What’s worse: Your partner cheats on you with a man, or a woman?

How would you react if you found out your partner had been cheating on you? The most common piece of advice, from friends and daytime television hosts alike, is invariably “kick them to the curb”. But real life is more complicated than that, and often, after weighing up the pros and cons, we choose to stick with a partner despite their transgressions.

One of the most consistent findings in the field of evolutionary psychology is that men and women react differently to different types of infidelity. Consider the following scenario: your partner has just told you that they’ve been having sex with someone else. Then consider instead that your partner has just told you that they’ve established a close emotional bond with another person. Which of these two situations would you find most distressing?

Although there’s a good degree of overlap, women tend to find the idea of their partner bonding with another person more distressing than the idea of a purely sexual infidelity. Men, on the other hand, are troubled more by a partner’s sexual than emotional infidelity.

The explanation for this finding is that a sexual infidelity can result in pregnancy, and because men can never be 100% sure that their offspring are their own, this is a big concern for them. A man whose partner has sex with someone else could find himself bringing up another man’s baby. Conversely, women often judge men on their commitment or willingness to provide, and these things are threatened more by an emotional than by a sexual infidelity, hence why women tend to be more troubled by a partner admitting they love someone else.

Jaime Confer of the University of Texas at Austin, and Mark Cloud of Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania, recently extended this work by having people imagine their partner engaging in a heterosexual or homosexual affair. They hypothesised that men wouldn’t much mind their partner having an homosexual affair for the same reason that they tend not to be as concerned by an emotional infidelity: because it can’t result in pregnancy. Similarly, the researchers thought that women would be particularly distressed by their partner engaging in a homosexual affair, because this type of affair is likely to be associated with the dissolution of the long-term relationship.

Confer and Cloud asked 718 heterosexual people if they’d be willing to continue a relationship with a long-term partner after that partner admitted a homosexual or a heterosexual affair. The results, which were published in a recent issue of the journal Personality and Individual Differences, confirmed the researchers’ hypotheses: women were slightly more likely to continue a relationship after their partner came clean about a heterosexual affair and men were much more likely to continue a relationship after their partner admitted a homosexual affair.

This is particularly surprising in light of previous research which has suggested that men tend to have a more negative perception of homosexuality than women do. It turns out men are much more tolerant of lesbians once they discover they’re going out with one.

Confer, J. C., & Cloud, M. D. (2011). Sex differences in response to imagining a partner’s heterosexual or homosexual affair. Personality and Individual Differences, 50(2), 129–134. Read summary

The content of this post first appeared in the November 2010 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

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