New study suggests self-esteem plays a pivotal role in the psychological fallout caused by infidelity

New research published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences provides new insight into the mental health consequences of being cheated on. The findings indicate that a high self-esteem can dampen the emotional aftermath of a partner’s infidelity.

“Being cheated on can lead to poor emotional and psychological health like increased stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms,” said study author M. Rosie Shrout (@RosieShrout), a postdoctoral researcher at Ohio State University.

“Although many people experience these symptoms after a partner’s infidelity, not everyone who is cheated on reacts the same way. We wanted to know why people have such different emotional experiences.”

“We know that self-esteem is important in times of stress. People who typically see themselves as worthy and accept themselves for who they are tend to also see stressful experiences more positively. On the other hand, people with low self-esteem are more likely to see stressful events in a negative light,” Shrout explained.

“We were curious how self-esteem played a role in the emotional fallout of a partner’s infidelity — would high self-esteem shield people from their partner’s infidelity? And would infidelity take a greater emotional toll on those with low self-esteem?”

For their study, the researchers surveyed 232 college students who had been cheated on while in a committed relationship in the past 3 months. At the time of the study, 15% of the participants indicated that they were still in a relationship with the partner who had cheated on them.

The researchers found that participants who scored higher on a measure of self-esteem tended to report less stress and fewer mental health symptoms after their partner’s infidelity.

“As we anticipated, self-esteem helped to reduce the negative emotional and psychological health aftermath of a partner’s infidelity,” Shrout told PsyPost.

“In addition, our prior work had shown how blaming a partner for cheating, such as feeling like their partners caused and were responsible for the infidelity, led to poorer mental health. In this study, people who blamed their partners and who had low self-esteem reported the highest levels of stress, anxiety, and depression.”

In other words, participants who agreed with statements such as “I thought the reason my partner cheated on me was not likely to change” and “I thought my partner deserved to be blamed for cheating on me” tended to report more infidelity-related stress, which in turn was associated with greater mental health symptoms.

“But, for those with high self-esteem, blaming their partners translated to less intense emotional and psychological symptoms,” Shrout said.

The new findings help explain the individual differences in responses to being cheated on.

“How we see ourselves in times of stress is important. Two people can experience the same negative event, and one person might have very little mental health consequences, while the other experiences several symptoms. In this study, self-esteem played a pivotal role in explaining why people have such different emotional responses to a partner’s infidelity,” Shrout added.

“It is possible that people who have high self-esteem had more resources to cope with the infidelity, such as turning to their friends and family and going back to their hobbies. Those with low self-esteem might have been unable to muster the personal resources to manage their stress, ultimately intensifying the impact of their partner’s infidelity.”

But, as with all research, the study includes some caveats.

“Although infidelity can be a damaging and stressful experience regardless of who is cheated on, most of our participants were young adults in dating relationships. Though the majority were in serious and committed relationships, infidelity’s emotional and mental health toll might be different for those in longer-term or marital relationships,” Shrout explained.

The study, “Coping with infidelity: The moderating role of self-esteem“, was authored by M. Rosie Shrout and Daniel J. Weigel.