Non-groundbreaking study: People who work on an unhappy relationship sometimes succeed

Couple TimeJust as you would with any “One simple trick” ad, you should be skeptical of a headline like this:

New Study Reveals Secret To Saving Your Marriage After Infidelity

Uh, yeah, no. HuffPo summarizes a recent UCLA/University of Washington study on couples who experienced infidelity. The study found:

Over the course of the study, 19 of the couples experienced infidelity by one or both partners. Of those couples who cheated, 74 percent revealed their infidelity before or during the study, while 26 percent kept it secret (it was later discovered by researchers).

That distinction became very important in determining which relationships survived. At the end of five years, 43 percent of couples who had revealed the infidelity were divorced compared to 80 percent of the couples whose infidelity was kept secret.

Leaving aside the time-shifting abilities couples apparently displayed here (if I’m reading that right, apparently some couples revealed before the study an instance of infidelity that happened during the study), those numbers are almost surely wrong. More than 19 couples probably experienced infidelity over that time, and however far the actual number is over 19, those couples didn’t tell the researchers about it ever.

Let’s presume that some couples experienced infidelity and the researchers never knew, either during or after the study. That’s not a stretch; many couples don’t report their infidelity, for a variety of reasons. Of these couples, of course some broke up and others stayed together. What would that do to results? Potentially quite a lot.

The report says that 80% of couples who kept their infidelity secret for a little while broke up. That sounds like a more formal way of saying four out of five, because it is literally four out of literally five. Such a small sample should immediately raise your skepticism. If even just three other couples in the study experienced infidelity, didn’t tell the researchers about it, and stayed together, the divorce rate for secret-keeping couples would drop to 50% — a rate that (statistically speaking) isn’t meaningfully different from the 43% divorce rate among couples in the study who revealed their affairs.

Even leaving aside the issues here about how much research participants can be trusted to self-report cheating, this is also an example (common in couples research) of mistaken assumptions about causation. The researchers here are suggesting that, quite often, acknowledged secret-keeping about infidelity led a marriage to break up. But it is just as plausible that the opposite is true: The breakup caused the secret to come out to the researchers. Neither partner would have as much reason to keep infidelity a secret once their relationship had ended.

Now, I can certainly tell you from my own clinical experience that for many couples who come to therapy, the full disclosure of infidelity is vital to keeping their marriage together. But I can also tell you that there are couples who experience infidelity, don’t reveal it to their partners, don’t go to therapy, and still stay together. Is one route better than the other (or at least likelier to lead to a lasting and happier marriage after cheating)? Perhaps. But this study, with its small sample sizes and its unjustified conclusions, doesn’t get us anywhere closer to knowing. All it actually tells us is what we already knew: That sometimes, couples who choose to work on their relationship after revealing an affair are indeed successful in keeping their marriage together.

That infidelity-and-income study? Don’t believe it.

A recent study, presented at an American Sociological Association conference to a fawning media reception (NPR / Salon), tells us that men who make less than their wives or live-in girlfriends are five times more likely to cheat. It’s bogus. Here’s why.

While commentators have been stumbling over themselves to determine what the study’s findings mean about gender, marriage, and society, no one seems to be bothering to notice that the study itself appears pretty useless. The major conclusion, linking income and infidelity, has a number of problems, not the least of which is that everyone — myself included — who wasn’t at the conference is relying on a press release and subsequent media reports about it. Such reports are notoriously unreliable, often drawing ideas from generous and/or speculative interpretations of the results rather than the study itself. That said, here are three of the reasons I’m particularly skeptical:

  1. Do the math. The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, upon which the study is based, followed about 9,000 individuals — surely a healthy sample size. But the infidelity study examined only those who were married or with a live-in partner for more than a year, which is a much smaller subset. And of those, only seven percent of men and three percent of women actually fessed up to cheating during the study’s six-year period. So, let’s be generous and say that two-thirds of the NLSY group met the relationship-status criteria (n=6,000). And we’ll presume that roughly half are of each gender (3,000 men and 3,000 women). That leaves us with about 210 men who have fessed up to infidelity in this survey. Of those, it is not clear from the media reports how many were in situations where the male earned less than his partner; other recent research suggests about a third, or fewer than 80 of those reporting infidelity, were in such a relationship. And remember, we’re being generous because we do not have the actual numbers. To be sure, 210 male cheaters is still a decent sample, and it could be enough to draw meaningful conclusions about links between infidelity and income (among other factors). But it still is not a lot. In fact, it probably is a lot less than the number of participants in the survey who actually cheated. Remember…
    Updated 2010-08-20: (which has more details on the methodology, and as an added bonus, commentary from Stephanie Coontz) is reporting that only 3.8 percent of men, and 1.4 percent of women, admitted to cheating in the study. That’s not exactly true; on average, 3.8 percent of men and 1.4 percent of women admitted to cheating in any given year of the six-year study, at least according to the press release.

  2. …People lie. A major income discrepancy in the relationship may be a good reason for men to simply be more honest about their cheating. Sure, you could argue, if the wife/girlfriend finds out then the gravy train ends. But if the man is in a relationship for the money, and not emotionally committed, why on earth would he lie to an anonymous survey about his cheating? There is little incentive to, and there is no cognitive dissonance to resolve over telling the truth. On the other hand, if he is emotionally engaged, and is in the relationship for reasons other than money, he may find it safer (and more palatable) to hide any previous infidelity. If all that sounds awfully speculative, well, that’s the point. People lie on studies like this, and we do not always know who will be most likely to lie or why. Yet commenters (and, too often, the researchers themselves, as seems to be the case here) treat the findings as truth in spite of their huge flaws, and then seek to divine an explanation.

  3. Account for other factors, like age, education, and religion, and the income-infidelity link vanishes. That inconvenient fact is actually in the press release, but of course, no one is paying attention to it. Does earning more than your man make him more likely to cheat? the chatterers are asking. In a word, no — the income issue appears to (at best, and even this has big holes) correlate with, but not be a cause for, cheating.

The trouble with any study of undesirable behavior that relies on self-reports is that it is impossible to know what we’re really studying — the behavior itself, or the act of reporting it. Only a more carefully (and expensively) constructed study could parse that out. In the meantime, move on. Nothing new to see here.