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We know that infidelity often results in breakups, divorces and social stigmatization. Western society has frowned upon straying from one’s intimate partner, from the widespread reproach of public figures such as former president Bill Clinton, presidential hopeful John Edwards, actress Kristen Stewart, and professional golfer Tiger Woods, among others. Indeed, partner’s betrayal makes for great emotional upset, perpetuating verbal and even physical abuse. What exactly drives people to cheat? It’s worth examining the literature on people’s reactions and ways of addressing infidelity across genders, social status, and age. Further, cheating may be motivated by fulfillment of needs, the desire for self-growth, and different personality types.
Jealousy Among The Sexes
Burchell and Ward (2011) aimed to explore differences in jealousy among men and women in the event that a partner was sexually or emotionally unfaithful. Forming a hypothesis in accordance with past research that men would react more negatively at sexual infidelity, with women more perturbed by emotional infidelity, the investigators also explored the impact of other factors such as “attachment avoidance, sex drive, relationship status and previous experience with sexual infidelity” on each gender’s jealousy in the face of betrayal. Their questionnaire required subjects to choose between instances of emotional and sexual infidelity as most upsetting. Also measured were subjects’ degree of anxiety or tendency to avoid romantic intimacy, motivation to partake in sexual intercourse, whether they were engaged in a committed relationship, whether they had ever committed infidelity, and whether they were romantically betrayed and consequently hurt. Burchell and Ward’s findings confirmed results of past studies, that men expressed greater emotional upset towards sexual infidelity, while women’s emotional distress was more attributed to emotional infidelity.
Though men were found to be more sexually driven, neither gender took predominance when regarding romantic anxiety, though it was more probable for women to have a serious relationship. In regards to committing infidelity and experiencing the infidelity of a partner, neither gender claimed predominance. Ultimately, men who previously experienced infidelity by their partner and revealed high levels of attachment avoidance were more likely to be offended by sexual infidelity, while women engaged in a committed relationship were less likely to be offended by sexual infidelity. A possible explanation for not reacting strongly to emotional infidelity could be weak emotional childhood bonds between subjects and parents. As some men may not have been close to their parents as children, they may not regard emotional intimacy as a priority in romantic relationships, valuing sexual intimacy instead.
Reactions To Sexual Betrayal
Additional factors, such social standing and age have been explored as key influences on how men and women react to infidelity. Like Burchell and Ward, Green and Sabini (2006) sought to confirm whether men would respond more negatively to sexual infidelity while women took more offense to emotional infidelity. However, the researchers took a step further in testing their claim that some elements of jealousy are not gender-specific. Recognizing that past studies on jealousy and infidelity had serious caveats—primarily the use of emotionally immature college students as convenience samples and questionable results—Green and Sabini collected a large sample more representative of age and socioeconomic distribution in the United States population.
In collecting such a sample, the researchers aimed to determine whether differences in jealousy experienced by males and females related with age and socioeconomic status. One half of the sample was asked to imagine themselves in a serious romantic relationship. They were then asked to imagine their partners having sex outside of the relationship, as well as becoming emotionally involved with the third party. The subjects reported the intensity of their feeling “upset, hurt, and angry” (2006), and also expressed the degree of blame they would place on their lover, the likelihood of their lover abandoning the relationship, and the likelihood of their taking initiative to end the relationship.
The second half of the sample were faced with paired situations of emotional and sexual infidelity, and were tasked with selecting the situation that would bring them the most distress. While the majority of both males and females expressed more hurt feelings in response to an emotional betrayal and a greater degree of anger regarding sexual betrayal, men significantly differed from women in that sexual infidelity angered them more.
Likewise, women expressed a significantly greater degree of hurt when a partner cheats emotionally. Emotional affairs were viewed as greater predictors of being abandoned by a cheating partner, while both genders claimed that they themselves would end a relationship in the case of emotional unfaithfulness. Ultimately, age and socioeconomic status were not found to be significant variables in predicting either gender’s emotional distress when faced with sexual or emotional betrayal, though subjects of low socioeconomic status reported more feelings of hurt and anger regarding sex outside of the relationship (2006).
Asking and Explaining – What Do We Do About Cheating Partners?
As the nature of jealousy differs among males and females, methods employed by both genders when inquiring about or explaining unfaithful behavior are of notable concern. Acknowledging prior literature, Kuhle, Smedley, and Schmitt (2009) hypothesized that men would be more inquisitive regarding sexual interactions between their partners and an outside party, while women would express greater curiosity regarding their partners’ emotional involvement with a lover.
Secondly, the researchers hypothesized that when attempting to mitigate their culpability, unfaithful men would refute emotional attachment in their affairs, while unfaithful women would deny ever having sex outside of her current relationship. Subjects were tasked to decide whether they would question an unfaithful partner regarding sexual or emotional infidelity, as well as report whether they would refute having sex or loving the outside party if found to be unfaithful. Robust results confirmed the researchers’ hypotheses. 83.9% of men reported that they would question their partners about outside sexual activity, while 46.2% of women reported that they would question whether their partners were in love with the outside party. 66.7% of men reported that they would claim to have no emotional investment in their lovers, while 55.2% of women reported that they would negate all notions of having sex outside their relationship (2009).
