Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Cheating & Sex: There's more to it than you think ...

News Flash: Men and women think differently!
OK so maybe that’s not news to you. In fact, it’s probably common sense to know that a person’s biological sex and her/his gender can affect how she/he thinks.
What might be a little less well known is that men and women think differently – and act differently – when it comes to cheating.
In a nutshell, men consider physical infidelity – having sex with another person for example – as the most serious type of cheating. Women, on the other hand, consider emotional infidelity – establishing a loving bond with another person – as more serious. On top of that, men are also more likely to engage in physical/sexual infidelity whereas women are more likely to engage in emotional infidelity.
Back in 1985 researchers Shirley Glass and Thomas Wright decided to take on this comparison of sexual versus emotional infidelity since research before that had focused simply on the physical side of things. And while their study may seem dated, it serves as a great basis for evaluating these sex differences when it comes to cheating. Their study was simple but effective: They asked people which of two cheating scenarios – one physical and one emotional – was more serious. And their results corresponded with traditional sex roles in our culture – men connected physically and women connected emotionally.
These sex differences continue when it comes to cheating. Both men and women engage in relationships that include both a sexual and an emotional element. However, for those cases where only the physical cheating occurs, men are more likely to be the cheaters. And for those cases where only emotional cheating happens, women are more likely to be the cheaters. (I’m beginning to sound like a broken record here…)
Now it gets a little more complex here, but, see if you can guess what the sex differences in the next scenario might be.
For those extramarital relationships that start out as either sexual OR emotional and then progress to include BOTH elements, which do you think men will start out with and which will women start out with?
Gold star for you as I’m sure you got the correct answer! Men start off with physical cheating and then progress to both, whereas women start off with emotional cheating and then add in the sex later.
These differences don’t play too much of a role when it comes to marital dissatisfaction (how happy/unhappy the cheater is in her/his marriage). Basically, if one type of cheating, emotional OR physical, occurs, then relational happiness is higher than if both types are present. So, if you find out your partner is having sex with someone else AND they really like them, then your relationship is in trouble … go figure.
Glass and Wright’s study back in 80s still pertains to research today, even though we may think our traditional sex roles have progressed in the past few decades. In fact, further studies have gone on to build on theirs. Because their study looked at middle-class, middle-aged, white Americans, other researchers wanted to find out if these sex roles for cheating happened in other groups too. In 2006 a study looked at Spanish speaking, younger people to see how women and men view cheating. Sure enough, their results correspond almost exactly with the older study.
These sex differences can alter when we look at the role of the internet; as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, it’s harder to have physical infidelity through a computer. But there’s still sex differences when it comes to how emotionally connected the cheater is.

Of course these are generalizations. To make claims about men and women as a group based on a few studies is simply that: A generalization, and not a hard and fast rule about the sexes. So my take home for today is to be aware of these potential differences in focus when it comes to cheating and, if your partner takes issue with another relationship you have, think about the sex difference that could stop you two from seeing eye to eye.


Fernandez, A. M., Sierra, J. C., Zubeidat, I. & Vera-Vilarroel, P. (2006). Sex differences in response to sexual and emotional infidelity among Spanish and Chilean students. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 37, 359-365.
Glass, S. P. & Wright, T. L. (1985). Sex differences in type of extramarital involvement and marital dissatisfaction. Sex Roles, 12, 1101-1120.


  1. Tabbi,

    Great post! I literally laughed out loud when you said that if you find out your parnter is cheating on you AND they really like them, you have relationship issues. :)

    I hate to be the one to challenge constructionism in this case, but I think the specific differences between the biological sexes you point out in this particular scenario may be grounded in biology.

    When a woman gets pregnant, she obviously KNOWS for sure the child is hers and that any resources she spends on raising it are justified. This simply isn't true for men. There is always the possibility that the child could be someone else's and the resources he spends on raising the child do not benefit his genetic lineage. So it would make sense that biological males would be slightly more concerned about physical cheating than females. The male simply has to know that if a child results from sex, that the kid is his.

    It seems clear that all sexes and genders would be less than pleased with physical and emotional infidelity. I am curious to know if the research you looked at talked at all about what exactly constitutes cheating. It would make sense that there would be variations in what different people consider physical or emotional cheating and that perhaps emotional cheating has even more variability. (i.e. physical cheating could be kissing or intercourse, what does the research say?)

    I am also interested to see how physical and emotional cheating play out with modern technology in the mix, as you allude to.

