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Section 17
Gendered Beliefs about Motivation for and Impact of Infidelity

Question 17 | Answer Booklet | Table of Contents | Printable Page

The current study was designed (a) to explore participants' beliefs about gender differences in specific justifications for and reactions to infidelity, (b) to determine whether participants' gender influences such beliefs, and (c) to study the "infidelity histories" participants reported for themselves and their partners. Therefore, based on previous research, we expected that participants would perceive reasons for infidelity that have a sexual component as more likely to be used by men than women and reasons that have an emotional component as more likely to be used by women than men. We expected participants to perceive that women are more likely than men to react with disappointment and self-doubt upon discovering a partner's unfaithfulness. We expected men to be more likely to report engaging in extradyadic involvements that were sexual only, whereas women would be more likely to report engaging in extradyadic involvements that were emotional only. In addition, it was expected that participants' reasons for telling their partner about their infidelities would vary widely. However, their reasons for not telling their partner were expected to center on the themes of protecting their partner and protecting their relationship. Finally, we expected the majority of participants to report negative consequences resulting from their infidelity or their partner's infidelity.

The current findings underline the complexity of extrarelationship involvements. As expected, the participants perceived that reasons for infidelity that had a sexual component were more likely to be used by men than women (e.g., sexual excitement in a new relationship), whereas reasons that had an emotional component were perceived as more likely to be used by women than by men (e.g., emotional satisfaction in a current relationship). Several interesting beliefs were also articulated. For example, participants reported that, relative to men, women are more likely to be unfaithful in order to advance their career, which would suggest that women are more commonly seen as willing to "sleep their way to the top." On the other hand, the data suggest that male reasons for being unfaithful may often be perceived as a stereotypic need to "sow one's wild oats" (e.g., being immature) or to follow the adage that "when the cat's away, the mice will play" (e.g., current partner is geographically distant).

In addition, participants perceived that women were more likely to react with disappointment and self-doubt to a partner's infidelity (e.g., feel betrayed). Interestingly, women were also viewed as more willing to preserve the relationship (e.g., forgive partner, work to improve current relationship). In addition, women were seen as more likely to deny their partner's involvement but also as more willing to confront their partner and find out the reason for the infidelity. These findings appear somewhat contradictory, reaffirming the complexity of attitudes toward infidelity. Men were perceived to react with more destructiveness and aggression (e.g., seek revenge, terminate the relationship).

Although there were virtually no significant effects for participant gender, there were a few interaction effects. For example, women more than men viewed male reasons for infidelity as emerging from ego needs (e.g., to prove sexual attractiveness). Thus, women believe that men may often engage in extrarelationship involvements in order to satisfy or inflate their egos, but men do not believe this as strongly.

Some interesting conclusions can be drawn from these divergent perceptions. For example, women may view unfaithful men as "pigs" who only desire sexual conquest, whereas men may view themselves as healthy individuals who simply desire sexual gratification. This perspective is consistent with the finding that significantly more women than men believe that a feeling of betrayal is a common female reaction to a partner's infidelity. Since men are more able to separate sex from love (Glass & Wright, 1992), they may not see the affair as a betrayal because it has no consequences for their feelings toward their current relationship. However, men may also be trying to reduce their cognitive dissonance because their extrarelationship behavior is inconsistent with their attitudes and beliefs, and they feel guilty. Furthermore, the perception of women's greater willingness to try to preserve relationships, along with their greater feelings of betrayal is consistent with sociobiological explanations indicating that women seek stable mating relationships in order to increase their reproductive fitness (e.g., Buss, 1994). Men's "sowing their wild oats" and reacting to a partner's infidelity aggressively are also consistent with male reproduction strategies and mate guarding (Buss, 1994). Gender role socialization and social learning perspectives can also account for these perceived differences. On the other hand, it should be noted that the male and female participants in this sample were more similar than dissimilar in their perceptions of extrarelationship involvements.

The data also confirmed previous research regarding the different types of extrarelationship involvements that men and women are likely to have. More men reported having sexual-only involvements (24 men as compared with only 6 women), and although less discrepant, more women than men (8 vs. 5) reported engaging in extrarelationship involvements that were emotional only. Interestingly, the most common type of involvement reported by women contained both sexual and emotional elements. Glass and Wright (1992) might suggest that women are becoming more willing to add the sexual component once an emotional involvement is established. In addition, the least common type of involvement reported by women was sexual only; the least common reported by men was emotional only. These findings would fit into an evolutionary framework contending that women desire a mate's resources and investment, not sexual access, whereas men desire sexual access to a mate rather than investment (Buss, 1994).

