Infidelity is one of the most common reasons that heterosexual couples break up.
Researchers who have studied 160 different cultures find this to be true worldwide.
However, men and women look at different types of infidelity differently.
Men usually regard physical infidelity – when the partner has sex with another person – more seriously than women do.
Women regard emotional infidelity – when the partner initiates a close relationship with another person – as more serious.
Despite experiencing the different types of infidelity differently, men and women are about equally willing to forgive their partner. And the new findings show that the degree of forgiveness is not related to the type of infidelity.
“We’re surprised that the differences between the sexes weren’t greater.
The mechanisms underlying forgiveness are more or less identical between genders,” says Professor Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s (NTNU) Department of Psychology.
He has co-authored a new article in the Journal of Relationships Research. The article addresses infidelity and the mechanisms behind forgiveness.
A research group at NTNU recruited 92 couples for the study. These couples independently completed a questionnaire related to issues described in hypothetical scenarios where the partner had been unfaithful in various ways.
One scenario describes the partner having sex with another person, but not falling in love.
In the other scenario, the partner falls in love with another person, but does not have sex.
So how willing are people to forgive their partner?
It turns out that men and women both process their partner’s infidelity almost identically.
Most people, regardless of gender and the type of infidelity, think it unlikely that they would forgive their partner’s infidelity.
“Whether or not the couple breaks up depends primarily on how threatening to the relationship they perceive the infidelity to be,” says first author Trond Viggo Grøntvedt, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology.
The more threatening the infidelity feels, the worse it is for the relationship.
Whether partners believe the relationship can continue also depends on how willing they are to forgive each other, especially in terms of avoiding distancing themselves from their partner.
Despite experiencing the different types of infidelity differently, men and women are about equally willing to forgive their partner.
And the new findings show that the degree of forgiveness is not related to the type of infidelity. Image is in the public domain.
Of course, great individual differences exist, even within each gender. People react differently to infidelity, according to their personality and the circumstances.
“A lot of people might think that couples who have a strong relationship would be better able to tolerate infidelity, but that wasn’t indicated in our study,” says Professor Mons Bendixen at NTNU’s Department of Psychology.
Another aspect plays a role in cases of emotional infidelity, where no sex has taken place. To what extent can the unfaithful partner be blamed for what happened?
If you willingly have sex with another person, it pretty much doesn’t matter whether you feel it’s your fault.
“The degree of blame attributed to the partner was linked to the willingness to forgive,” says Bendixen.
The relationship is at greater risk if the partner is required to bear a big part of the responsibility for ending up in an intimate relationship with someone else.
The blame factor doesn’t come into play when the partner is physically unfaithful,” Grøntvedt says.
If you voluntarily have sex with someone other than your partner, it’s more or less irrelevant whether you think it was mostly your fault or not.
Possible forgiveness does not depend on accepting blame.
The experience of extradyadic behaviors without the primary partner’s prior consent can be the most painful occurrence for someone who is in an intimate relationship (Luo et al., 2010; Shrout and Weigel, 2018).
Specifically, these extradyadic behaviors can have serious consequences, such as low self-esteem, mental problems, loss of trust, decreased personal and sexual confidence, rage, and guilt, and in many cases leads to spousal battering and divorce (Cano and O’Leary, 2000; Shackelford, 2001; Fisher et al., 2008; Russell et al., 2013).
Studies have shown that these negative emotions can be found in both married and unmarried couples experiencing extradyadic behaviors (Mapfumo, 2016; Fincham and May, 2017; Shrout and Weigel, 2018).
Extradyadic behaviors also affect other family members, especially children (Wilson et al., 2011).
For example, parents that are not able to cope successfully with extradyadic behaviors are likely to expose their children to increase conflict (Blodgett-Salafia et al., 2013), and to trauma and grief like symptoms (Dean, 2011).
