When it comes to being faithful, we all have different lines in the sand. Vice President Mike Pence, for example, won’t even dine alone with a member of the opposite sex. Extreme, perhaps, but infidelity sucks. According to one report, in 41 percent of marriages, one or both partners admitted to cheating either physically or emotionally.
That’s why researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology aimed to get a better understanding of how men and women react to the terrible awfulness that is relationship betrayal. Their study’s findings were published in the journal Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences in September.
The study’s authors interviewed 92 heterosexual couples ranging in age from 19 to 30, where the average relationship length was 21 months. Each participant filled out a questionnaire that posed four hypothetical situations that dealt with their and their partner’s response to cheating sexually and emotionally. For example: Would they forgive their partner if they found out he or she had been hanging out with another person and appeared to have fallen in love?
Unsurprisingly, the analysis found that both men and women had a problem with sexual infidelity. In other words, they admitted it would be really difficult to forgive their partner if he or she was giving out the goodies elsewhere. Participants also said they didn’t expect to be forgiven if they were the ones caught cheating.
But when it came to falling in love with someone else, women thought that was more threatening than men did. In fact, the authors write, “men not only seem to be more willing to forgive emotional infidelity by their partner, they also tend to believe more that their emotional infidelity will be forgiven.”
While these results may not be news to anyone who’s dealt with an unfaithful partner, the research does raise some important points about how we deal with relationship conflict on an unconscious level. Evolutionary psychology suggests our minds are biased when it comes to perceptions of signals other people send us, says Mons Bendixen, an associate professor of psychology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and one of the authors of the study.
“For example,” he explains, “if you have done something that really upset your partner, leading to an argument or major conflict, you may try to calm things down by taking full responsibility and making promises not to do it again. Your partner may then forgive you by saying so. You can believe in your partner’s signals, or not.” However, he continues, we may not fully believe we’re forgiven, and as a result, overcompensate to try to fix the relationship.
As for why heterosexual women are more upset by their partner falling in love with someone versus him having sex with someone? Bendixen says it has to do with evolution and “the higher reproductive costs women pay losing a man’s recourses to another woman (in terms of protection, social status, food/calories).”
Women are way more invested in parenting than men—think pregnancy and breastfeeding—he explains. “Because modern women descend from an unbroken line of successful ancestral women who reacted more to signals of losing a man’s recourses, women feel more jealous when receiving signals indicating that their partner is allocating their resources to another, even today.”
The study concludes by pointing out that infidelity “is probably one of the most severe transgressions one may commit toward one’s partner.” Yet, the authors continue, “men do not quite understand how serious women perceive and deem emotional infidelity to be; while men cannot be described as naïve about this aspect of their relationship, they certainly are not as concerned with emotional infidelity as women are.”
In short: If you and your honey are just about to tie the knot and you haven’t already had the decidedly uncomfortable conversation about what constitutes cheating, run—don’t walk—to him or her right now.