Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

A Discourse Analytic Approach to Accusations of Infidelity in Romantic Couples' Natural Conversations

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

A Discourse Analytic Approach to Accusations of Infidelity in Romantic Couples' Natural Conversations

Article excerpt

The discourse of infidelity is woven into the fabric of both our cultural and personal relationships. Although the specter of infidelity routinely makes the rounds in social media, television, and film, it is also a quotidian hot point that romantic couples must manage in their everyday private lives. In order to stymie jealousy, deepen trust, and/or maintain an intimate bond, romantic couples may find themselves routinely addressing or accounting for their ongoing interactions with potential romantic rivals. Such occurrences may be occasioned intentionally, or may casually and spontaneously crop up in conversations about a variety of other topics. The focus of this study is to use a discourse analytic approach to understand how accusations or insinuations of infidelity spontaneously emerge and function in unstructured natural conversations between young adult romantic partners. This study is intended for qualitative researchers interested in a close-up analysis of the discursive and interactional organization of talk between intimates.

Existing Research on Infidelity

Social scientific research about infidelity is typically addressed in one of four ways. First, infidelity is a prime topic for evolutionary psychologists, who approach it as a natural and common feature for human species. Covert engagement in extra-pair copulation or double mating is found to be quite common (see Buss, 1994; Fisher, 1992). The goal is to explain the evolutionary rationale for this phenomenon, and what it tells us about patterns of sexuality, reproduction, and mating behavior (Baker & Bellis, 1995). Second, sociometric approaches to infidelity involve extant research endeavors that use survey data to explore the ways that extramarital sex and extra-dyadic sexual relations are evaluated (the moral climate of preferences, beliefs, and views) across large composites of human societies (e.g., Airey, 1984; Janus & Janus, 1993; Wellings, Field, Johnson, & Wadsworth, 1994). These findings often inform sociological theory and justify government-funded initiatives. Third, research in social cognition psychology focuses on the cognitive processes in people's underlying beliefs and behaviors around fidelity, infidelity, and discord in close relationships (e.g., Beach, Jouriles, & O'Leary, 1985; Fincham & Bradbury, 1992). The goal is to examine how certain cognitive styles may be associated with distinct attributions of causation, blame, and responsibility around relationally sensitive issues; the findings are often laundered into cognitive-behavioral therapeutic interventions. And finally, self-help psychology offers a range of advice/insight on infidelity derived from both anecdotal accounts from lay and professional therapists as well as existing psychological theory in ways that are accessible to the general public (e.g., Litvinoff 1998; Pittman, 1993). The goal is to help people cope with the distress of marital breaches, divorce, and break-ups.

Though diverse in many respects, common to these approaches is the use of some variety of surveys, inventories, or interviews to procure researcher-prompted responses with the aim to either build theory or measure what lies behind such responses (e.g., attitudes, belief structures, cultural values, evolutionary trends, etc.). These approaches also tend to take people's responses at face value, as veridical representations of either their inner psychological lives or indices of the cultural worlds external to them. There are, of course, other ways to approach the topic of infidelity. In contrast to a factors-and-variables approach that seeks to measure infidelity, the present study uses a discourse analytic approach (see below) to examine the interactions of romantic partners to see if and when the topic of infidelity is occasioned and, when it is, what function it serves. This focus treats such talk not as a window into people's minds nor as a simple reflection of the extant cultural world, but rather as a way of organizing and negotiating pressing relational issues in the here and now. …

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