It's never easy to be cheated on, but how you react depends on your sex
Not that I cheated on my college girlfriend when we were both freshmen attending schools 130 miles apart. But if I did, I had an excuse: I was young, I was male and I was an idiot. These are conditions that psychologists like to call “co-morbid.”
The only good thing I can say about myself in this very hypothetical scenario, is that at least I had the honesty to ‘fess up to my faithlessness the next time I saw her. She was not—you won’t be surprised to learn—pleased with my behavior. But what I was surprised to learn (bearing in mind the young, male and stupid thing again) was that she was less upset by the sexual aspect of my infidelity than the emotional.
Soon enough, I came to learn that that was the way of things when it comes to women’s reactions to cheating—or at least that’s the stereotype. The equally glib corollary is that men can tolerate the nuzzling and canoodling part of infidelity better than they can the flesh crescendo it leads to.
Now, research out of Chapman University in Orange, California confirms that when it comes to this one aspect of the great gender divide, the big news is that there is no news to report. The stereotypes, it turns out, are spot on.
The study, published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, was an ambitious one, involving a whopping 63,894 male and female respondents of both sexes, aged 18 to 65. In addition to basic biographical information such as income, marital history and sexual orientation, the participants were asked to choose (whether from imagination or painful experience) if they’d be hurt more by the carnal or cuddly part of being cheated on.
By a margin that would qualify as a landslide in politics, heterosexual men outpaced heterosexual women 54% to 35% on the physical side of the hurt-feelings equation, while heterosexual women beat heterosexual men 65% to 46% on the emotional side. Homosexual and bisexual men and women were troubled more or less equally by both aspects.
“Heterosexual men really stand out from all other groups,” said psychologist and lead author David Frederick, in a statement. “They were the only ones more likely to be most upset by sexual infidelity.”
In fairness to the straight guys, there’s more than just the doofus factor at work here—there’s also evolution, according to the authors. Short of a paternity test (which hardly existed when our behavioral coding was first being written millions of year ago), a male can never be absolutely certain that a child his mate bears is his, so physical infidelity poses a much greater risk.
And while males in the state of nature are hardwired to mate and mate and mate some more because it’s easy, fun and a calorically cheap way to get their genes across to the next generation, females are coded to seek protection and resources since it’s awfully hard to fetch food and defend against predators while giving birth and nursing. Even modern women are thus inclined—at least evolutionarily—to worry more about the outside romance that may cost them a partner than the roll in the hay that could be a one-time thing.
Societal expectations—outmoded though they may be—exacerbate the difference. Men are still judged more harshly (if only by themselves) in terms of their sexual prowess, while women are brought up to value bonding. Being cheated on thus has a different effect on the sexes because it threatens different aspects of their self-esteem.
Making the study more impressive was that the researchers corrected for nearly every variable other than gender that could have influenced the results—and repeatedly came up empty. Marital status didn’t play a role, nor did a history of being cheated on, nor did income, length of relationship or whether a respondent had children or not. The only factor that seemed to make some difference was that younger respondents of both genders reported a higher degree of upset at the physical aspects of infidelity. That’s probably because younger people of both sexes are in the stage of their lives when they’re helping themselves to that aspect more, so it makes a bigger difference in their relational well-being.
None of this alters the larger takeaway, which is that cheating still stinks. And none of it changes the fact that even a few decades on, a hypothetical person who was guilty of such a thing might still feel kind of bad about it. Or that’s what I’ve been told, but I wouldn’t know. Really.