Tiger Woods has a harem of mistresses. John Edwards has a love child. Peter Cook had someone on the side, and he was with a supermodel.
There is a sad trail betrayed women in this world, betrayed in the public eye, and betrayed in their private lives. Some women leave. Others forgive and move on. In the past, scientists called this a holdover from our early evolutionary days: women who were cheated on physically, but had partners who were not emotionally attached to the mistresses, were much more likely to stay in the relationship than those who had partners who fell in love but didn’t have sex.
According to this “caveman DNA” theory, women were inclined to stay with partners who strayed sexually because women’s need for the stability of the relationship and protection of the male partner outweighed his possibly generating offspring outside of their relationship. Should he feel an emotional attachment, however, that hurts the reliability and stability, threatening the female more.
Now, a new study states that “caveman DNA” may not in fact be the way either sex reacts to infidelity.
According to “attachment theory,” how you are raised leaves a lasting impression on how trusting you are in intimate relationships. (Some of the most interesting work on this is by Phillip Shaver of the University of California, Davis.) In a nutshell, people whose parents were warm and loving and reliable sources of emotional support tend to be “securely” attached, forming successful adult relationships that are not marred by excessive clinginess or jealousy. But people whose parents were distant or cold tend to be “avoidant”: they are either dismissive of close relationships (and therefore prefer autonomy to commitment, and are often promiscuous) or afraid of them. (That is, the “avoidant” attachment style comes in two forms, fearful or dismissive. The former is often of the “once bitten, twice shy” variety, in which someone is afraid of being hurt in a relationship. But dismissive people actively scorn relationships.) The Penn State duo hypothesized that people who are dismissive of relationships would be more distressed by sexual than emotional infidelity.
As they will report in a study to be published in the February issue of the journal Psychological Science, securely attached people were, as predicted, much more upset about emotional infidelity than sexual infidelity: 77 percent said they are much more likely to find emotional infidelity more upsetting than sexual infidelity. That held for men as well as women—no sex difference. They also found that men and women who are fearful of relationships are more upset by emotional infidelity; again, no sex difference. Only men and women who are dismissive of relationships, the scientists found, are more upset by sexual straying than by a mate’s finding his or her soul mate in someone else. Because “more men than women are dismissive of relationships, and because such people are concerned more about sexual infidelity,” they write, “what looks like a gender difference is in fact an attachment effect”—that is, a product of how people feel about forming close relationships. Conclusion: Mars-Venus differences in jealousy are the result of attachment style and not of our caveman genes.
So, according to the new theory, men are more likely to end relationships over emotional betrayal, not because they are afraid someone else may impregnate their partner, but because it’s “so much harder for them to trust,” and hence, a bigger betrayal.
The study does have some interesting repercussions if true, as the article’s author pointed out. Since infidelity leads to a majority of domestic violence incidents, helping males understand how to “defuse their anger” rather than take it as just part of being a man could greatly reduce the effects.
Apparently, boys don’t have to be boys after all.