Tuesday, October 9, 2012

When it comes to cheating, is it really “a small world after all?”

“It’s a world of laughter, a world of tears.
It’s a world of hopes and a world of fears,
There’s so much that we share,
That it’s time we’re aware,
It’s small world after all.”
– Theme from Disney’s It’s A Small World
Disney teaches us that, despite living in different spots on the globe, it’s not our differences that divide us, but our shared experiences that unite us. And while this may be the case in some areas and a worthy ideal to uphold, some research shows this is not always the case when it comes to the shared experiences of cheating.
The consequences of cheating can vary based on the individual circumstances – after all, no relationships are exactly the same, so infidelity affects different couples in different ways. However, a big determinant in how a couple responds to one partner’s infidelity is the culture and norms of the society of they live in. Everything, from the TV we watch to the interactions of others around us, can teach us how we should behave in our culture and what is considered acceptable. While culture is not the only factor that determines how people respond to cheating, it is an important one.
Labeling a culture as individualist or collective is a broad, general way to describe the attitudes of most people within a culture. Research shows that the USA is generally considered to be an individualistic culture. China, on the other hand, is generally considered to be a collectivist culture. The difference in the focus of a culture’s people – whether they consider themselves or the group to be of highest importance – signifies the extent to which a culture is individual or collective.
What does that have to do with infidelity? Well, the type of culture a person comes from can affect how they react when their partner cheats on them. One study by researchers from California State University at Fullerton determined that there are certain types of responses to cheating that are typical of Americans, and other types typical of Chinese. Although individual personality factors can play a role too, cultural differences can predict how a person would respond if their partner cheats.
American responders were likely to engage in:
  • Exit responses – where the person would leave or dissolve the relationship when they found out about a partner’s cheating.
  • Anger-voice responses – where the person expresses their own emotions (anger, frustration, hurt, etc.) to their partner, without any goal of solving the problem or resolving the situation.
On the other hand, Chinese responders were likely to engage in:
  • Loyalty responses – where the person reaffirms their commitment to the cheating partner and to the relationship, despite the infidelity.
  • Third-party help responses – where the person did not interact with the cheating partner until they had sought advice from another person outside of the relationship (a family member or friend usually) on how to deal with the situation.
Given these differences, one can infer that couples in the US are more likely to break up after a partner cheats compared to China where they are more likely to stay together.
China is not the only country with collectivist ideals and differences to the US. Another study by American researchers looked at Asian Indians and how their cultural values affected their response to infidelity. Like in China, Indian culture is also highly collectivist with the focus on interdependence and less of a focus on individual happiness. Relationships outside of marriage are less common and most marriages are arranged. Love is not the deciding factor for getting married and is actually discouraged in many circumstances, according to the researchers.
For these reasons, often times it is the male of a relationship who engages in an extramarital affairs and the woman in the marriage is encouraged to be silent about the infidelity or find ways to interest her husband in their marriage.
The power structure and gender dynamics in Indian, Chinese and many other cultures varies; it affects how people respond to infidelity and why they respond in certain ways. Comparing these cultures with the US and how we see infidelity can be helpful in understanding varying attitudes toward infidelity. Also, considering how this research can relate to inter-cultural relationships is also important.
So the take away for today is to think about the cultural influences you and your partner have when it comes to relationships. What is important and unimportant to you both? How do you differ in your expectations when it comes to being faithful in a relationship? And finally, if there is a major transgression in your relationship, like cheating, how can you move past it?

Madathi, J. & Sandhu, D. S. (2008). Infidelity in Asian Indian marriages: Implications for counseling and psychotherapy. The Family Journal, 16, 338-343.
Zhang, R., Ting-Toomey, S., Dorjee, T. & Lee, P. S. (2012). Culture and self-construal as predictors of relational responses to emotional infidelity: China and the United States. Chinese Journal of Communication, 5, 137-159.


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  2. Tabbi,

    I really liked your blog, it was interesting to see how different cultures would react to infidelity but when you mention the individuality of American's I'm not surprised that's what was found. Do you think that because of the collectivist culture that China has effects the loyalty of the couple? And what I mean by that is Asian cultures have a heavy value on shame. Did the researchers mention anything on how a couple might stay together ad keep quiet because they want to avoid the shame that would follow from anyone finding out about the infidelity or possible breakup that would have followed? Another thing that I was wondering about while reading your blog was if history had anything to do with how American's might now act in the midst of finding out about infidelity. When my grandparents were married there was nothing that could break them apart. There were years when my grandfather was just downright mean to my grandma but no matter what divorce was never an option. Now, divorce is more acceptable and I have to wonder if that a is factor that makes people cheat, or a factor that makes them break up whereas before that might not have been the case.