Findings also showed that participants' reasons for not telling their partner about their infidelities centered around the desire to protect their partner and their relationship (e.g., "If I would have told her, I knew she would have broken up with me"). Interestingly, more men than women did not tell their partner, and more women than men did tell their partner, which is consistent with women's general tendency to disclose more than men (Winstead et al., 1997). Participants' reasons for telling their partner tended to focus on a feeling of guilt and often a desire to come clean and make amends (e.g., "Because I felt guilty and I didn't want to keep the secret inside any longer, I wanted him to know"). Only 5% of the unfaithful participants responding to the first open-ended question told their partner because they wanted to break up, which supports Buunk's (1987) contention that few people are lured away by alternative attractions, rather, they are pushed away by conflicts with their partner that result from the affair and/or escalate with the addition of the affair.

Finally, the majority of the participants reported negative consequences resulting from their own infidelity or their partner's infidelity. Among participants who had been unfaithful, almost 80% of their partners did find out about the infidelity, and many of the relationships were irreversibly damaged or terminated (e.g., "She broke up with me," "He doesn't trust me," or "We grew further apart"). However, many couples who experienced negative consequences and separation eventually reconciled (e.g., "We talked it out--he was very upset but forgave me and wanted to stay together" or "He was very upset. We were immature when it happened, so he eventually realized that after the anger turned to sadness and finally forgiveness"). Yet, it is difficult to determine how many of these intact relationships had been scarred by the infidelity (e.g., "I feel bad, my stomach is always in knots, and it causes much unknown tension between us"). Similar results were found for participants who had unfaithful partners, although more of these relationships had ended (e.g., "It really set things back and I felt very distant from her. I was hurt and had a hard time feeling for her" or "I had always made it clear that that was one thing I would not tolerate. So there was no choice, I broke it off immediately even though I wanted to justify his actions--I could not get past it"). Buunk (1987) found that, relative to couples who remain intact after one partner's sexual affair, couples who break up after a partner's affair report higher levels of dissatisfaction with the primary relationship and more conflict resulting from the extradyadic involvement. However, the breakup group did not rate the alternatives to the primary relationship (e.g., the third person) more positively than did the intact group. The current findings would support Buunk's perspective.

It is important to note that most studies, including this one, find a significant number of people who report that their primary relationship has been positively affected by an extrarelationship involvement (e.g., when asked how his "fling" affected his relationship with his partner, one participant reported, "Not very much, if anything, better"). However, most studies also show that the great majority of extrarelationship involvements have deleterious effects on all members involved. The betrayed partners are emotionally devastated and feel betrayed and victimized. They lose trust and faith in their partners, and they lose the sense of belonging to a unique bond in which intimate aspects of their lives are shared only with each other. The relationships that they had prior to the discovery of the infidelity are often lost and irreclaimable, and the couples experience a schism in their relationship that cannot be bridged. The propositions "My partner is benevolent," "My relationship is meaningful," and "I am worthy" have changed to "My partner is unfaithful," "My relationship is meaningless," and "I am worthless."

In addition to the problems of AIDS, other sexually transmitted diseases, and unplanned pregnancies, extrarelationship involvements can have devastating consequences stemming from jealousy that can often become pathological, particularly male sexual jealousy. According to evolutionary theory, jealousy has developed as a psychological strategy for preventing unfaithful transgressions (Buss, 1994). It is a very strong emotion, and the sexual jealousy of men believing that their partners have been unfaithful is the leading cause of violence against women. Sexual jealousy has led men to kill their partners and male rivals, which is often seen as justified in many societies still today (Buss, 1994; Johnson, 1972). "In Texas until 1974, for example, it was legal for a husband to kill his wife and her lover if he did so while the adulterers were engaging in the act of intercourse; their murder was considered a reasonable response to a powerful provocation" (Buss, 1994, p. 129). Also, a frequent reason for homicides committed by women is to protect themselves against their partners who are violently accusing them of an infidelity. Thus, in addition to the negative emotional, psychological, and relationship repercussions of extrarelationship involvements, many tragic and even lethal consequences can result from these involvements if they are perceived as violating relationship fidelity.
- Boekhout, Brock A.; Hendrick, Susan S.; Hendrick, Clyde; Relationship Infidelity: A Loss Perspective; Journal of Personal & Interpersonal Loss; Apr-Jun99; Vol. 4 Issue 2
The article above contains foundational information. Articles below contain optional updates.

Personal Reflection Exercise #3
The preceding section contained information about gendered beliefs about motivation for and impact of infidelity.  Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

What does current research indicate about gendered perceptions of men’s motivation for an extrarelationship involvement? Record the letter of the correct answer the Answer Booklet.

Answer Booklet for this course
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The article above contains foundational information. Articles below contain optional updates.
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