Infidelity isn’t great for your marriage, but cheating itself is seldom to blame for divorce. Indeed, studies suggest that happily married people who cheat (out of opportunity, and not due to underlying marriage problems) do not typically split up. “I think the idea that infidelity is the main cause of divorce is exaggerated,” Bente Træen, a professor of psychology at the University of Oslo in Norway, told Fatherly. “It is rather a break down of communication and loss of love.”
Cheating has been a strong and consistent predictor for divorce in the past, and studies unsurprisingly show higher incidence of infidelity among divorced individuals compared to married ones. But although a large body of research confirms a correlation between infidelity and divorce, more careful analyses have shown that this correlation is unlikely to equal causation. After analyzing more than 1,000 interviews, Træen has found that the main reasons people under 50 considered ending their relationships were fighting and a poor sex life—not cheating.
“Sex, per se, is not the main reason for breaking up, but sex in combination with developing love and intimacy for the new partner may be,” she says.
Why, then, do so many couples report that infidelity was the reason they ended their marriages? Paul Amato, a retired sociology professor at Pennsylvania State University, suspects that it’s because the spurned member of the relationship tends to report infidelity as the cause of the divorce, while the one who cheated recognizes that his or her affair was but the death knell for an already waning marriage. Indeed, one study found that 42 percent of recently divorced respondents said their spouses had engaged in extramarital sex, while only 15 percent of recently divorced respondents reported having extramarital affairs. It’s possible that people cheated on do not see the underlying problems that precipitated the infidelity. “So the perspectives of the two spouses differ,” Amato says, noting that only rarely are both parties cheating.
Amato conducted one of the largest studies on the subject, which followed the marriages of 1,475 people over the course of 17 years. What was surprising about the results was what very happy and very unhappy marriages had in common — people rarely cheated. “People in absolutely terrible marriages don’t engage in infidelity either. They don’t need to find new partners. Things are so bad they get out quickly,” he says. “The bad marriage itself is the push factor.”
Usually, couples who’ve been muddling along in long-term, moderately unhappy marriages need another person to hedge their bets on leaving. When one person finds this, the rest of the relationship falls apart quickly. “The new partner is the pull factor,” Amato says. “It’s all part of a package of bad stuff that’s impossible to entangle. In most marriages, you can’t put the blame on any one thing.”
As for people who cheat and wish to remain in their married, there is some hope. Since cheating itself isn’t usually the cause of divorce, a healthy marriage can recover from the loss of trust. The main barrier to this, according to marriage and family therapist Carrie Krawiec, is the social stigma of taking back the guilty party. “I find people really struggle with this long-held belief that they must leave, or people will judge them if they don’t leave,” Krawiec says.
“But the truth is that many people stay.”