In addition, extradyadic behaviors can lead to guilt, worry, fear, aggression, depression, and anxiety in children (Lusterman, 2005; Ablow et al., 2009; Negash and Morgan, 2015).
Furthermore, the involvement in extradyadic behaviors are a major cause of seeking couples therapy and poses strong challenges for treatment (Gordon et al., 2004; Atkins et al., 2005, 2010; Marín et al., 2014).
Our main goal was to investigate the relationship between past extradyadic behaviors, both inflicted and suffered, on current romantic relationships.
The majority of people have similar beliefs regarding extradyadic behaviors, expecting monogamy in marriage and overwhelmingly disapproving of extradyadic affairs (Prins et al., 1993; Buss and Shackelford, 1997; Treas and Giesen, 2000; Johnson et al., 2002; Rokach and Philiibert-Lignières, 2015).
Sexual extradyadic behaviors tend to be considered more negative and hurtful than emotional behaviors (Rodrigues et al., 2016; Beltrán-Morillas et al., 2019). Although most of the studies are from the western cultures (Fisher, 2018; Norona et al., 2018), there are several studies that show similarities between cultures (e.g., Penn et al., 1997; Jankowiak et al., 2002; Nowak et al., 2014).
For example, a cross-cultural study with a sample of 186 societies (e.g., South America, sub-Saharan Africa) found that in every culture, both males and females actively resort to mate-guarding tactics in order to try to control their mate’s extradyadic behaviors (Jankowiak et al., 2002).
However, these beliefs do not always translate into consistent behaviors. In fact, studies have shown that approximately 22–25% of men and 15–20% of women report having sex with someone other than their spouse while been married (Allen et al., 2005; Mark et al., 2011).
For example, in a study of Mark et al. (2011), 23.2% of men and 19.2% of women indicated that they had engaged in sexual interactions with someone other than their partner during their current relationship.
Is relationship satisfaction an important predictor of extradyadic behaviors? Research have showed that levels of general satisfaction with the relationship, sex, and the quality of love and affection are among the best predictors of extradyadic behaviors (Nowak et al., 2014; Fincham and May, 2017).
Specifically, studies suggest that people engage in extradyadic behaviors because the quality of their primary relationship is low (Atkins et al., 2001; Scheeren et al., 2018).
Glass and Wright (1985) found a negative correlation between relationship satisfaction and extradyadic behaviors – both emotional and sexual extradyadic behaviors –, being the strongest for relationship satisfaction and emotional extradyadic behaviors.
Also, these authors found that those who are involved in both sexual and emotional extradyadic behaviors have lower levels of relationship satisfaction than those who are involved in an emotional-only affair, or a sexual-only affair.
Extradyadic behaviors are associated with problems in primary relationship, especially for those with a stable secondary relationship (Fisher et al., 2009). DeMaris (2009) investigated some factors that might predict extradyadic affairs and found that relationship instability and poor communication were significant predictors.
Rodrigues et al. (2016) showed that individuals in sexually monogamous relationships tended to report a higher predisposition for casual sex and to engage in extradyadic sex if they were in a low satisfaction relationship. Silva et al. (2017) found a positive correlation between perceived relationship quality and negative attitudes and perceptions of extradyadic behaviors, and that these correlations were stronger for men than for women.
In addition, Negash et al. (2014) found that individuals who reported high relationship quality were more likely to end the relationship if they reported emotional or sexual extradyadic behaviors, suggesting that they had considerably more to lose when extradyadic behaviors occurred than those in low satisfaction relationships.
Buss and Shackelford (1997) found a link between relationship unhappiness and expectancies about partner’s extradyadic behaviors. Specifically, both men and women who feel generally unhappy with their primary relationship have a tendency to anticipate that their partners will have an extradyadic affair.
Lower levels of relationship satisfaction seem to lead to extradyadic behaviors, and these extradyadic behaviors seems to lead to lower levels of relationship satisfaction as well (Buunk, 1980; Treas and Giesen, 2000; Atkins et al., 2001; Previti and Amato, 2004; Fincham and May, 2017).
