In this sample of couples in the US Army, we found that 15.1% of husbands and 13.3% of wives reported a history of infidelity in the current marriage. These numbers do not exceed rates of reported extramarital sex found in large representative US samples (Wiederman, 1997
), but still resulted in a significant proportion (23.4%) of couples in the current sample with at least one partner reporting infidelity. These numbers should not be considered representative of rates of infidelity in the Army, as these were a select group of couples (e.g., those who were interested in participating in a study of marriage education).
Couples with a history of infidelity who were randomly assigned to a marriage education program showed the lowest levels of satisfaction and communication skills prior to the intervention. Among couples assigned to PREP, we expected a lower level of couple functioning for those with a history of infidelity compared to couples without such a history. Results confirmed that couples with a history of infidelity assigned to PREP showed significantly greater improvement in their marital satisfaction after intervention relative to couples without infidelity assigned to the intervention. When evaluating communication skills, there was a trend for overall greater gains after intervention for couples with a history of infidelity assigned to the intervention; specific probes found that this relative change was a trend when comparing PREP/infidelity couples to PREP/no infidelity couples from pre to post, but was significant comparing pre to follow up. Thus, overall, couples with infidelity assigned to the intervention showed significantly greater improvements in satisfaction after intervention compared to couples without infidelity assigned to the intervention, and tended to also show relatively greater improvements in communication skills.
When examining communication skills, couples with a history of infidelity assigned to the intervention did “catch up” to couples without infidelity assigned to intervention in terms of the lack of statistical significance between the groups at post and follow up. However, this was not found for marital satisfaction. That is, while couples with infidelity assigned to intervention showed the greatest gains in marital satisfaction, they remained significantly lower in their satisfaction after intervention relative to couples without infidelity assigned to PREP. Thus, these findings in some way mirror the Atkins et al. (2005
findings which suggest greater gains in marital satisfaction from couples therapy for infidelity couples, but do not replicate the Atkins et al. finding that infidelity couples show no significant differences in marital satisfaction from non-infidelity couples by the end of intervention or at follow up assessment. In the Atkins et al. studies, the infidelity couples were generally catching up to other distressed couples in a marital therapy sample; in contrast, the couples without infidelity in the current sample were typically quite satisfied, presenting a higher range of satisfaction for the couples with infidelity to “catch up” to. And, of course, the marriage education approach studied here was less intensive in terms of individualized attention compared to the traditional couples’ therapy evaluated in the Atkins et al. studies. The current study cannot address (a) whether infidelity couples would catch up to non-infidelity couples in satisfaction if they had a larger dose of marriage education, (b) whether such couples would require some individualized therapeutic intervention to reach the levels of satisfaction seen for the non-infidelity couples, or (c) whether, as a group, couples with a history of infidelity are likely to ever reach the high levels of satisfaction that, on average, characterized the non-infidelity group.
Overall, these findings are consistent with speculation made by Halford et al. (2008)
, that the effects of marriage education may be larger in couples that initially have higher risk. Of course, higher risk couples who start with lower levels of marital adjustment have more room to improve, while low risk couples may have ceiling effects impeding the ability of researchers to measure (or couples to attain) positive immediate change from participation in marriage education. Infidelity couples assigned to PREP started lower than other groups, and thus also had the most room for improvement.
This issue was also relevant in the analyses in which infidelity couples assigned to PREP were compared to infidelity couples assigned to the control group. Couples with infidelity assigned to PREP did start off with (non-significantly) lower levels of satisfaction and communication skills compared to couples with infidelity assigned to control. This was unexpected, and there is a concern that the significantly greater improvements seen in infidelity couples assigned to PREP compared to infidelity couples assigned to control could be due to this lower starting point which could simply allow more room for improvement or regression to the mean effects, rather than only treatment effects. Multilevel modeling controlling for pre-intervention functioning continued to show significant group effects wherein couples with infidelity assigned to PREP had higher levels of satisfaction and communication skills relative to couples with infidelity assigned to control after the intervention; however, specific probes of this showed only trends for post on communication and satisfaction, a non-significant effect for satisfaction at follow up, and a significant effect for communication at follow up. It should be noted that, in both controlled and uncontrolled probe analyses, effect sizes were small, and comparable. Effect sizes of relative change (the uncontrolled analyses) ranged from .26 to .41, where as effect sizes based on the differences between adjusted marginal means (the controlled analyses) ranged from .23 to .42. While effect sizes and patterns were similar, less power in the controlled analyses may explain why some effects are nonsignificant in these analyses; nevertheless, regression to the mean may also explain some portion of the findings.
