The idea that men are from Mars and women are from Venus may feel outdated or even downright sexist, but a recent study suggests that there may be some truth to that notion -- at least when it comes to the way men and women tend to view cheating.
The new research suggests that, within heterosexual couples, the average male is more likely to be upset by sexual infidelity, while the average female is much more likely to be bothered by emotional infidelity. The study, recently published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, was based on a survey of 63,894 gay, lesbian, bisexual and heterosexual participants who visited msnbc.com back in 2007.
The crux of the survey was this prompt: "Take a moment to imagine which of the following situations would be MOST upsetting or distressing to you." Respondents could then choose between two options: "You found out that your partner is having a sexual relationship with someone else (but has not fallen in love with this person)" or "You found out that your partner has fallen in love with someone else (but is not having a sexual relationship with this person)."
Here's where the Mars and Venus bit comes in. For heterosexuals, men were more likely than women to be upset by sexual infidelity over emotional infidelity (54 percent versus 35 percent). This was true across income levels, relationship status, parenthood and even infidelity history. Previous studies have found this to be the case, but this study found something new: While over half of heterosexual men were more troubled by sexual infidelity, only about 30 percent of all the other gender and sexuality groups felt the same way -- heterosexual women, gay men, lesbian women and bisexuals were much more concerned with an emotional affair than a sexual one.
So what sets heterosexual men apart? According to evolutionary psychologists, paternal uncertainty is to blame. Men can't always be certain if they're truly the father of their partner's offspring, yet they can potentially invest a lot of time and resources into bringing up children. So all of that sexual jealousy may be a protective measure -- rather than risk wasting energy on someone else's offspring, men's jealousy can trigger responses to make sure their partner produces offspring with their genes. A jealous man may respond to a threat by intimidating potential sexual rivals or wooing his partner and being more loving and affectionate if he thinks she might cheat.
Heterosexual women, on the other hand, may be more concerned with an emotional affair, because that may put the future of her offspring at risk. From an evolutionary perspective, women have many obligatory costs associated with childrearing, from the nine-month pregnancy to concern with the emotional outcomes of children. If a father is in love with a new partner, he may leave his family and devote emotional and material resources to the new woman, leaving his child at risk.
Of course, these perspectives are just hypotheses and reflect the average man or woman; even David Frederick, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Chapman University and co-author of the study, said that social environments can manipulate these evolved mental systems and humans are much more nuanced than survey results can suggest. That said, the gender difference on infidelity seems to be pretty robust across the cultures that have been studied thus far.
Anecdotally, Robert Weiss, a social worker and director of intimacy and sexual disorders programs for the Elements Behavioral Health treatment center, told The Huffington Post that these findings are in line with what he's seen in his clinical practice. Men, he said, tend to take sexual and emotional affairs as a bruise to their ego, while women look at infidelity more holistically.
"For women, if a guy goes out and has an emotional affair with somebody, it puts her whole life in jeopardy," Weiss said. "She's thinking about their kids, their family, their wedding, their home, their finances -- she's thinking in the biggest and broadest sense How can I protect my family and myself?"
It's important to emphasize that there were plenty of men in the study who were more upset by emotional infidelity and plenty of women who were more upset by sexual infidelity. Rather than making any sweeping generalities and casting away your partner to a different emotional planet, it may best to simply take these findings as an entry way to empathy in your relationship.
"Just keep in mind that the aspect of infidelity that might be most upsetting to you if you had suffered it might not be what your partner is most upset by," Frederick said.
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