    1. The article I read did mention that the collectivist culture has an effect of the loyalty of the couple in that the person who was wronged was concerned about themselves but also about the person who cheated too. The happiness of everyone together is usually more important than the happiness of just one person (although that makes me wonder why the other person, who holds those views too, would cheat as it doesn't seem to fit ...). Shame and saving face also came into it but on both sides of the cultural divide. Both cultures saw the way they reacted as a way to avoid shame, but the focus in the different cultures shows how that manifests differently.

      I think your comment about history is very pertinent, looking back even further than your grandparents even (although I'm sure there story is somewhat characteristic of the mentality of their time). Views on marriage have progressed in the US and it stands to reason that, as divorce becomes more prevalent, the reasons for break ups in general are evolving. The articles I read did not talk about the current state of marriage/committed relationships and infidelity so they didn’t address the historical aspect. It would be an interesting topic for future discussion and research though.

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  4. Hi Tabbi,

    Excellent post once again, although I have to say you brought back negative images of my LEAST favorite "ride" at Disneyland with your opening. I wish someone really invented the "Men in Black" memory eraser so I could delete my memory of it. :)

    What's really interesting to me is that I just started reading "The Social Construction of Reality" today, which relates quite nicely with your treatment of infidelity through the lens of cultural difference. I must also mention that I really like the layout of your blog and your nice, bulleted points and well-placed picture. Well done.

    This post sounds somewhat familiar to me. I have several South Asian friends, including my best friend. His parents' marriage was arranged and they seem very happy. It's hard to imagine one of them cheating. My friend and I have discussed relationships and marriage numerous times over the years. He was actually introduced to a girl that his family wanted him to marry (and hers wanted the marriage as well). She flew from Pakistan to Boise to meet him and everything. He decided not to go through with it and still hasn't made up his mind if he will marry for "love," have a marriage arranged with a different woman, or in that case if maybe he will fall in love with the woman he is set up with at some point. This is all very interesting to me since nobody is trying to arrange my marriage except some very annoying people who think everyone should be married and who try to set me up with people. :)

    Also, as you mentioned, being in relationships outside of marriage is considered rare in his culture ("dating" is not allowed) and he "hid" the fact that he was dating someone for years from his family (although perhaps not very well). It's interesting to think about growing up within one cultural system and moving into another and negotiating which "rules" you will follow.

    These cultural differences that you mentioned bring to mind a somewhat "Clintonesque" question about the very nature of what you are studying: if one does not marry for love, is it cheating?

    1. I should also mention that my frien's parents run a restaurant and I didn't take my previous girlfriend of 5 years there until we had been dating for about 3 years because he told me it wouldn't be a good idea. I was really nervous when I finally did because I didn't want to offend them, but it worked out and we ended up going there frequently after that. Interesting stuff!

    2. It’s a Small World is your least favorite ride??? Sad, it’s such a good one! I love its message of diversity and appreciation for other cultures (although they do rely heavily on stereotypes).

      It’s interesting that you bring up the idea of arranged marriage. Although I didn’t talk about it much in this post for space reasons, the articles talked about the differing reasons for marriage in different cultures. My focus on infidelity is in committed relationships, not just marriage, but from a cultural comparison, marriage seems to be the yardstick from which we can measure the consequences and responses to infidelity.

      In western culture it is the norm for marriages to occur out of choice on the part of the bride and groom (or bride/bride or groom/groom in some more progressive places) and for those marriages to be based on attraction and love (although I’m sure material and status concerns play into it for some couples too). However, in eastern cultures, marriage is seem in many places as an arranged alliance between two families and those two families are joined, not just the two people. So how infidelity is considered in these cultures is bound to vary.

      Your final question intrigues me … is it cheating if the marriage is not for love? I would say yes, based partly on my gut and partly from inferences I make from the two studies (although neither of them directly address that question). Whatever the reasons behind it, marriage is a binding commitment to be loyal and faithful to one other person. Whatever the reasons for straying from the marriage, the cheater is still cheating on the commitment, whether the commitment be for love or for a multitude of other reasons.

