Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Which is worse: your partner having a heterosexual or homosexual affair?

Assuming you're in a heterosexual relationship, which is worse: for your partner to be unfaithful with a person of the opposite or the same sex? According to a pair of US psychologists, the answer depends on whether you're a man or woman. Men, they've found, are less likely to continue a relationship with an unfaithful partner who's had a heterosexual affair, as opposed to a homosexual affair. For women, it's the other way around - they're more troubled by their male partner going off with another man.

Jaime Confer and Mark Cloud made their finding after asking 718 undergrads (324 men) to imagine their partners had been unfaithful and to predict whether, having received an apology, they'd continue the relationship. The participants were not recruited explicitly on the basis of being heterosexual, but were told the study would involve imagining themselves in a heterosexual relationship.

The difference between the men and women was robust - it remained in place regardless of how many instances of infidelity they were asked to imagine their partner had had, and regardless of the number of infidelity partners involved. The participants' own real life experiences of infidelity, as either the betrayer or betrayed, also made no difference to the main finding that men are less likely to persevere with a relationship after a female partner has a heterosexual affair, whereas women are less likely to continue a relationship after a male partner has a homosexual affair.

The new finding builds on another key sex difference that's emerged in jealousy research: that is, men tend to be more troubled by sexual infidelity whereas women tend to be more troubled by emotional infidelity. That difference, and the one uncovered in this new research, both make sense in terms of evolutionary theory whereby men are more concerned by the risk of sexual infidelity because they can never know for sure if a child is theirs. Women, by contrast, have no doubt that a child they give birth to is their own. Instead their anxiety is focused more on the the father's commitment.

In this evolutionary context, men are more troubled by a female partner going off with a man because of the risk that he may impregnate her. Women are more troubled by a male partner going off with a man because, in the researchers' words: 'homosexual affairs are more reflective of ensuing abandonment as they evince a more complete absence of emotional intimacy and satisfaction with one's partner.'
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ResearchBlogging.orgConfer, J., and Cloud, M. (2011). Sex differences in response to imagining a partner’s heterosexual or homosexual affair. Personality and Individual Differences, 50 (2), 129-134 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2010.09.007

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

11 comments:

  1. Anonymous10:36 am

    Anecdotal evidence would appear to support this in my experience... It's interesting stuff!

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  2. Anonymous11:55 am

    I think for women, they would be concerned about the health issue, as there is a public conception (whether justified or not) that AIDS is often spread through homosexual sex. Women want to be around long enough to see their children become parents themselves.

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  3. Anonymous12:17 pm

    While the tie to "sexual infidelity" makes sense, for the women, I'm not convinced that their reported attitude is indicative of fearing emotional infidelity. If that were the case, they should be troubled by their man engaging in either a homosexual or heterosexual affair equally. Though the last line attempts to address this, there was no evidence for believing homosexual affairs are worse. I suppose I'll have to read the paper.

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  4. Not sure I buy the evolutionary argument, particularly from the woman-leaving-man-after-homosexual-affair part as emotional resources get diverted to the new partner in either type of affair.

    There is also a problem in the interpretation of the the data from original "men worry about sexual fidelity, women worry about emotional fidelity" argument: while it is indeed true that more women than men report being bothered by a hypothetical emotional infidelity, nearly 50% of men still report the emotional infidelity as more troubling.

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  5. Anonymous1:28 pm

    I suppose there might be an effect where men are seen as having less mutable sexual orientations than women are, combined with the emotional fidelity reason - that is, if a man has an affair with a man, they're seen as expressing a true sexual orientation and thus are liable to discover themselves and ditch not only their female partner but all females permanently.

    For a woman having an affair with a woman, she's less likely to be seen as suddenly being incompatible with continuing relationships with men, maybe because women are seen as more flexible in their sexual orientations.

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  6. Anonymous3:12 pm

    It seems that the study entirely misses a reasonable interpretation of the results that one commenter above touched on slightly.

    Both genders are more concerned by their partner having an affair with a man. I would think that in some cases at least this might reflect a (perhaps subconscious) feeling that men are either more promiscuous or less discerning in choice of partners, and therefore at more risk of carrying an STD.

    Just a thought, and I freely admit I haven't read the original paper, so I have no idea if the authors took this possibility into consideration, though if they had I would have thought it deserved at least a mention here.

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  7. Anonymous4:15 pm

    "Both genders are more concerned by their partner having an affair with a man."
    That's the thing that stood out to me too. It would be interesting to see equivalent results for people imagining themselves in homosexual relationships.

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  8. mspape6:43 pm

    I think a more sociological reason would easily win here: in our (male-dominated) culture, a lesbian afair is seen as a fling, intriguing, sexy, a bit taboo'esque but predominantly accepted as a thing women may be talked into (rather than 'be', as such). As an example, many lesbians complain of men saying either 'i'll turn you back into a straight person' or even 'so therefore you're probably into a threesome!'. However, apart from isolated stories from across the pond where homosexuals are 'cured' from their life in sin, I think the predominant view on homosexuality has shifted to one that sees homosexuality as a sort of genetic deviant, certainly abnormal and quite often as wrong. Not to say that lesbians have it easier - they (anecdotal evidence suggests) just are more often belittled than scorned.

    Anyway, in this context, it appears to me that 'men find it easier to find out about their partner's lesbian 'fling'", and women find it more difficult if their partner 'has turned' gay.

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  9. Anonymous8:58 pm

    I would be interested to see if these results varied when asking a group of more mature adults already in committed monogamous relationships rather than undergrads (presumably unmarried young adults under 25) participating in a thought experiment.

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  10. Anonymous11:38 pm

    Aaargh why does the *BPS* blog have a pic of two winsome 20-something lesbians? When will we be able get the feck over ourselves and have a pic of two not-so-attractive 50-something queers when trying to illustrate anything to do with anything remotely related to LGBT issues?

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  11. Anonymous10:47 am

    as a woman whose male partner went off with a man, one longterm outcome was to undermine my sense of myself as feminine. 'If he prefers men, what is it about me that attracted him?' This is an added distress than if he'd gone for another woman.

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