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It's Rare, But Infidelity Can Make a Relationship Stronger

“Life is short. Have an affair.” So reads the slogan for Ashley Madison, the massively popular adult website that unabashedly caters to married folks who want to cheat. The site is so popular that it reportedly ranks among the top 30 adult websites in the world. This isn’t surprising when you consider just how common cheating is. Between one in four or five married people in the U.S. say that they’ve done it before. Those are just the ones willing to admit it.

Ashley Madison has been a constant fixture in the media ever since last month’s revelation that hackers stole the personal information of its 37 million users and threatened to release it. We don’t know when or if the data dump will occur, but many people assume that, if it eventually happens, we can expect to see a wave of divorces.

On an intuitive level, this outcome would make sense, given that infidelity is one of the leading causes of divorce. In fact, some studies have found infidelity to be the single most frequently reported reason for dissolving a marriage. But does infidelity necessarily have to signal the end? Could some of the unfaithful revealed as a result of this hack not only survive but have stronger relationships as a result? Believe it or not, there is some research out there to support this idea.

Before I go on, let me be perfectly clear about a few things.

First, although it is possible for a revelation of infidelity to ultimately strengthen a marriage, this is not a likely outcome. In fact, it’s probably pretty rare. More likely, the relationship will never be the same.

Second, while there may be the potential for positive changes to follow infidelity, this should not be taken as a reason to cheat or a rationalization for past cheating. I wouldn’t advise you to intentionally try and improve your marriage by sleeping with other people behind your partner’s back or to try and justify your past infidelities by saying “I was only trying to help!” Trust me—it’s probably not going to go over well.

And third, if you’re really concerned with improving your relationship, your efforts will be better spent communicating with your partner instead of cheating.

So in what ways could a relationship potentially change for the better following an affair? According to a study published in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy that focused on men and women whose marriages had survived a revelation of infidelity, positive outcomes included feeling closer to one’s partner, becoming more assertive or feeling more empowered, and realizing the value of one’s relationship and family. Another important benefit for some was recognizing how vital it is to have good communication with your partner.

Not everyone in this study experienced these outcomes, though, nor did they arrive quickly or easily. Indeed, everyone experienced a lot of emotional anguish and relationship turmoil in the initial aftermath.

Only participants who eventually moved on and got to the point of feeling as though they could start to trust their partners again reported any benefits stemming from the affair. The odds of this happening likely depend not only on the partners themselves but also the nature of the infidelity because not all affairs are equal. Was it a one-time thing or a long fling? How many different affairs were there? And was it just sex, or was there more to it than that?

It is worth noting that among those who reported any form of relationship improvement, the benefits were not anticipated—so, again, it’s not advisable to start an affair and expect that it’s going to magically improve your relationship.

However, there may be a silver lining to this mass airing of dirty laundry for some couples. Actual or threatened exposure of one’s past infidelities will force some men and women to come clean and deal with longstanding problem areas in their personal lives and relationships.

In the end, at least a few couples may emerge stronger than they were before.

For most of the cheaters, though, life will no longer seem, as Ashley Madison likes to say, so short.


Justin Lehmiller, PhD is a sex educator and researcher at Ball State University and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.

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