Interesting effects were also seen in the control group. While the infidelity couples in the control group also tended to improve more than couples without infidelity in the control group from pre to post (this was a trend for satisfaction, significant for communication skills), this relative difference was not found at the one year follow up. In fact, effect sizes comparing relative magnitude of pre to follow up change were zero or close to it. Thus, while it initially appeared that some regression to the mean (or response to measurement, natural healing, or similar processes) were in place even for control couples with infidelity, these relative improvements did not seem sustained at the one year point.
Overall, being assigned to PREP did not seem contraindicated for couples with a reported history of infidelity and, in fact, appeared to be related to increases in satisfaction and communication skills after intervention, relative to pre intervention levels. The magnitude of this improvement for couples with infidelity assigned to PREP compared to other groups was generally small, but often significant. However, the percentages of couples who had filed for or obtained divorces at one year follow up suggest that, at that assessment point, there did not seem to be significant divorce prevention effects for PREP couples with a history of infidelity6
. For some couples with a history of infidelity, PREP may strengthen the marriage and reduce chances of divorce, but for other couples, PREP’s focus on characteristics of healthy and unhealthy marriage may clarify an awareness of ongoing marital issues, resulting in the decision to end the marriage.
When considering whether this intervention was helpful, or at the least not contraindicated for couples with infidelity, we are mindful that improving marital satisfaction or communication are limited conceptualizations of a “positive” impact. To consider this to be a positive outcome, we would ideally want to know whether these couples are genuinely better off in the long run if their satisfaction or communication is given a boost. While we do not see a “crash” for infidelity couples assigned to PREP in terms of relatively greater declines in satisfaction or communication from post to one year follow up compared to other groups of couples, these couples continue to average in the maritally distressed range at one year. Longer term outcome data from the Atkins et al. (2005)
study indicates that infidelity couples, who were indistinguishable from non-infidelity couples at the end of treatment, nevertheless had double the divorce rates five years after treatment (Marín, 2010
). Thus, these increases in marital satisfaction found here do not necessarily indicate that these couples are no longer at risk (see Hall and Fincham (2006a)
for a review of moderators of relationship dissolution after infidelity).
The current study had a number of methodological strengths, such as a large sample randomly assigned to intervention, but there were also limitations. By simply assessing whether either partner reported being “unfaithful” to their spouse, we do not have specificity on a number of issues likely to be important in conceptualizing this transgression, such as partner knowledge, the recency and intensity of the event, and the degree to which the couple is currently distressed regarding this event. It may be that couples who are in a “Stage 1” impact phase of an affair, where emotional and cognitive reactions are relatively intense (Gordon et al., 2004
), may be poor candidates for marriage education and require more intensive and individualized attention, while couples who are not so negatively impacted by the event or who are in later stages of the process are better suited to the marriage education format. We also have some limits to generalizability due to our Army sample. For example, while infidelity is cited as a common concern for military couples, factors such as deployment may facilitate external, specific, and less stable attributions regarding infidelity; these types of attributions have been shown to predict greater forgiveness and lower rates of break up subsequent to infidelity (Hall & Fincham, 2006b
Overall, the current findings are an intriguing addition to the literature on risk factors moderating marriage education outcomes and on marital interventions for couples with infidelity. Yet the results of our study also raise additional questions as to whether more specific assessments of current volatility regarding an infidelity event, different populations, other education programs, or longer time frames would yield different results. In terms of marital satisfaction and communication skills, the current results overall suggest that providing marriage education for couples with a history of infidelity may not be contraindicated and in fact may be beneficial, at least in the short run.