Interpersonal Communication Theories and Infidelity
Interpersonal Communication Theories and Infidelity
Infidelity is a common problem found in many relationships and marriages. Whether couples are married or dating, straight or gay, it appears that 48% of couples are unfortunately bound to experience a period of infidelity . Many believe that infidelity only brings on episodes of conflict between the couple, followed by an inevitable breakup or divorce. They do not think there is any way through infidelity, or that there is any other type of communication involved. However, interpersonal communication is far more complex than that, and the couple can become mired in several different theories in which interpersonal communication operates. According to what drives infidelity, and the typical following reactions the affected parties have afterward, it can normally be stated that infidelity is characterized by the social exchange theory, the rational patterns of interaction theory, and most pertinently, the expectancy violations theory.
Several studies have been performed on the intricacies of infidelity, and all the action does to impact the relationship, as well as interpersonal communication among the couple and the family. Elizabeth S. Allen and associates completed a study assessing 124 military couples with a history of infidelity, examining the impact marriage counseling had on the couples and the family units. The counseling included therapy that exposed the reasons for infidelity, as well as coping skills to avoid future infidelity and communicate better with one another. Several of the couples found the therapy to be helpful several months after it took place, but 64% of the participants were unable to enforce the methods. A similar study, performed by Christina M. Baderrama-Durbin and associated researchers studied the behaviors of demand and withdraw between couples who had experienced infidelity. The study did not offer therapy, but instead only observed the interpersonal communicative behavior of the couples. While a slim percentage, 38% were reported as making an honest attempt to avoid withdraw, demand, and control, the remaining 94 participants were unable to do so. A survey given to all participants suggested their violation of expectations had been exceed beyond breaking, and they were now engaging in symmetrical relationships under the interaction theory in a irrevocably demanding manner that only therapy could manage . Infidelity showed as a truly unforgivable betrayal in some instances.
Other studies concerning infidelity involved more violation of expectations. “You Had Sex With Who?: Males’ Expression of Counter-Jealousy in Heterosexual and Homosexual Relationships,” by Hannah Brown and her research associates examined infidelity from the point of view of gay and straight males . Brown found that despite the typically hard exterior of the male, and the occasionally reserved way they live, males are deeply impacted by infidelity whether their partner is male or female. Their violation of expectations was so deep in 72% of participants that it managed to change their proxemics . “An Experimental Examination of the Effects of Communicative Infidelity Motives on Communication and Relational Outcomes in Romantic Relationships,” also examined aspects of interpersonal communication between couples through periods of infidelity . Many results were found, though what particularly stood out was the unfaithful partner’s tendency to use reward valence under the expectancy violations theory in order to suit their own motives. The study found that when the unfaithful partner used reward valence as a justification for infidelity, as well as a motive, the communicative outcome was poorer than in situations when the unfaithful partner took responsibility for their share of poor communication .
Further studies examined the communicative impact and response infidelity had on the relationship between not just the partners, but adult children, as well. Over 25% of infidelity takes place among couples over the age of 50, who have children that are considerd adults, according to Allison R. Thorson . Her study inspected the impact infidelity had on interpersonal communication between members of an entire adult unit. The study found that out of 210 families, 180 of them contained adult children who claimed to feel the most violated concerning their expectations. Of these 180 families, the adult children displayed the most dominant commmunicative nature in the context of symmetrical exchanges, i.e. the children would take the infidelity as a challenge to the family unit and challenge it, ofteninadvertently reprimanding or punishing the unfaithful parent . “Testing a Model of Communication Responses to Relationship Infidelity,” by Dana A. Weisner and Daniel J. Weigel assessed this type of communicative response, but only in the contexts of a romantic relationship, barring children . Different relationship models were also assessed, as the researchers attempted to assess which form of communication most commonly followed infidelity, as well as why the individuals chose to or were motivated to communicate that way .
Based on the literature review, or any review of infidelity, the act and the interpersonal communication surrounding it could be tied to many interpersonal communication theories. However, three that stand out very cleary have elements rooted in social exchange theory, interaction theory, and expectancy violations theory. Infidelity appears to grow out of the social exchange theory’s theory of independence. For example, prior to infidelity taking place, according to “Demand and Withdraw Behaviors in Couples with a History of Infidelity,” one of the leading causes of infidelity is a lack of communication. The couple will stop communicating verbally or nonverbally, and slowly drift apart. The theory of interdependence would refer to this as deterioration. Regular verbal “check-ins” is recommended as part of the healing process, as well as a good marriage and relationship maintenance in “The Effects of Marriage Education for Army Couples with a History of Infidelity.” The article verbally checking in with a partner as few as three times a week, even after infidelity takes place, can be enough to understand when there is trouble in a relationship. It can alert both partners to when maintenance needs to be done. The evidence in each article supports that withdrawal from a partner typical takes place before infidelity, supporting the theory of interdependence’s claim on deterioration; as social exchange, or communication, begins to deteriorate, so does the relationship. The theory of interdependence argues that both parties will share in the communication process, or they will withdraw from one another based on their own self-interest. The higher the intimacy level, the more the two will communicate. However, if one party shuts the other out, it can cause deterioration that can lead to infidelity. If one party is not receiving social exchange, they will eventually stop giving and seek the symbiotic relationship with another individual. Essentially, when one partner shuts down, eventually the other will too. This lack of communication leaves the door for a third party to step in.
