Discovering your partner is unfaithful is a quite a blow. But does it matter if their clandestine affair was of the same-sex variety?
Newly published research strongly suggests it does — but in gender-specific ways. It finds women are more likely to leave a relationship after learning their mate had a homosexual affair, while men are more likely to split after discovering their woman had a heterosexual affair.
“A robust jealousy mechanism is activated in men and women by different types of cues,” psychologists Jaime Confer of the University of Texas and Mark Cloud of Lock Haven University write in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. These responses, they argue, are a hard-wired product of our evolutionary past.
Confer and Cloud surveyed 718 undergraduates at two public universities in Pennsylvania — 324 men and 394 women. They were asked to imagine themselves in a romantic, heterosexual relationship. They then completed a questionnaire in reaction to a specific infidelity scenario.
Each participant was asked to estimate the likelihood (on a percentage basis) that he or she would continue the relationship given their partner’s sexual infidelity. They then were asked about their personal experiences with infidelity — either on their part or their partners’ — and asked whether it resulted in the end of the relationship.
The results “confirmed the prediction that relative to women, men would be less willing to continue a relationship following a partner’s heterosexual affair, and more willing to continue a relationship following a partner’s homosexual affair,” the researchers report. “Neither the number of affair partners, number of instances of infidelity, nor previous infidelity experience moderated this interaction, revealing the robust pattern of this effect.”
On the other side, “women’s willingness to continue a relationship following a partner’s imagined heterosexual affair was significantly greater than when following a partner’s imagined homosexual affair,” they write. “The absolute difference between groups was small, as women expressed a low probability of continuing a relationship following both types of affairs.”
In terms of their real-life experiences, “men were significantly more likely than women to have ended their actual relationships following a partner’s affair,” Confer and Cloud add. Sixty-eight percent of men reported they broke off the relationship following the revelation of their partner’s infidelity, compared to 47 percent of women.
All this appears to confirm the concepts of sexual strategies theory, which takes a Darwinian approach to understanding our mating habits. It’s a close cousin to the “selfish gene” notion popularized by Richard Dawkins, which suggests that whether or not procreation is in our conscious minds, our fundamental biological drive is to pass our genetic material down to the next generation. (Some other scholars find these ideas reductive.)
For a man, the biggest threat to this process is an unfaithful partner, because she could be carrying someone else’s child. For a woman, the biggest threat is abandonment by a man, which would make the job of raising a child to maturity much more challenging. It’s easy to see how a man’s homosexual affair would signal abandonment; it implies ambivalence regarding the relationship on a fundamental level.
The researchers concede many factors come into play in deciding whether to leave a mate following a transgression. They note that the fact homosexuality retains the stigma of AIDS/HIV may account for the female participants’ strong reactions to the idea of such an affair. And of course, this line of research does not discuss infidelity within gay couples.
But overall, it seems to confirm the concept that men tend to be uniquely attuned to threats to paternity, while women have a heightened fear of abandonment. Discuss at your next cocktail party.