TRONDHEIM, Norway — Infidelity. It’s one of the top reasons couples end up in divorce court. According to researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), about the same amount of men and women forgive these indiscretions. How the genders view different types of infidelity however, is very different.
The study finds men are most upset when their partner is physically intimate with another person. Women on the other hand feel most threatened by a deep emotional connection between their partner and another person. This is true even if the relationship does not involve sex.
While both sexes go through similar thought processes to arrive at a conclusion about their cheating partner, the degree of forgiveness (or lack thereof) is about equal whether the injured party is the man or the woman.
“We’re surprised that the differences between the sexes weren’t greater,” says study co-author Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair, a Department of Psychology professor at NTNU, in a university release.
Is the human response to cheating an evolutionary trait?
Although researchers expected to see a greater contrast in how men and women respond, they believe some of the clues reside in cultural gender roles and evolutionary psychology passed down from generation to generation.
They point out that until recent times, men had to manage their “paternity insecurity” inside their own heads. Women in traditional gender roles did not have the question of paternity hanging over their heads. They instead had to establish that the father of their child(ren) would stay and continue to provide for them. So these women were always on the lookout for any rival who might beguile their mates and threaten their survival.
For the current study on infidelity, the NTNU team recruited 92 couples to answer a questionnaire about hypothetical scenarios involving unfaithfulness. In one scenario, the partner sleeps with someone else but never falls in love. In the other scenario, the partner develops an emotional attachment to someone else but abstains from having sex.
The results reveal that participants of either gender thought it was improbable that they would forgive a partner’s cheating. Researchers add the thought processes involving cheating and possible forgiveness are almost identical for both men and women. What makes the difference is the perceived threat to the relationship.
“Whether or not the couple breaks up depends primarily on how threatening to the relationship they perceive the infidelity to be,” according to first study author Trond Viggo Grøntvedt.
Can couples still salvage their relationships?
Whether couples can save their relationships depends on a partner’s willingness to forgive and try to maintain enough closeness to allow healing.
If a person willingly chooses to have sex with another person, it doesn’t matter if they don’t feel guilty. Before the relationship reaches the point of sexual intimacy, there is a gray area. Once the relationship gets physical, researchers say the partner is seen as more complicit and more to blame.
If the injured partner places a lot of blame on the guilty party, study authors say their findings indicate that forgiveness may become impossible.
“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,” the postdoctoral fellow at NTNU adds. “Possible forgiveness does not depend on accepting blame.”
Forgiveness may be a hard commodity to find at this point in the relationship, but it’s possibly easier than rekindling lost love. The study finds most people, regardless of gender and the type of infidelity, think it unlikely that they would forgive their partner’s betrayal.
Researchers add that there is still a lot of room for individual differences, even within each gender. Some people will respond differently to a cheating partner, depending on their personality, their experiences, 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,” concludes study co-author Mons Bendixen.
The findings are published in the Journal of Relationships Research.