Ready for a relationship revelation? It’s now a proven fact that, when it comes to cheating (or infidelity, an affair, or whatever you may refer to it as), gender comes into play in how your partner might react to this kind of betrayal.
A new study from the Norweigan University of Science & Technology found that men were more likely to forgive emotional cheating (like having a flirty convo), and felt more threatened by physical cheating (like hooking up). As for women, well, they felt the complete opposite.
Due to this glaring discrepancy, researchers deduced: "This may potentially be a source of misunderstanding, conflict, and miscommunication in couples.” And they’re not wrong.
“Experts in areas such as biology, medicine, and social sciences, claim that there are evolutionary slight gender differences in the brain,” says Dr. LeslieBeth Wish, nationally recognized psychotherapist and author of Training Your Love Intuition.
“Gender differences originate for both men and women in the hypothalamus, a structure deep in the brain where neurotransmitters differ for men and women. But do not fall into the trap of thinking that these differences are extreme or fixed. Both men and women can be affected by both emotional and physical cheating.”
It's important to keep in mind that these are generalizations, meaning every individual and relationship is unique. There are plenty of guys who might be hurt by an emotional affair, just as there are plenty of women who might not be able to forgive a physical one. But where do these differing perspectives stem from? And how can I navigate them in order to maintain a happy, healthy, and respectful relationship?
Fret not — we asked experts for some insight.
Inside the Male Brain — How Men View Cheating
According to Wish, it’s believed that men may be more affected by physical cheating for evolutionary reasons.
“One theory is that men are more visually — and often unknowingly — attracted at first to women whose body prompts their brain to view them as a good child-bearer,” she says. “Regardless of which features attracts him, he falls fast and hard. This experience stimulates his brain to produce the neurotransmitter oxytocin, which creates feelings of being attached and committed.”
As men lead with the physical connection, it’s not all that surprising that a physical betrayal may feel more like a punch to the gut.
“Men emphasize, on average, physical intimacy as the key defining factor in intimacy,” notes clinical psychologist Joshua Klapow, Ph.D. “There are indeed evolutionary reasons for this such as a male’s role in procreation. But there are also cultural determinants of this, with men being seen as initiators of sexual intimacy and women covering the nurturing and emotional bonding with children.”
In a 2014 study conducted at Chapman University, 54% of heterosexual men and only 35% of women said sexual infidelity was more upsetting, while 65% of heterosexual women and just 46% of men agreed emotional infidelity was worse.
The study’s authors chalked these findings up to the evolutionary problem of “paternal uncertainty.” In other words, the prospect of sexual cheating is tougher for them to swallow since it threatens their ability to know if they’re really the biological father of the children their partner bears.
Inside the Female Brain — How Women View Cheating
“In general, women tend to place more value on emotional connection than men,” says Dr. Gary Brown, a prominent couples therapist in Los Angeles.
Not only are women often more emotionally “dialed in,” states Klapow, but they may be more in tune with the complexities of human emotion and even attracted to other people based on emotional characteristics.
Many of Brown’s female clients have expressed being more fearful of their partner emotionally cheating on them. Why, you ask? Well, a random sexual encounter could be chalked up to alcohol-fueled impulsivity and poor judgment, but carrying on an emotional affair involves a whole different level of intimacy and effort.
“They fear that emotional affairs are intentional and possibly reflect a lack of emotional closeness in their relationship,” explains Brown. “Emotional affairs often involve a real attachment — and can ultimately lead to a physical affair.”
How Do You Define “Cheating” in a Relationship?
Given this major rift, it probably goes without saying that every couple is due to have an open, honest talk about what they consider to be cheating. Once it’s clear, you can set some boundaries.
“All couples must do their emotional homework,” explains Wish. “Learn each other's triggers — and help your partner before trouble begins.”
It’s never too late to start these discussions, and while it may feel awkward to delve into, it’s crucial to the health of your relationship. Without a clear understanding of boundaries, someone might unintentionally get hurt.
If you’re not sure where to start, Wish recommends writing a list of what you need and expect in your relationship in order to feel safe and loved. Your next step is using these as jumping-off points for your conversation.
“It’s critical not just to understand how your partner defines infidelity, but also what actions make them uncomfortable even if they don’t consider it cheating,” adds Klapow.
But what if you disagree on what constitutes cheating? For example, one partner might only view intercourse with someone else as a true betrayal, while the other might think commenting on an ex’s Instagram post is crossing the line.
“Listen to your partner to understand their view,” says Klapow. “Do not try to convince them of your view. They are allowed to define cheating in their own way, and you must decide if you want to/can live with that definition.”
If your partner’s micro-betrayals are too triggering for you to handle, you have two choices to salvage your bond: seek out therapy or walk away knowing that your basic values are simply not aligned.
“You may not see eye to eye, but you must be authentically willing to respect your partner’s wishes,” explains Klapow. “If you don't, won’t, or can’t then your relationship will forever be functioning on a foundation of mistrust. The key is not necessarily to have the same exact definitions and criteria for cheating — but to be able to honor and respect your partner’s preferences and wishes.”
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