Kay: Detecting Infidelity

coupleIssues of fidelity—and infidelity—come up all the time in romance novels. Often issues of trust between characters hinge on past experiences of cheating. The key for writers is to show suspicion and distrust—or trust and confidence—in a credible way.

Imagine that on the way home from a party, your spouse says to you, “Something’s wrong there—I think X is cheating on Y.” Could this statement be true? Can you tell if people are cheating just by watching them, even for a few minutes? 

The answer’s yes. Psychologists at Brigham Young University examined whether observers could identify people who cheat. Results suggest that signs of infidelity can emerge in as few as three to five minutes, and that random observers are remarkably consistent and accurate in their observations.

In the first study, one member of each couple completed a survey about the relationship, including whether they had been emotionally or physically unfaithful. Then the couples were asked to complete a small task, lasting three to five minutes, that required them to work together. Observers watched the activity sessions and then ranked on a one-to-five scale their answers to questions such as: “How likely is it that this person flirted or made advances on someone other than the partner?” and “How likely do you think this person has had sexual intercourse with someone other than his/her partner?”

The researchers found a “significant and moderate” correlation between the observers’ assessments of the likelihood of infidelity and the participant’s self-described actual infidelity.

In a second study, the observers also assessed how trustworthy and committed each participant was to the relationship. They again identified cheaters, essentially by picking up on verbal or visual clues that pointed to ambivalence or unreliability, which cast doubt on the subject’s fidelity.

So if you’re writing about a jealous partner, a wronged spouse, or a suspicious friend—you can take that suspicion and run with it. Maybe your characters are just suspicious and cynical. On the other hand, their observations—however painful—are probably correct.

9 thoughts on “Kay: Detecting Infidelity

  1. I believe this, Kay. Years ago, my husband and I went to a party with a married couple we’d known forever. At some point, a female friend of the wife said something, swatted the wife playfully, and they both laughed. On the way home, DH and I both said ‘did you see…? D’you think …? Nah.’ Today the wife and the woman are a couple. And when the wife first told me, I asked her about that night, and she was amazed. Apparently they didn’t get together until much, much later. It wasn’t even a possibility for the wife at that point, but to us as observers the chemistry between them was unmistakable.

  2. Amazing. That kind of thing happened to me, too, in a professional context, except that I didn’t find out the affair had happened until it was over. But at the time it was going on, I wondered. The funny thing for me was that I’d congratulated myself on having wonderful powers of observation. Now I learn that it’s commonplace!

  3. This post made me wonder if anyone can think of a romance where one of the people in the couple cheated (as opposed to having a past bad experience with a previous partner), but they overcame it and had the HEA? These days, almost anything goes in the genre, which is one of the reasons it’s so strong/resilient, but I’d be curious to know if a cheating partner would be a bridge too far for romance readers.

    • This isn’t quite what Nancy is thinking, but in Gone With the Wind, the heroine marries three times, and thinks she’s in love with another guy through almost the entire story. They don’t get a HEA, but a lot of readers imagine one eventually happening. (Also, you KNOW the hero wasn’t Mr. Chastity during his courtship.)

      I think I have read of someone cheating and the thing being overcome so that the partners come to an understanding . . . but not in the romance genre. It’s not really something that attracts me, so if I read about it in a blurb, I would pass over the book.

      Also, as a data point, Evanovitch’s Stephanie Plum sleeps with two guys, IIRC, but since they don’t have a defined commitment, I guess it’s OK. No cheating, just the “we were on a break” thing — ah, and there’s Friends’ main romance.

      IDK, I don’t see it heppening in a romance. *Maybe* the woman dates an old flame and comes to realize that her new guy is fabulous. But I can see a lot of readers balking.

    • I started a romance a while back—alas, cannot remember the author or title—and put it down and moved on after about 20 pages. But one of the turning points was going to be when the heroine discovered the hero had cheated. I believed that this would be a Classic Misunderstanding, however. That plot device comes up way too often.

  4. I think it’s so hard to tell. One can tell if there’s chemistry, I think, but that doesn’t mean that two people (or characters) will act on that chemistry.

    I wonder what that study would produce in Japan. Hiding relationships seems to be engrained, and I was surprised to come to a school once after three months, and finding that two of the teachers had gotten married in the meantime.

    Those little tells, though, would be really useful in a story. Especially a first person or close third single-POV story.

    It seems so odd to me that someone would look at a man or a woman, and be able to think, “Oh yeah, s/he’s a cheater.” What are the tells?

    • Yeah, the study didn’t say what the observers noted that made them think the participants had been unfaithful. Only that they’d noticed it. I suppose, at least in part, it would have been the type of touching that Jilly mentioned.

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