    It seems to me that sensitivity to different types of cheating could be informed by culture and society, but the differences you pointed out here seem to be grounded mostly in biology.

    This article was really fun to read! :)

    1. Jim, it's interesting that you bring up the idea of constructionism here because I debated the same idea - nature versus nurture - when I was reading the research this week. Although it may seem biological (it is related to biological sex after all), it seemed that the research pertained more to sex roles, which would be constructed in our specific culture. The more recent of the two articles casually referenced the idea of the evolutionary aspects of jealousy, which I would guess to align with your comments about biology. But, I think culture, what we expect from each gender and how that has developed and evolved over time would also play a role from the constructionist side of things. I guess my point here is that both biology and constructionism seem to be a part of this.

      As for what counts as physical versus emotional cheating, that's something I still need to outline this semester. I'm slowly working out those ideas with the different articles. I'm sure that will be the topic of a blog post some time in the future!

      Glad you enjoyed my blog. Hope you're having fun in Seattle and not missing us here in Bosie too much :)

  2. Tabbi, you are starting to get a nice, easy blogging style. The only thing I would recommend is reducing the generalizations just a bit. There was a follow up article after the one you cited that showed men and women don't differ on the sexual/emotional infidelity issue, so you might want to say "one study found.." rather than "this is what we do..." I think that's always a good idea when it comes to the male/female variable. I like that you are really contemplating these issues, and developing follow up questions. Good stuff.

    1. Thanks for the feedback. I'm glad you like my blogging style, I do find them fun to write! I appreciate your comments about generalizing, it was something I considered myself actually and part of the limitation I have writing about a topic with only two articles. The way around that is to be specific that the findings relate only to the specific article/research in question. It's hard to write in a blog style while keeping that specificity in mind though so I guess that is a challenge for me to work on next time!

    2. You are very close, so only a small adjustment needed. Keep it up!

    3. Thanks, I'll try! I'm really loving the blogging assignment by the way :)

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  4. I think this is very fascinating. Of course it’s not hard to see that men and women are very different from each other, and that we place importance in differing aspects of relationships. I think it’s interesting, however, to see how “cheating” is held in different regards. I myself agree (mostly) with this study. Overall, I believe women are more emotional creatures, men, more physical. So did this study get into whether a man would get upset if the woman cheats (physically) or gets involved emotionally with another man? I was also wondering how a good friend of the opposite sex would be addressed in this study. Even some of what I would consider the most harmless friendship relationships can involve flirtation, it seems almost inevitable with an opposite-gender relationship. Where do you draw the line? Physical lines are so simple, you did or you didn’t. What about the emotional lines?

    1. Charlotte, thanks for your comments. I hadn't considered the way that flirty friendships would play into this. Since the study I cite for the majority of this is from the 80s and one of the first on the topic, I don't think they covered that. However, I would guess there are probably other, more recent studies that look at that so it will be something to look into. As I said to Jim, I'm slowly figuring out ideas about what counts as cheating, according to the literature. I'm sure I'll eventually have enough information to write a blog on that topic!

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  6. Interesting! Tabbi,

    Very well written and laid out! Another great job!

    I like it a lot but something doesn't seem right in the findings. Take the following two scenarios:

    Scenario 1: A woman finds out after ten years of marriage that her husband has had a girlfriend in Switzerland who he has never met. They have been exchanging letters for 5 years and seem to share a deep emotional relationship from the content and frequency of the letters.

    Scenario 2: A woman comes home earlier than usual and finds her husband of 10 years as well, physically cheating with a woman he barely knows. Its discovered that he has been doing this frequently with multiple women he barely knows or keeps in touch with for the past 5 years.

    From the findings, it would mean that most women would rather choose (if they had to choose one scenario to be in) scenario 2?

    Maybe its just me thinking like a man but I would think anyone would take scenario 2 more seriously. What do you think?

    1. Thanks for your comment Mwamba!

      I'm going to disagree with you a little. To be honest if I had to pick one of the scenarios (although I would obviously pick neither!) then I would most likely pick the second. It just seems like the man doesn't care about the women he's sleeping with, it's most likely an issue he has personally. Where as the first scenario seems like there is something lacking romantically in the relationship that the man seeks elsewhere. It just seems like a more serious relationship to have on the side of a marriage...

      That's just me personally though so maybe I place more weight on these studies since it is my emotions biasing me that way. As Dr. Reeder pointed out to me, other studies have found competing evidence so there's definitely room for variation on this issue.

      Thanks for pushing me on the topic though, your comment really made me stop and think!