Cheating brings pain but many don't split up

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 13, 2013

Adultery is a top reason why marriages break down, but a new study of marital infidelity in Singapore has found that more often than not, couples stay together despite the cheating.

Social worker Terence Yow interviewed 227 individuals who sought help at counselling centres and family service centres after learning that their spouses were unfaithful. Men with cheating wives made up almost one in four of those he studied.

He found that only about a third were likely to end their marriage.

His research for his social work doctorate is the first large-scale study of infidelty here, and covered Chinese individuals only. Among other things, he found that those more likely to choose divorce are those who:

feel that their spouses will continue to cheat; are financially better off, defined as those living in four-room or larger flats and earning $5,000 or more a month; are more financially independent; and have no religion.

But, despite the pain and trauma of discovering that a husband or wife has been cheating, the majority stay in the marriage.

Dr Yow, director of Reach Family Service Centre, said: "This is promising as it shows that marital infidelity does not necessarily mean the end of a marriage. There is hope and help available to save the marriage."

He noted however that the people he interviewed were more motivated to save their marriages and had sought help.

From his counselling experience, he said people stay married to an unfaithful partner for various reasons. They may still love their spouse, or they want their children to have a complete family and be spared the fall-outs from a break-up.

Financial considerations, such as the ability to afford new accommodation and pay the bills, also are key in determining whether a person leaves a cheating spouse or remains in the marriage.

This is why those who are more financially independent and better off are more likely to end their marriage.

Divorce lawyers interviewed say adultery is among the top three reasons behind divorces, along with other factors such as communication breakdown, money woes and spousal violence.

Dr Yow, a 37-year-old father of two, spent more than two years on his research for his doctoral thesis in social work from the National University of Singapore.

He wanted to find out how people are affected by a cheating spouse, and he focused on Chinese individuals only as they make up the largest ethnic group here.

Dr Yow came across more men with cheating wives than he expected - almost a quarter of his respondents were such men.

It suggested that there are now more married women who are unfaithful, and their husbands are prepared to seek help to save their marriage, he said.

His finding supports observations by divorce lawyers and marital counsellors who are seeing more men with unfaithful wives.

Dr Yow's respondents were married for between nine months and 42 years, with a mean of 15 years, and most had children.

Many confronted their spouses about being unfaithful, and most of the cheating partners denied it.

Many lived with suspicions of infidelity for an average of almost two years. Dr Yow said this shows that people try to cope with their pain on their own and seek help only when they cannot bear it any more.

One woman in her 50s suspected her husband had been unfaithful for 30 years though he never admitted it. She is considering leaving him only now, Dr Yow said.

Despite the infidelity, about a third of those surveyed said they remained "satisfied" with some aspects of their marriage, such as that the cheating spouse was still a responsible parent.

"This is why they decide to stay married... It's not like they totally see no value in staying together."

With his findings, Dr Yow has come up with recommendations on how to better help those struggling with an unfaithful spouse.

For example, there is a need to help clients overcome their mental anguish first before trying to work on salvaging the marriage.

He found that more than eight in 10 of those surveyed were "severely distressed" by their spouse's affair, were depressed or even had suicidal thoughts.

He is also coming up with a counselling approach to help those who suspect their spouses are unfaithful.

"Most people will deny (cheating) when confronted as they want to maintain both the affair and their marriage," he said.

"But the spouse goes through an agonising roller-coaster of emotions and there is very little data on how to help them. I want to plug this gap."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 13, 2013

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