Your Partner Has Been Unfaithful. The Question is Why.

Continuing the ongoing series on the psychology of relationships, this post takes a look at an event that can end everything: infidelity. A lot of the psychology research on relationships has focussed on the predictors of infidelity. But what tends to get lost is its affect on the relationship. A new study by Hall and Fincham (2006) looks at just this and finds it comes down to how you answer the question why.

Attributions are the reasons or explanations that we attach to things. So if we see the dog standing by the front door with the lead in its mouth we assume it wants to go for a walk. Psychologists have applied these potentially complex models of the way we make attributions to the study of relationships. So, I might make two opposing attributions for why my partner cheated on me:

  • It’s just the way they are built, it will probably happen again and there’s no changing it.
  • It was a momentary aberration in those particular circumstances and it probably won’t happen again.

The type of attributions I make about my partner’s behaviour will have an important affect on whether I can get over what they’ve done, or not. It will also affect whether I can save the relationship – if I want to that is. Even if I don’t want to save the relationship, adopting the wrong attributional style could have serious consequences for my sanity.

The reason attributions are important is they’re directly related to whether or not we can forgive. Returning to the two examples above, you can see that infidelity is easier to forgive if you believe it was an isolated mistake that was at least understandable in the circumstances. On the other hand, if you think there’s no changing your partner then there’s less chance of forgiving them.

Hall and Fincham (2006) tested exactly this connection in people who had been cheated on by their partners, running from the types of attributions they made, through to whether they were able to forgive and how that related to relationship termination. The ‘bad’ attributions I’ve been discussing are labelled ‘conflict-promoting’ attributions by Hall and Fincham (2006). These were associated more strongly with the ending of the relationship.

Vitally even if you finish your relationship, Hall and Fincham (2006) emphasise that you must find a way to forgive the other person. Forgiveness will often come more easily if you can answer the question of why they cheated without scowling.

» This post is part of a series on the psychology of relationships.

References

Hall, J., & Fincham, F. (2006). Relationship dissolution following infidelity: The roles of attributions and forgiveness. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 25(5), 508-522.

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 18 February 2007

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