Why men and women react differently to infidelity.
There are two main reasons as why these things happen, and both are intertwined. One is social and cultural norms, the other is basic evolutionary genetics. At an instinctual level, men are hunters and women are home-builders. From caveman times, through thousands of years, until fairly recently, the men went out and obtained the basic needs — food in primitive cultures, money in more advanced societies — and then the women took what the man could provide and made it something that could sustain a family unit. In modern times, these boundaries have blurred somewhat, but it remains that they are ingrained in our consciousness at a base level, and is reinforced into us through the culture we live in even when we are aware it is happening. Whether we have evolved this way because of our culture, or our culture has evolved this way because of our genetics, is harder to define, but these two factors are the reason we act the way we do.
This matters because it explains why men find it harder to forgive infidelity. Through the perspective of the male being, at his core, a hunting animal, when adultery occurs the very core response, before the male can apply intelligence, nuance and emotion to the situation, is that the hunter male sees the cheating female as ‘spoiled meat’. An animal in the wild wouldn’t eat a rotting carcass, nor would it bring it back to the rest of the pack; it finds another animal to kill that can provide sustenance. We must remember that, for all our consciousness, intelligence and awareness, the human being is an animal; in times of crisis, we revert to our most instinctual and animalistic behaviours. We either fight — by blaming others to defend our position — or we take flight and leave the situation.
Of course, maybe it isn’t that men find it too hard to forgive, but rather that females forgive too easily. The reason could lie in the role of the homebuilder female — to take what the hunter has gathered and use it to create the best environment for the family, which are the human equivalent of the animal packs. If the hunter can only find limited meat, the homebuilder makes the best of it and hopes for more meat tomorrow. When it’s said that “women forgive for the sake of the kids”, this is essentially them acknowledging that they have a poor amount of meat, but hope for a greater amount the next day; the meat, in this case, representing a partner who does not cheat on them. Another reason could be that women are more emotionally intelligent and advanced than males, which makes it easier for them to accept flaws in their characters and blame themselves than for men in the same situation. This may have roots in genetics, but it is, without doubt, a result of cultural institutionalisation. Essentially, the world has told women that they are wrong and men are right for so long that at an instinctual level, they learn to accept that as truth and work within those parameters.
But if this is true, then how do you explain the men who do forgive? These males tend to do so either because, a) they have higher levels of emotional intelligence, and are more able to see more nuance to the situation, and the things they did wrong in the lead-up to the infidelity; b) because they are scared of the grief, stress and lifestyle change that accompanies a relationship break-up; or c) they now see the situation as an alpha-male competition with the other man to ‘win’ the affections of the woman concerned. Sometimes, however, it’s just because people are unable to fully process the trauma associated with unfaithfulness; like grief after death, it can take months or years to work through the conflicting emotions one feels in such times.
Another difference is the aspect of the cheating different genders tend to focus on. Studies show that women focus more on the emotional aspect of the infidelity, whereas the physical act affects men the most. Many women say they would rather find out their partner had slept with a prostitute than grown closer to another woman. Women have a greater need to be the emotional sounding board for men; feeling replaceable in this regard is a much deeper pain than a physical act. Couples often argue about flirtatious behaviour with strangers, and you often hear men defend themselves by saying, “I was just talking to them”. The thing is, you weren’t. You were making eye contact. You were smiling, you were laughing, maybe you made brief physical contact; your interaction with, and reaction to, another woman is analysed far more by what you do than what you say. That’s not to say the words aren’t important; revealing more of your vulnerabilities verbally to another woman, whether stranger or old friend, plays into the sense of emotional betrayal of infidelity. While these factors affect men also, males primarily focus on how flirtation and confiding lead to the act of sexual betrayal; the emotional considerations take second place. Differing levels of oestrogen and testosterone in males and females could be one cause of this; as such, it is probably safe to say that men who display greater levels of forgiveness have a higher oestrogen percentage in their system, but this is just my speculation.
