Method: Mexican-American (n = 41) and White (n = 34) adolescents (M = 16.04 years, SD = .83; n = 40 girls) within the Southwest US who were transitioning into the 10th through 12th grades (M = 11.12, SD = .75) were recruited to participate in focus groups. Adolescents had a range of 0 through 20 dating relationships (M = 3.52, SD = 3.12; longest relationship M = 8.00 months, SD = 9.39), and on average were in love once (M = .95; SD = 1.05). Socio-economic status varied: 59% of Mexican American mothers and 12% of White mothers had a high school level education or less. Data from focus groups included audio taped recordings, field notes, and verbatim transcripts (using QSR Nvivo, a qualitative software program; Gibbs 2002). Two coders organized the data via a form of inductive content analysis into themes that emerged from the data, rather than from a pre-existing conceptual framework (Miles & Huberman, 1994; Morgan, 1993). Weight was given to comments based on frequency, specificity, emotion, and extensiveness (Krueger & Casey, 2000).
Results: Mexican American girls spoke most frequently and strongly about cheating, followed by White girls, Mexican American boys, and White boys respectively. When cheating themes were examined across groups, two larger, reoccurring themes emerged and were coded as 1) perceptions of cheating and 2) consequences of cheating. Within the first theme, three subthemes emerged: Individually-oriented (worry/suspicion), peer-oriented (gossip/rumors), and cheating frequency. Within the second theme, three subthemes emerged: Before (commitment issues), during (how it feels to be cheated on), and after (what happens to the relationship when someone cheats).
Conclusions and Implications: Incidences of cheating in adolescent relationships are perceived to be common, and the role peers play in romantic relationships contributes to this perception. Reasons for cheating (e.g. lack of commitment) and responses to cheating (e.g. breaking up) indicate developmental differences between adolescents and adults. Differences also emerged across gender and ethnicity: girls were more likely to include commitment issues in their conceptualization of cheating and Mexican American girls spoke most directly about the impact of cheating in a relationship. Only White adolescents described emotional reactions to cheating. Implications for researchers and practitioners include the need to address the increased risk of sexually transmitted infections for adolescents in non-monogamous relationships, as well as the increased risk for difficulty in future relationships, as negative romantic relationship experiences in adolescence impact the ability to have healthy relationships in adulthood.