New research provides a better understanding of the relationships between self-esteem, psychological well-being, and infidelity during adolescence. The findings, although preliminary, suggest that committing infidelity could contribute to the development of personal growth.
The new study appears in the journal Psychological Reports.
Ana M. Beltrán-Morillas, a PhD in social psychology at the University of Granada, conducted the research along with several colleagues to better understand intimate adolescent relationships. Although numerous studies have examined the causes and consequences of infidelity in adulthood, relatively little is known about infidelity during the adolescent stage.
“We were interested in this topic mainly because adolescence is a period of significant change during which individuals try to shape their personal identities and meet their needs for intimacy. During this period, adolescents seek new sensations, feelings and behaviors to consolidate their identities, making it difficult to commit to a relationship,” Beltrán-Morillas explained.
“Our interest in this topic was further enhanced by previous research showing that adolescents experienced positive emotions after infidelity, although they did not consider it acceptable behavior. From this starting point, we decided to examine whether infidelity in adolescence could positively affect adolescents’ psychological well-being.”
In the study, 346 adolescents from six high schools in Granada, Spain, were asked to report the reasons why they would be unfaithful to their romantic partners, such as wanting more frequent sex or feeling they weren’t spending enough time together, and then indicate the kind of emotions they would experience if they were unfaithful to their partner. They also completed an assessment of self-esteem and a measure of general psychological well-being.
The researchers found that adolescents who cited sexual dissatisfaction and emotional dissatisfaction as reasons for committing infidelity tended to also report fewer negative emotions as a result of being unfaithful. This, in turn, was linked to higher levels of self-esteem and greater psychological well-being.
But when it came to endorsing neglect and anger as reasons for committing infidelity, the researchers did not find similar relationships.
“The main conclusion that can be drawn from our research is that sometimes, infidelity — despite its generally being viewed as intolerable and intransigent behavior — can be positive and can contribute favorably to the personal growth of adolescents, given their need to explore sensations and novel feelings,” Beltrán-Morillas told PsyPost.
“Furthermore, our findings could be oriented toward the promotion of adequate sexual and affective education aimed at improving adolescents’ social and romantic relationships to increase their levels of emotional and psychosocial well-being.”
But the study — like all research — include some limitations. Because the study was correlational, it cannot establish causal relationships. In addition, “there are still questions to be addressed, such as whether adolescent same-sex couples differ from heterosexual couples in their motivations for infidelity, the role of adolescent sexual activity in unfaithful behaviors, or the parental attachment style in the perpetration of infidelity,” Beltrán-Morillas said.
“Generally, as the Belgian psychotherapist and writer Esther Perel pointed out in her talk ‘Rethinking Infidelity,’ affairs always carry a longing and desire for emotional connection, autonomy, freedom, novelty, sexual intensity, desire to recover lost parts of oneself, or attempts to regain vitality in the face of loss and tragedy,” Beltrán-Morillas added.
“Therefore, when referring to infidelity, the perspective of the person who exercises it should also be considered, as infidelity does not always occur because of the desire to search for another person. Instead, it can arise from the desire to seek another identity and find oneself.”
The study, “The Relationship Between the Motivation to Commit Infidelity and Negative Affect and Self-Esteem: How Cheating in Romance Might Signal Positive Well-Being in Adolescents“, was authored by Ana M Beltrán-Morillas, María Alonso-Ferres, Marta Garrido-Macías, Laura Villanueva-Moya, M Dolores Sánchez-Hernández, and Francisca Expósito.