So why are women shamed for infidelity and promiscuity in a way that males are not? Body chemistry, societal evolution and our base instincts have combined over time to create a society where the male is the dominant figure, naturally with the role of the father from birth, then as a result of our environment and males holding the majority of powerful roles. In the animal kingdom, it is rare that the alpha is challenged; as such, the other woman takes much of the blame for the infidelity. The popular trope of the man with his brains in his boxer shorts is based around this; with the subtle implication that the woman knows what she is doing, whereas the man is blinded and less at fault. This is most famously demonstrated in the Bible, in the story of Adam, Eve, and the snake with the apple, and the central themes of the story are echoed in our apportioning of blame today. Men allow this narrative because it benefits them while also reasserting the patriarchal narrative; women accept it because blaming the other woman makes it easier to maintain the family unit. Whether it is the male of the relationship engaging with an outside woman or the female partner being unfaithful with another man, it is the females who are disproportionately blamed. Women know exactly what they are doing whereas men are deceived, or so the false narrative goes. This mind-set needs to change, though whether it ever will is debatable, when it enables us all to avoid answering the harder questions.
In the aftermath of infidelity, many people say they ‘will never trust again’, but this isn’t strictly true. Trust is not an emotion; trust is something you actively do. When you go through your partner’s mobile phone or Facebook messages, you are making a choice to distrust them. If they go out with their friends, and you accuse them of infidelity, you are choosing to distrust them. To trust is to choose to believe without evidence being needed. To trust is to give someone the benefit of the doubt. When someone has been the victim of adultery in the past, there are certain situations that trigger feelings of insecurity within the individual. So often people depend on their partner to remove these feelings, but this is impossible. The insecure can only become confident through their own actions; through not talking and questioning when these feelings arise. People could trust again, if they could lose the need for the other person to validate and manage their own fears and emotions about the relationship. Trust is something you do, not something you feel. Often the emotion being felt is fear of potential grief to come, not lack of trust, but it is understandable that people confuse the two.
It is easier to blame others than to look at ourselves, but if we want to move forward, self-reflection is crucial. There are underlying reasons and causes that build up to an act of infidelity, a situation that both parties contribute to. Ego and personal coping strategies mean most people cannot accept responsibility for their role in creating an atmosphere conducive to cheating. They need someone to blame, and this is why relationships struggle to recover. At the start, you were working together to build a successful union, whereas afterwards the victim often expects the cheater to do all the work towards repairing the relationship. The harsh truth is that if someone was having their emotional needs met, they would not cheat on their partners. While the infidelity is a horrendous betrayal, the person cheated on, if they want to rebuild the relationship, also has to look at their own behaviour in the time leading up to the act of unfaithfulness and change it, if they wish the relationship to be able to recover. Of course, if someone feels their needs aren’t being met, they should communicate with their partner or leave the relationship rather than inflict the damage of betrayal on another; however, it must be recognised as a cause of the unfaithfulness too.
Many choose to end the relationship, and given how deep the betrayal can go, that is often the best course of action. The vast majority of relationships end in a break-up; indeed, every relationship everyone has ever been in, with the exception of their present one, has ended, and the people involved made it through, recovered and learned to love again, even if the love they give afterwards is altered. A relationship where both people can accept the other person’s flaws, weaknesses and insecurities, as well as their own, is far more likely to succeed than two ‘soul mates’. The problem with looking for soul mates is every soul grows, changes and evolves. Your perfect match at twenty years old will not be so at thirty unless you and your partner grow together. This takes work, it takes time, compassion, effort and, most importantly, sacrifice. Soul mates take many forms, and people have more than one — this is symbolised in a wedding with the ‘wife’ and the ‘best man’. This is important when considering how we go about getting our emotional needs met, and why it is a poor excuse for infidelity; your partner cannot be your best man, just as one person cannot alone complete someone else’s life.
This all sounds very clinical, and a lot of the emotional aftermath is understandable. It is also true that sometimes people, for whatever reason, feel the need to be unfaithful; in these situations, there is only one person to blame. Whether the shaming of women in the aftermath of infidelity will ever change is hard to say, given how rooted it is in modern culture, but hopefully this explanation of why we act the way we do can contribute to a change in that culture. By becoming aware of why we think, feel and act in the ways we do, and by accepting our own failings, we can take a step towards stronger relationships, better communities and a more compassionate society. It is imperative we move from a culture of blame to an environment where people take responsibility for their actions; until we do, women will continue to be disproportionately shamed and the unfaithful will be continue to be enabled in their behaviours.