed to forgive one another and move on. Since then, they have been completely monogamous and very happy with one another. They even plan to get married some day. Just before they reach the five-year mark, things between them get a little rough. They both reach a time of considerable stress in their lives and have trouble overcoming it. They frequently take it out on one another. Although they love one another very much, they drift apart and it becomes hard to work things out. Joseph and Ann decide to take it easy for a while. Even though they are technically apart, they still talk and continue their physical relationship. Conditions between them immediately improve and they get back together within two months. Once they are back together, things are going better than ever before. Ann and Joseph are very happy, but Ann soon finds out that Joseph had sex with someone while they were not together, even though Joseph and Ann still agreed to not sleep with other people. Joseph feels miserable for what he did to Ann and does not know how to let her know that it was a mistake and that it did not mean anything to him. He loves her and says that he will never do it again. Joseph even tells Ann that he really wants to be with her and only her for the rest of his life.

If you were Ann, would you remain in this relationship with Joseph?

Yes No


Section 2: Please answer the following questions. *For these questions, cheating will be defined as committing physical acts such as kissing or sex with someone when you have made an agreement to be monogamous to someone else.

1. What is your gender?……………………………………Male Female

2. Have you ever cheated on someone?…………………....Yes No

3. If you answered “Yes” to Question 2, was the relationship ended for that reason?.…………….Yes No

4. Has someone ever cheated on you?…………………..…Yes No

5. If you answered “Yes” to Question 4, was the relationship ended for that reason?……………..Yes No

Submitted 12/3/00 1:08:49 PM
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