The interaction theory and certain aspects of the theory therein, have also been found to impact communicative aspects of infidelity. The patterns of interaction theory allow us to see that infidelity is more complex than an initial withdrawal of social exchange. Interaction theory subscribes entirely to the study of a person’s actions during communication. Emotions are intricate, delicate things that cannot easily be explained verbally, even though verbalization is so thoroughly involved in the process of infidelity. More complex still is the lack of communication throughout the process of infidelity, and the healing period afterwards. Dana A Weiser and Daniel J. Weigel, authors of, “Testing a Model of Communication Responses to Relationship Infidelity,” state for instance that faithful partners displayed a variety of negative communication responses toward unfaithful partners during and after infidelity took place. Most interesting about Weiser and Weigel’s study was the negative responses were not always based on infidelity alone because the faithful partner was not always aware that the other had been cheating. 42% of the participants did not yet know about their partner’s infidelity, and were solely chosen for the study based on the nonverbal communication during the period in which the infidelity took place . The results suggested that though the theory of interdependence may cause social exchange to deteriorate, it may not end entirely; the faithful partner was still aware on some level that they were being violated within the relationship and displayed their displeasure as a result.
Megan R. Dillow and her associates, authors of, “An Experimental Examination of the Effects of Communicative Infidelity Motives on Communication and Relational Outcomes in Romantic Relationships,” only assessed relationships wherein both parties within the couple were aware of the breach in trust . The researchers found aspects of interaction theory, particularly concerning expectations about interactions and communication, as well as symmetrical relationship communication. Many of the individuals would enter discussions concerning the infidelity with expectations about how the other would react, or expectations about how they were supposed to react, based on previous discussion about bettering communication. However, given the tender subject matter, they were unable to meet the expectation of their partner, or even their own expectations in most instances, violating not only the relational exchange, but also the social exchange .
Symmetrical relationships were also found to be an issue during this study. Within the context interaction theory, symmetrical relationships are defined when two individuals react to one another in the same way. Fundamentally, they are characterized by power struggles. While many of the unfaithful participants felt sorry for their infidelity, some did not. 63% of the participating couples entered into these power struggles, enhancing the violation of expectations. The faithful partner would discuss the infidelity, expecting an apology. The unfaithful partner would feel justified in their actions or as if they had already apologized enough; having been chastized enough for their actions they would demand a ceasing of the other partner’s demands. A communicative stall would soon follow as each partner demanded what they thought they were owed by the other . These could be further explained by symmetrical exchanges, wherein responses would eventually become reflexive. For example, an angry comment would automatically be met with an angry response, or a snide comment a snide response, and so forth.
Of course communicative issues in relationships involving infidelity were not limited only to social exchange and interaction theory. Other communicative issues involving the expectancy violations theory were found in studies, as well. The idea behind expectancy violations theory is explained simply enough; it is characterized as part of a sociopsychology, showing the relationship between nonverbal behaviors and the interpretations individuals begin to associate with them, using nonverbal messages. Basically, expectations are based on certain social norms or past experience involving a certain behavior. When the expectations are violated, the individual will assess the new actions as positive or negative based on norms or past experience, as well as general behavior. Therefore, if an individual believes the social norm is monogamy, or their past experience is monogamy, or that infidelity is wrong, they will begin to expect that exclusive relationships mean the entrance into a nonverbal agreement of monogamy. Generally it was found in each study that infidelity was a violation of expectations.
While both genders in each couple study felt violated, depending on if they had been cheated on, one studied showed that the male gender was impacted differently based on certain aspects of the expectancy violations theory. The study, performed by Hannah Brown and her associated, discovered that in some cases, the infidelity was such a betrayal that it could actually change the individual’s personal preferences, as well as the relationship. In particular, infidelity was often found to impact proxemics . Proxemics refers to the use of an individual’s personal space, and it is divided into four separate types. Intimate distance is between the individual’s body and 10 inches away. Personal distance is 35 inches to 60 feet. Social distance is 55 feet to 80 feet away. Finally public distance is considered anywhere past 35 feet away from the individual’s body.
Brown’s study discovered that men were most impacted by infidelity in terms of proxemics. In the majority of cases Brown studied, males both straight and homosexual felt more dejeccted than females after infidelity took place. Moreover, they would moreoften forego verbalizing their feelings of expectancy violation and instead distance themselves. What was most peculiar about the study, however, was that it revealed proxemics were not specific only to the unfaithful partner. Personal space is between the body and 10 inches around the body; when Brown began to notice proxemics were being comrpomised, the team hypothesized the unfaithful partner would be be pushed at least to a personal distance, if not a social distance, more often than they were allowed in the violated partner’s personal space. Upon further assessment it was discovered that men who had experienced infidelity created a personal space typically within 5 inches of the body, while personal space was widened to up to 4-5 feet from the body, and social distance began at 60 or 70 feet away. It was then hypothesized that, in an effort to avoid a repeat of the violation of expectations, the individual used proxemics to isolate themselves .
