Source: Rhys McKay/New Idea
Note: This guest post is authored by James McQuivey, Ph.D.
Nearly three out of four US adults agree: society is better off if couples are sexually faithful.
People say this even if they themselves are not interested in being faithful – among people, married or not, who say they are not always faithful to their sexual partners, 47% still agree that society overall benefits from sexual fidelity.
This preference for fidelity also motivates us to “punish” cheaters for their actions. For example, 46% of us agree that if an extramarital affair causes a marriage to end in divorce, the injured party should, “Get more benefits in the divorce.” This attitude is held by men and women equally.
Society has rules like this so that its members know what is expected of them. And if such social expectations were all that mattered, men and women wouldn’t necessarily differ in their attitudes toward someone who commits infidelity – everyone would agree about how it should be handled.
However, social factors are not the only thing driving disapproval of infidelity; biology also plays a role.
In many species there are sex-related differences in some sexual behaviors such as mate-seeking and mate-guarding. We see this in the insect world, among birds, and with mammals like us.
Some differences in behavior among humans are plain: Men are more prone to pursue short-term mating strategies whereas women are more inclined to pursue longer-term mating strategies. This difference stems from the sexes’ differential investment in producing and raising offspring.
Another key difference is in intrasexual competition – when men compete with other men and women compete with other women for mating opportunities.
This competition is the driver of sexual selection: The choices females make determine what traits males accumulate over millennia, just as peahen choices over centuries have resulted in the peacock’s splendid plumage.
Add all this up and we should expect that men and women have differing attitudes toward mating stability – including cheating – and we should also expect that intrasexual competition would make men and women respond to cheating differently based on the sex of the cheater.
Which sets up the question: Do men and women feel differently about a cheater based on whether the cheater is male or female? And if so, what does that tell us about sexual selection?
We explored this in our April 2019 US Adult Sexual Behaviors and Attitudes Study, where we posed a straightforward scenario to 1,001 men and women ages 18 to 74:
A 50-year old man has recently admitted to you that he has had an affair outside of his 20-year marriage. He feels bad about his actions and is asking you for advice on what to do next. He explains that his marriage hasn’t been very fulfilling for several years. His spouse is very critical of him and they have not had sex for over a year. He feels unloved.
However, for a random half of survey respondents all the gender markers were changed to make the scenario about a woman, not a man. Same circumstances, just a different sex of the cheater. Participants were then asked how likely they were to give particular kinds of advice to the cheater. They were given a choice to choose between different kinds of responses.
For example, 49% of men and 53% of women said they would tell a male cheater, “You made a marriage commitment that you have broken and should feel sorry.” In contrast, only 39% of men and 37% of women would say this to a female cheater.
Both circumstances were identical. But men and women were both more likely to tell a male cheater he broke his commitment and should feel sorry.
When given the chance to insist that, “You should have tried harder to fix your marriage before you cheated” to a male cheater, 55% of men and 62% of women said they would tell them that they should have tried harder. But when given the chance to offer the same reprimand to a woman who cheated – just 48% of men and 45% of women would offer this reprimand. Men and women are more likely to tell a man he should have tried harder.
The lesson is that even though society has established a specific level of disapproval for cheating generally, we treat those guilty of infidelity differently – we are less forgiving of cheating men and more likely to blame them for their infidelity compared with cheating women.
This is likely both social and biological. Pushing us more toward biology is the fact that women judge men more harshly specifically for their lack of relationship investment. That is, if a man cheats, women are more likely to say he should, “[try] harder to fix [his] marriage.” He should have invested more. Because enough women hold this enforcing preference, men will respond by demonstrating willingness to commit.
In fact, men are just as likely as women to tell survey researchers that they agree that cheating is harmful to society, despite being not only more likely to cheat themselves but also less punishing and more forgiving when it does happen.
Correspondingly, when a woman cheats under the same relationship circumstances as a man, other women feel less of an urge to punish them because it doesn’t exert sexual selection pressure in the same way – it doesn’t change male behavior.
But women do hold other women responsible when it comes to affairs. When given the chance to tell a cheater, “If this affair makes you happy, you should do what makes you happy.” While 27% of men offer this conciliatory advice, just 18% of women do, regardless of whether the cheater is male or female, showing that women want other men and women to prioritize fidelity, even if they want to chastise men more aggressively for straying.
James L. McQuivey (Ph.D., Syracuse University) has taught at Boston University and Syracuse University. He is a consumer behaviorist and analyst who is regularly sought for commentary by publications like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. His research into family studies focuses on human mating strategies and the role of parents in determining positive life outcomes. He is the author of the book Why We Need Dad. Follow him on Twitter @jmcquivey.