While variations in emotional distress provide some insight into how males and females react to infidelity, factors such as need fulfillment and the desire for individual growth may account for individuals’ motivation to violate the boundaries of their current relationship. In addition to fulfilling sexual needs, romantic relationships serve to fulfill the needs of “intimacy, companionship, security, and emotional involvement” (Drigotas & Rusbult, 1992; as cited in Lewandowski and Ackerman, 2006). In an intimate relationship, there is a great degree of trust shared between partners concerning secrets, inner thoughts, and feelings. When partners jointly partake in enjoyable activities which facilitate closeness, they share a strong sense of companionship. When a relationship is stable and provides satisfaction, partners benefit from security. By empathizing with his or her partner’s emotions, one’s relationship possesses a high degree of emotional involvement. When any one of these aspects is not fulfilled, a partner may stray from his or her current relationship for the company of someone who can nurture unfulfilled needs and promote personal growth.
A questionnaire by Lewandowski and Ackerman (2006) tasked participants to rate the fulfillment of their needs by their partners on a Likert scale. Using the same scale, participants rated their partners’ ability to promote self-understanding and improvement, as well as the potential of the relationship itself to promote self-growth. Participants then indicated their willingness to participate in a series of actions with people other than their partners. The activities ranged from casual friendship to actual sexual intercourse. Finally, participants rated the likelihood of themselves committing acts of infidelity, also using a Likert scale. Lewandowski and Ackerman’s hypotheses were confirmed in that when relationships failed to fulfill participants’ needs, the likelihood to cheat increased. The likelihood to cheat also increased when relationships failed to foster avenues for self-growth. These findings can be accounted for by the association of positive feelings with need-fulfillment and self-growth. When needs are not optimally fulfilled and partners fail to promote and facilitate self-improvement, certain individuals may feel a lesser degree of happiness, engaging in infidelity to obtain an outer source of contentment (2006).
The Unfaithful Neurotic
Neuroticism and a lack of agreeableness have a notable interaction with satisfaction and need-fulfillment, as found in Barta and Kiene’s study using the Big Five (2005). Barta and Kiene objected to previous studies of reactions to infidelity, claiming that dividing situations into absolute categories of “sexual” and “emotional” can yield skewed findings. They also addressed the possibility that certain aspects of males and females made them more susceptible to sexually unfaithful behaviors. Participants of the study, all admitting to have engaged in infidelity, were shown a list of justifications for cheating and were tasked with evaluating each justification’s personal relevance. The justifications provided a way to distinguish between basic and more complex motivations to cheat. Participants were also assessed for liberal attitudes regarding sex and took the Big Five Inventory test, an instrument measuring the personality traits of openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. A third questionnaire consisted of questions concerning past instances of infidelity, such as whether the outside party had admirable qualities, whether one’s official partner had undesirable qualities, and what participants’ needs were.
Similar to the findings of Burchell and Ward (2011), Barta and Kiene found that males and females committed infidelity almost equally. Both males and females who were highly neurotic, scoring lower in the other four Big Five traits, admitted to committing infidelity, while unfaithful males revealed an ostensible lack of sexual inhibition. Dissatisfaction and neglect were found to be significant motivators for infidelity among both genders, with dissatisfaction expressed more by women. However, men reported sex as a motivator significantly more than women.
Dissatisfaction may result from realizing that a relationship did not meet one’s expectations or fulfill one’s needs, while feelings of neglect are perpetuated when one feels ignored. As sex was statistically related to dissatisfaction and neglect among men, the study concluded that this motivator was related to emotional contentment, more so for men than women. Neuroticism, associated with neglect, was found to be a reliable predictor of infidelity, as anxious, unhappy people respond more sensitively when their relationships are not ideal. Not surprisingly, participants scoring high in neuroticism and low in agreeableness reported anger as a motivator for unfaithful conduct, engaging in infidelity as a way to punish their partner (2011).
The Importance Of Fulfilled Needs
Research reveals that though infidelity is committed roughly equally by both men and women, their feelings, reactions, and motivations for infidelity conspicuously differ. Men, placing less priority on emotional intimacy, reveal a greater degree of jealousy and distress when their partners have sex outside of the relationship. However, women express greater indignation when their partners grow emotionally involved with an outside party. Perhaps this discrepancy can be explained through an evolutionary lens. When a man becomes emotionally involved with another woman, his current partner may feel highly threatened, as his emotional attachment could result in his giving the lover valuable resources that the primary partner deems necessary to sustain herself and her children (Buss et al., 1992; as cited in Burchell & Ward, 2011). The emotional reactions of men and women also predict their methods of collecting and hiding information about a partner’s infidelity, while fulfillment of needs, self-growth, and personality strongly influence whether one commits infidelity. When needs are fulfilled and partners are perceived to facilitate individual growth, males and females are less likely to be unfaithful, though high levels of neuroticism and low levels of agreeableness may distort or intensify one’s perception of whether needs are fulfilled, as well as perpetuate infidelity with a vengeance.
Barta, W. D., & Kiene, S. M. (2005). Motivations for infidelity in heterosexual datingcouples: The roles of gender, personality differences, and sociosexual orientation. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 22, 339-360. doi: 10.1177/0265407505052440
Burchell, J. L., & Ward, J. (2011). Sex drive, attachment style, relationship status and previous infidelity as predictors of sex differences in romantic jealousy. Personality and Individual Differences, 51, 657-661. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2011.06.002
Green, M. C., & Sabini, J. (2006). Gender, socioeconomic status, age, and jealousy: Emotional responses to infidelity in a national sample. Emotion, 6, 330-334. doi: 10.1037/1528-3518.104.22.1680
Kuhle, B. X., Smedley, K. D., & Schmitt, D. P. (2009). Sex differences in the motivation and mitigation of jealousy-induced interrogations. Personality and Individual Differences, 46, 499-502. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2008.11.023
Lewandowski JR, G. W., & Ackerman, R. A. (2006). Something's missing: Need fulfillment and self-expansion as predictors of susceptibility to infidelity. The Journal of Social Psychology, 146, 389-403.