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High Fidelity: Is Forgiveness Female?

High Fidelity: Is Forgiveness Female?

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.

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98 comments

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7:51PM PST on Feb 27, 2010

It's good that this article points out that the gender difference in this issue is social rather than biological.

12:33AM PST on Feb 9, 2010

I still believe that male & female when committed to a marriage should remain faithful. Those were the promises said when they united & became one in marriage. If one chooses to play around then remain single & have as much fun as you wish as long as you do not interfere or break up a married person. Commitment means exactly that, committed!

12:25AM PST on Feb 8, 2010

I think it is imporatant for men and women to be faithful to their partners. AIDS and other sexual transmitted diseases are just part of why.

1:36PM PST on Feb 7, 2010

Honesty is a nice chg. - Ditto to Lindsey's post

1:23PM PST on Feb 7, 2010

Maybe great variation is what is "natural" for our species? But that's the point, no-one really knows, and until they do the idea of hard-wired behaviour is just another theory. Anyhow, maybe I'm just more of a humanist (read vague!). Sorry for geek-spamming the thread.

1:19PM PST on Feb 7, 2010

I don't want to get into a sociobiological debate here because it's a massive subject and not quite on topic. The thing is, in most species in the animal kingdom, the male impregnates and the female gestates. This means that the time necessary to reproduce to the point of birth is greater for females than for males. That is, however, the furthest one can generalise. There is massive variation in post-birth behaviour e.g. how much care and attention the mother and father give the offspring, whether either of them even stay around at all etc. I know that we are talking about individual rather than interspecies difference here, but the point I'm trying to make is that the biological ability to do something does not always lead to that behaviour occurring. Also, without knowing more about how humans lived at earlier stages of their evolution, it is difficult to judge what would actually have been helpful behaviour for the survival of their genes. This is why there is still a huge debate over whether humans are "naturally" more competitive or more cooperative. What raises my ire really is how obsessed mainstream media seems to be with reporting the biological basis of gender difference as if it's solid fact when actually it's on very shaky scientific ground. People end up thinking that "this is what Science says" about behaviour and it makes them worry that they're not conforming to some kind of species norm. tbc

1:05PM PST on Feb 7, 2010

Awesome article and comments! I agree, the stupid "boys will be boys" argument is and always will be junk; cheating has nothing to do with gender and shouldn't be "accepted" for one gender because of some imaginary trait. I wonder what the press would say about a woman who has a "harem" of men? (Some out there undoubtedly do, or would like to, haha). "Women will be women?" I doubt it, haha. I bet they'd rip her apart a lot more cruelly than they would a man. Women don't really seem more inclined to stay with cheaters, either-- I know I wouldn't, and I wouldn't expect a man to do so, either-- what goes around really does come around.

1:02PM PST on Feb 7, 2010

One may be able to forgive, but it is almost impossible to forget.

7:27AM PST on Feb 7, 2010

cheating is just wrong.

6:59AM PST on Feb 7, 2010

In patriarchal societies, women became "property."
I doubt that " fidelity " was an issue in matriarchal societies.

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