Cheater, repent! It might repair your relationship

May 25, 1993|By Alan Bavely | Alan Bavely,Kansas City Star

If you've cheated on your mate and expect even a shred of sympathy, you might want to show some guilt.

Psychologists at the University of Missouri-Kansas City have discovered that exhibiting remorse is one of the surest ways to gain tolerance from others for amorous indiscretions.

"Sincere repentance and apologies go a long way toward smoothing things over," said Jacqueline Haynes, a UMKC graduate student in counseling.

Ms. Haynes and UMKC psychology Professor Lawrence Simkins recently surveyed 155 UMKC students, including some who admitted to infidelities, to find out under what conditions they considered it acceptable, or at least less unacceptable, to fool around.

Ms. Haynes presented their findings recently in Denver at the annual conference of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists.

Among the factors Ms. Haynes and Mr. Simkins found that made an affair more tolerable to others:

* Being a man. Men tended to be less critical of affairs by other men; women were critical of affairs by anyone.

* Calling it off. People who ended an affair were more likely to find acceptance than those who were still carrying on.

* Staying platonic. Romances that never got physical were a lot easier for others to tolerate.

Ms. Haynes said their study confirms the finding of many other psychologists that it's easier for philandering men to get off the hook than it is for women.

But this is the first time, she said, that a study has uncovered the power of penitence in these situations -- something that's always been recognized by religious thinkers.

"Psychology has lagged behind certain biblical relationship principles of guilt and repentance and forgiveness, things that have been around for thousands of years," Ms. Haynes said.

To find out the situations that affected a person's tolerance of infidelity, Ms. Haynes and Mr. Simkins wrote 10 fictional vignettes in which men and women in various relationships cheated.

Students in human sexuality classes were asked to grade the characters in the stories on scales that measured such attributes as attractiveness, virtue and happiness.

The students ranged in age from 18 to 54. About 19 percent were married, and 8 percent were widowed or divorced. Seven percent of the married students admitted to an extramarital affair.

The two characters in the vignettes who received the most highly negative ratings were Harry and Jan.

In Harry's vignette, he is in a satisfying marriage but nonetheless has a tryst with a business client. Harry realizes what he did was wrong, but he figures what his wife doesn't know won't hurt her.

Jan is a married mother who works as a cocktail waitress to help make ends meet. She has one-night stands with customers who give her substantial tips. Although Jan has an open marriage, her husband is upset by her infidelity. Jan, however, believes that because she takes care of the children all day and works all night, she is entitled to whatever pleasure she can get.

Sabrina and Martin earned the least negative ratings.

Sabrina teaches high school physics; her husband works in a car factory. Their marriage is fine sexually, but Sabrina doesn't find it intellectually stimulating. At school she is attracted to the chairman of the curriculum planning committee. She has fantasies about going to bed with him.

Martin is happily married and is the father of a 1-year-old. He travels occasionally on business with his supervisor, an older woman whom he finds attractive. His boss has hinted she would be interested in something more than a business relationship.

He thinks about having sex with her but makes no effort to act out his fantasies.

Ms. Haynes said students who took part in the study may be somewhat more liberal in sexual matters than the general population. But that didn't mean they looked favorably on any of the characters in these vignettes, even Martin and Sabrina.

"They were just viewed with less disdain," Ms. Haynes said. "I don't think you can completely avoid disfavor in these situations."

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