Which is worse: your partner having a heterosexual or homosexual affair?

Assuming you’re in a heterosexual relationship, which is worse: for your partner to be unfaithful with a person of the opposite or the same sex? According to a pair of US psychologists, the answer depends on whether you’re a man or woman. Men, they’ve found, are less likely to continue a relationship with an unfaithful partner who’s had a heterosexual affair, as opposed to a homosexual affair. For women, it’s the other way around – they’re more troubled by their male partner going off with another man.

Jaime Confer and Mark Cloud made their finding after asking 718 undergrads (324 men) to imagine their partners had been unfaithful and to predict whether, having received an apology, they’d continue the relationship. The participants were not recruited explicitly on the basis of being heterosexual, but were told the study would involve imagining themselves in a heterosexual relationship.

The difference between the men and women was robust – it remained in place regardless of how many instances of infidelity they were asked to imagine their partner had had, and regardless of the number of infidelity partners involved. The participants’ own real life experiences of infidelity, as either the betrayer or betrayed, also made no difference to the main finding that men are less likely to persevere with a relationship after a female partner has a heterosexual affair, whereas women are less likely to continue a relationship after a male partner has a homosexual affair.

The new finding builds on another key sex difference that’s emerged in jealousy research: that is, men tend to be more troubled by sexual infidelity whereas women tend to be more troubled by emotional infidelity. That difference, and the one uncovered in this new research, both make sense in terms of evolutionary theory whereby men are more concerned by the risk of sexual infidelity because they can never know for sure if a child is theirs. Women, by contrast, have no doubt that a child they give birth to is their own. Instead their anxiety is focused more on the the father’s commitment.

In this evolutionary context, men are more troubled by a female partner going off with a man because of the risk that he may impregnate her. Women are more troubled by a male partner going off with a man because, in the researchers’ words: ‘homosexual affairs are more reflective of ensuing abandonment as they evince a more complete absence of emotional intimacy and satisfaction with one’s partner.’

ResearchBlogging.orgConfer, J., and Cloud, M. (2011). Sex differences in response to imagining a partner’s heterosexual or homosexual affair. Personality and Individual Differences, 50 (2), 129-134 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2010.09.007