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  6. Hi Tabbi,

    I really liked your post. It is always interesting to me how our cultural differences can influence the smallest decisions we make in life. Of course, infidelity would not be considered a small decision, but rather an impulse (I think).

    Having been raised in a collectivist society, I can honestly say it takes such an effort to understand why people act a certain way. I wonder if a partner’s response to infidelity is based on what others outside the relationship would think. When I’m saying “others”, I’m mostly referring to friends, family, co-workers. Although not necessary, most likely a collectivist would think more about the consequences, how it would affect the relationship going forward and what the others would say. Hence, the Chinese responses you provided. On the other hand, an individualist’s responses are so much different. For me (and I consider myself a combination of both collectivist and individualist, I would want to know why and how I can change moving forward (not necessarily with the same person but in future ones). That's probably the collectivist part of me who wants to know. Was there anything in the articles as to why people from an individualist or collectivist society cheat? I’m curious if they cheat for different reasons. My own opinion is that humans are humans and they are likely to make mistakes. But a few questions came to mind reading your blog. Is an individualist engaging in an extramarital relationship in pursuit for his/her happiness? What about a collectivist? Would a collectivist be less likely to cheat if he/she is in a satisfying relationship? It’s very complicated, isn’t? In the end, regardless of background, it probably comes down to boundaries and expectations and how those are being set in the relationship.

    Thank you for a great post. You always have great ones. :)

    1. Ramona, thanks for your comment, I’m glad you like my blogs! I think you’re right, culture seems to permeate every single decision we make, big or small. I appreciate you sharing your experiences in both collectivist and individualist cultures; it’s easy to read these studies and imagine the differences but it doesn’t compare to actual experience of these different cultural perspectives. According to the research, your experience is accurate: In general people in collectivist cultures are concerned also about the other people affected by the relationship, like family and friends as you suggest. I commented to Jim about how in many collectivist cultures, marriage can be seen as an alliance between families and so it’s more than just the two people getting married who are involved in the relationship. That’s not to say that relationships in western cultures do not have others involved though. In-laws become close, sometimes children are also a factor. It would be interesting to look at this, not from a cultural perspective, but how the response to cheating changes based on how many people are involved somewhat in the relationship. Then adding cultural factors back in, given the high divorce rate in the US it seems that perhaps those other involved people become less important than the individual. These are just my assumptions and some random thoughts so hope that makes sense!

  7. Tabitha,

    Taking a cultural lens to infidelity was a great idea. People often focus on the interpersonal aspects and don't consider how our perceptions and responses to an infidelity could be influenced by our culture. Very smart approach to the blog. On the formatting side of things, your writing is very polished and professional, which at points makes it seem as if you are removed or distant from the blog. The issues discussed do not seem personal to you. If that is not intentional, you might consider ways to put "you" in your work. :)

    1. Thanks for the feedback Christine, I did find it interesting to look at infidelity from this perspective. I agree, reading back on my blog, that it does seem a little removed and perhaps that is because the issue isn't very personal to me. I think the most personal part is bringing Disney in at the beginning but it's interesting because I wrote the entire blog and then went back and added that in when I was trying to make it more interesting! I think it might hook readers a little more to be personal though so thanks for the tip, I'll try to improve that next time :)

  8. Hey there Tabbi! I agree there wasn't a lot of "you" in the blog, but I think that is a fine choice. You were still conversational. I think it's great to have an "expert" voice even in a blog, as long as you are using down-to-earth language which you were. Of course if you wanted more "you" in the blog then Christine is correct, that wasn't the style of this one. Now, I just wanted a little more from you at the end. It seemed like you were just starting to argue that the collectivist response is better. Would like to see you draw that out if that's the case.

    1. I appreciate the feedback, thanks! it's interesting to consider the different "voices" one might employ in a blog; it seems to me there is a lot more variability than in traditional academic writing. As for your other comment, I'm not sure I was thinking that the collectivist response is better ... it appears that it is more mitigating and that it leads to a higher chance the relationship would be saved but, given the cheating, should the relationship be saved? Maybe the person would be happier out of the relationship than in it. I see where it might appear I'm advocating the collectivist response though because my final sentence leaves people questioning how to save their relationship and move past the infidelity, as though that is the only possibility. Personally I'm still torn on which is better.