A neglected group of individuals often impacted by infidelity are adult children. As previously mentioned, over 25% of cases involving infidelity take place between couples over the age of 50; many of these couple have one or more children of adult age . Allison R. Thorson performed studies that explored the feelings, reactions, and interpersoanl communication of families involving infidelity and adult children. In nearly half of the participating families, Thorson found that the adult child, or children involved in the situation were the most impacted by the violation of expectations. Though they were adult aged, and 89% of them were moved out of the house with families of their own, they were still unable to process the situation. Many were unable to understand how their parents could not continue operating as a family unit even after the child had left.
Based on societal norms, the adult children often assumed after they left home, their parents would continue living as they always had, simply because it was what they were supposed to do, and it was what the child had experienced in the past. Many adult children enforced dyadic communication, a facet of expectancy violations. Unable to cope with the infidelity in their parents’ relationship but still desiring an explanation or apology, many participants became passive aggressive about the subject both when asked by researchers and when approached by their parents. Dyadic communication is communication that forces something to happen, typically a fight, in order to bring a change. Because they lacked the ability to confront their parents, 57 of the participating adult children enforced dyadic communication on one or both parents, resulting in the parent giving an explanation, or attempting to reason with the adult child about his or her actions, according to surveys given during the study .
A final aspect of expectancy violation theory concerned reward valence. Particularly in Elizabeth S. Allen and her associates’ study with military couples, reward valence proved to be a difficult issue. Reward valence, according to the study, refers to when an individual’s expections are not met, and the perceptions concerning whether we consider the result positive or negative. Interactions thereafter concerning the violated expectation will determine if the individual views the issue as a negative or positive violation to themselves or their expectations. Allen and her associates began to find that in cases involving an individual who was able to justifiy his or her infidelity as a legitimate need or unavoidable action, the faithful partner was likely to attempt seeing the impact of the infidelity as positive because they would begin to believe that nothing could be done to circumvent the action.
While this strategy led to a faster healing process, the study also showed that it led to an increased rate of infidelity within the relationship. Fifteen of the thirty-four couples who experienced this reaction under expectancy violation eventually decided to separate. In contrast, unfaithful partners who acknowledged that their actions were wrong, validating that they had violated their partner’s wishes allowed the faithful partner to see the impact of the infidelity was negative and their expectations of the union had been violated. Despite these unsatisfactory circumstances, the validation of the faithful partner’s feelings allowed for the marriage education offered in the study to work; more than half of the couples who used validation as a tool were able to save their marriage . The study showed that expectation violations can be serious, but if an individual is willing to respect their partner and understand the negativity they have caused while being open to all forms of communication, there is a chance for the couple to rebuild what they have lost.
In sum, when a member of a couple commits adultry or infidelity, it creates a very complex problem. The communication involved, both verbal and nonverbal, that takes place before, during, and after the event can cause many changes within the relationship. Some of the studies found that infidelity can cause changes to the individuals themselves. Nearly half of all couples are unfortunately predicted to fall victim to infidelity throughout their relationship, which is why it is important to understand the damage it can do. Researchers have dedicated many studies to understanding how communication plays a part in the catalyst that leads to infidelity, as well as the communicative roles that individuals take on after infidelity is committed. Aspects of interpersonal communication are embedded in every area of relationships, whether infidelity is involved or not. In particular, social exchange theory with an emphasis on interdependence theory, interaction theory, and expectancy violation theory most aptly characterize the issues involved when a couple is attempting to overcome infidelity. Having a better understanding of communication, and why one feels the way that they do, or is saying they things they are saying, is the best way to help save a relationship if infidelity occurs, which is why understanding these theories and their correlation is so important.
Allen, E. S., Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., Loew, B., & Markman, H. J. (2012). The effects of marriage education for army couples with a history of infidelity. Journal of Family Psychology, 26-35.
Balderrama-Durbin, C. M., Allen, E. S., & Rhoades, G. K. (2012). Demand and withdraw behaviors in couples with a history of infidelity. Journal of Family Psychology, 11-17.
Brown, H., Conzelman, C., Deacon, S., Famouri, A., & Hanle, C. (2013). You Had Sex With Who?: Males’ Expression of Counter-Jealousy in Heterosexual and Homosexual Relationships. Chapman University Communication Studies Undergraduate Research Journal, 56-68.
Dillow, M. R., Malachowski, C. C., Brann, M., & Weber, K. D. (2011). An Experimental Examination of the Effects of Communicative Infidelity Motives on Communication and Relational Outcomes in Romantic Relationships. Western Journal of Communication, 473-499.
Thorson, A. R. (2014). Feeling Caught: Adult Children's Experiences with Parental Infidelity. Qualititave Research Reports in Communication, 75-83.
Weiser, D. A., & Weigel, D. J. (2014). Testing a Model of Communication Responses to Relationship Infidelity. Communication Quarterly, 416-435.