You entered your significant other’s email into one of those searchable databases of the hacked Ashley Madison accounts — just, you know, to check. And there it was. Or maybe it’s your email address that was found among the 37 million others released on Tuesday evening, and you’re now cartoonishly yanking your shirt collar away from your neck as you try to come up with a plausible reason why it’s there. In either scenario, it seems that if you were in a relationship before Tuesday evening, soon, very possibly, you will not be.
Infidelity is perceived as the ultimate relationship-destroyer, and for good reason. Oftentimes, it is — and certainly, at least some of the time it should be. But that doesn’t mean it always has to be. Most people can probably think of at least one couple they know that has not only survived an affair but seems to have come out of the ordeal stronger and more in love than they were before it happened, and the research backs that anecdotal evidence. But the less-understood part is — why? What factors predict the likelihood that a couple will not only make it through the affair but that they’ll actually experience emotional growth because of it?
The answer is simple, but not at all easy. True forgiveness is the only reliable path the research has found to lead to posttraumatic growth, meaning the positive psychological change that sometimes occurs after someone experiences an emotional trauma — you might think of this as the opposite of posttraumatic stress. And by forgiveness, the researchers don’t mean a onetime muttering of “apology accepted” through gritted teeth. “In this model, forgiveness is an ongoing process that takes time, rather than a distinct event,” write Ashley Heintzelman and a team of psychologists at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, in a in a 2014 paper published in the journal Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice. It’s hard work, in other words, but it is possible to emerge from the experience stronger than you were before.
Most people don’t want to assume cheating will be an issue in their relationship, and so most people don’t spend much time thinking about what they’d do if it happened. And yet the existing statistics suggest it’s pretty common. Research by Geneviève Beaulieu-Pelletier, who studies relationships and infidelity at the University of Montreal, estimates that the chances of someone cheating while in a committed relationship range from 46 to 76 percent. “These numbers indicate that even if we get married with the best of intentions, things don’t always turn out the way we plan,” Beaulieu-Pelletier has said of her work. Her research, incidentally, has uncovered no gender difference in an individual’s likelihood to cheat — women are just as likely to cheat as men despite the stereotype of the philandering husband. Other studies, however, put that number much lower, at 25 percent of men and 15 percent of women. (And there is, of course, the trickiness of tracking something like infidelity, because people may very well be lying to the researchers about their history of cheating in relationships.)
And most relationships, perhaps unsurprisingly, fall apart after an affair, instead of experiencing that psychological growth. One study in the mid-1990s, for example, asked therapists to track the relationship status and quality of the married couples they counseled in the aftermath of an affair. Of the 62 couples involved, 21 divorced. Thirty-one of them stayed together, but their relationships had soured. Only nine couples saw their relationships subsequently improve.
It was couples like those nine that intrigued Heintzelman and her University of Missouri-Kansas City colleagues. To find out more about what they had in common, they surveyed nearly 600 individuals, all of whom had experienced infidelity at least six months earlier, and all of whom had remained in their relationships. The participants answered questions about the level of emotional trauma they had experienced, and they also took questionnaires designed to assess the amount of forgiveness that had transpired after the affair. The researchers used a three-stage model to define forgiveness: dealing with the impact, searching for meaning, and moving forward. Those who had crossed through all three stages were considered to have effectively forgiven their partners.
The study volunteers also answered a survey that measured signs of posttraumatic growth, with questions that centered on five factors: their response to new possibilities, their relationships to others, their personal strength, the amount of spiritual change, and their appreciation for life. After analyzing the answers, the researchers found that forgiveness was the only significant predictor of posttraumatic growth. Put another way: It didn’t appear to matter how deeply the trauma had affected them emotionally; what mattered was their capacity to forgive.
People often talk about love in sacrificial terms: I’d take a bullet for you. As sex writer Dan Savage once said, infidelity is the version of that bullet most of us are far likelier to come across. To that end, the psychologist Esther Perel, author of the 2007 best-seller Mating in Captivity, recently wrote on her blog that it might be time to ease away the stigma of talking about infidelity, so that if (or when) it happens, it doesn’t automatically result in a thrown-away relationship. “When a couple comes to me in the aftermath of an affair that has been revealed, I will often tell them this: Today in the West most of us are going to have two or three relationships or marriages,” Perel has said. “And some of us are going to do it with the same person. Your first marriage is over. Would you like to create a second one together?”