It is important to note that not all studies found a significant correlation between relationship satisfaction and extradyadic behaviors (Blumstein and Schwartz, 1983; Spanier and Margolis, 1983; Glass and Wright, 1985).
For example, Spanier and Margolis (1983), in a study with recently-separated and divorced individuals, concluded that the quality of sex between spouses was not directly related to extradyadic sex.
Sexual desire can be defined as specific sensations which move men and women to look out – or become receptive to – sexual experiences (Kaplan, 1979, 1995), or as a psychological state fundamental for initiating and maintaining human sexual behavior (Levine, 1988, 2002, 2003).
Studies have shown that the tendency for sexual excitation is related to sexual desire (Janssen and Bancroft, 2007; Bancroft et al., 2009; Mark et al., 2011). Haseli et al. (2019) developed a systematic review about extradyadic behaviors and its associated factors, suggesting that features such as sexuality issues, including sexual desire, sexual interest, and sexual excitation affect the psychological processes to engage in extradyadic behaviors.
Treas and Giesen (2000) showed that the involvement in extradyadic behaviors were higher among men and women with stronger sexual interest levels (measured with a single item).
However, McIntyre et al. (2015) found that stronger sexual desire predicted extradyadic behaviors only for individuals with low self-control.
Fisher et al. (2009) stated that extradyadic behaviors may be related to interactions with a sexual partner, such as the partner’s hypoactive sexual desire. Fife et al. (2007) showed that extradyadic behaviors may occur when there is a high discrepancy in the sexual desire that both members of the couple experience.
Physical attractiveness is a predominant factor in sexual attraction, and research has shown that more attractive people are more prone to attract potential partners (Green et al., 1984).
Extradyadic behavior seems to be an expression of mate choice continuing during a committed relationship, and mate choice largely reflects physical attraction (Nowak et al., 2014).
For people involved in a romantic relationship, perceptions of the partner’s physical attractiveness is positively correlated with commitment, passion, intimacy, and satisfaction (Yela and Sangrador, 2001).
In addition, McNulty et al. (2008) found that those involved in a relationship in which wives were more physically attractive than their husbands had higher levels of relationship quality.
Some studies have shown that more physically attractive women are more likely to have extradyadic behaviors and to have more sexual partners (Singh, 1993; Dijkstra and Buunk, 2001; Hughes and Gallup, 2003; Streeter and McBurney, 2003) employing, among other measures, the observation of the waist-to- rip ratios (WHR) and women’s sexual behavior.
One of the most frequently-studied variables in extradyadic behaviors is gender (Symons, 1979; Lawson, 1988; Betzig, 1989; Feingold, 1990, 1992; Buss et al., 1992, 1999; DeSteno et al., 2002; Shackelford et al., 2002; Grammer et al., 2003; Sagarin et al., 2003; Kurzban and Weeden, 2005; Fisman et al., 2006; Kalantarova et al., 2010; Frederick and Fales, 2016; Pinto and Arantes, 2016).
Several studies reported that men are involved in extradyadic behavior more than women (Greeley, 1991; Laumann et al., 1994; Wiederman, 1997), and that both genders engage in different types of extradyadic behavior.
Specifically, men are more likely to have sexual affairs, whereas women are more likely to have emotional affairs (Glass and Wright, 1985; Atkins et al., 2001; Scheeren et al., 2018).
Furthermore, men have a tendency to assess partner sexual extradyadic behaviors more negatively than emotional extradyadic behaviors (Tagler and Jeffers, 2013).
However, studies also suggest that gender differences in extradyadic behaviors in younger generations are reducing in size, indicating that the rates of extradyadic behaviors are becoming increasingly similar among both men and women (Parker, 1997; Wiederman, 1997; Atkins et al., 2001; Pinto and Arantes, 2016).