What’s worse: emotional or sexual infidelity? A new study says that your gender may determine how you answer that.
A new study came out recently from Chapman University about jealousy and infidelity. According to the study, which surveyed 64,000 people in America, 54% of men and 35% of women said they were more bothered by the idea of sexual infidelity, while 46% of men and 65% of women said emotional infidelity would upset them more. The researchers concluded that this is in line with biology and the long-standing theory that men care more about sexual exclusivity and women care more about emotional stability.
When I first heard about the study, I found myself agreeing with its conclusion. I’d experienced both physical and emotional infidelity in a past relationship and knew which one had been worse for me.
At the age of 17, I started going out with a boy from my high school. He became my first serious long-term relationship. For the first year, he was obsessed with me. I loved him too, of course, but he was always the one who was more interested, available, and eager. However, this suddenly changed around our one-year mark when he slowly but surely began to pull away from me.
The phone calls became less frequent, while arguments happened more and more often. He’d disappear for hours at a time, not answering his phone, only to tell me he’d been busy hanging out at the arcade. He was obsessed with a DDR-type dancing game called In The Groove, and mentioned playing it with a girl named Megan a few times. I didn’t think too much of it…until the day he revealed to me why he’d become so distant and unavailable.
“I think I’m in love with Megan,” he told me.
I was stunned. I asked, “Are you leaving me for her?”
“No,” he said. “She’s not interested in me that way.”
“But you have feelings for her? Strong feelings?”
“Yes,” he said. “But nothing will ever happen. I want to be with you.”
I wanted to believe him. I needed to believe him. If I didn’t believe him, I’d lose him, along with all of my self-confidence. He offered to stop hanging out with her, much to my relief. We tried to get back on track. Things were shaky, but steady. Then one night, after a particularly petty argument we had over the phone, he stopped answering my calls. I wanted to make up, so I called again and again, and his cell accidentally picked up on its own. I could hear him talking to a girl, and I knew in my gut that it was Megan.
Not only had he broken his promise to me, but I knew his feelings weren’t going to go away any time soon. Megan was the one he wanted to be with, even if she didn’t want to be with him. Imagining him thinking about her the way he thought about me, longing for her the way he used to long for me–I couldn’t stand it. When I finally got ahold of him, I yelled and cried and told him it was over.
We only stayed broken up for a few weeks. He asked me to get back together with a promise that he was over her and didn’t need to see her again. This, of course, didn’t last long. Soon, she was back in his life, and I was forced to deal with it or get out.
In retrospect, we should have stayed broken up after the first incident with Megan. His heart was clearly elsewhere, and I wish I had accepted that. But since the two of them were never physical, it was hard for me to justify leaving. None of my friends or family encouraged me to break up with him either. The general consensus seemed to be that if they weren’t having sex, it was just a harmless crush. If he wasn’t going to leave me for her, there was no real problem.
He apparently felt the same way, yet continued to be distant and unhappy with me no matter what I said or did. I was no longer confident about his feelings for me. We fought constantly. Yet I stayed, and he stayed, because neither of us had anywhere else to go. We were young, inexperienced, and lonely.
About two years into our tumultuous relationship, he met another girl at the arcade named Dani. He assured me that this girl was just a friend and he didn’t find her attractive at all. He did eventually admit, however, that she’d confessed to having a crush on him.
“Just make sure you aren’t alone with her,” I warned him. “She might try to kiss you or something.”
“Of course,” he said. “I’d never let that happen. I wouldn’t want it to.”
I’m sure you can see where this is going. One afternoon, I got a call and heard the words I’d been dreading.
“Dani and I kissed last night.”
He told me the two of them had gotten drunk at her house. Dani made a move, and he claimed he was too inebriated to stop it. But they didn’t just kiss. He said they didn’t have sex, although what they did do got pretty close to it.
Yes, I felt angry, hurt, betrayed. Yes, I knew what he had done was wrong. But honestly, him feeling up a girl he didn’t like for an hour bothered me a lot less than him being in love with another girl for a year. I hated that he had kissed someone else, touched someone else. But at least he didn’t have feelings for her. At least he didn’t think of her with love and affection, the way he thought about me…and Megan.
We ended things for good shortly after his drunken make-out session. Sadly, I wasn’t the one who initiated our parting. Although the physical affair should have allowed me to call it quits without reservation, and my friends and family were unabashedly onboard now that physical infidelity had occurred, I’d already forgiven so much. This infraction seemed less severe than his feelings for Megan.
Thankfully, I was the one who said no when, once again, he wanted me back after we broke up. I’d finally learned enough not to keep settling for such a terrible and dysfunctional relationship.
Looking back on it now, I’m not sure whether I was more upset about the emotional infidelity because I’m a woman, or simply because of the situation. In the study, the gap between men and women doesn’t seem as wide or significant as the summation of the findings and recent Time article “Jealousy: One More Way Men and Women Are Different” would lead us to believe. To reiterate: 54% of men and 35% of women said sexual infidelity would make them more jealous, while 46% of men and 65% of women said emotional infidelity would bother them more. When you examine the results with a focus on each gender individually, this data actually says something more interesting and nuanced than the study’s simplified conclusion that sex matters more to men and emotions matter more to women.
The study does make it clear that there’s a large discrepancy between women who worry more about sexual infidelity (35%) versus those who are more concerned about emotional infidelity (65%). In this case, I fall in the majority and can personally relate to the findings. My perspective is definitely influenced by experience, though. The timeframe for the physical infidelity was much shorter than the timeframe for the emotional infidelity. I wonder whether, when women answered the study’s question, they imagined that the sexual infidelity would be a short or one-time thing and the emotional infidelity would be long lasting because falling in love requires more time. That makes it pretty clear which one would be worse.
However, for men, the two types of infidelity are almost equally upsetting, with 54% feeling worse about sexual infidelity and 46% caring more about emotional infidelity. For them, it’s actually a toss-up between which form of infidelity is more problematic. I personally found that to be the most surprising result of this study. Because of leading cultural and biological notions, I was inclined to conclude that men would care more about sexual infidelity than emotional infidelity in relation to one another. I thought sexual infidelity would be the overwhelming majority, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.
The bottom line, though, is that both forms of infidelity can be pretty damn painful and effectively lead to the ending of a relationship. Not to mention the fact that the two types of infidelity frequently coincide, making this whole hypothetical somewhat moot and difficult to answer. But it is important to keep in mind that individuals might think of infidelity in different ways—ways that can’t be reliably predicted by gender or societal expectations, which makes communication around those issues even more crucial.
Moving forward, our discussion should really be less focused on how men and women are different, and more on how we as individuals can connect with one another in healthy, functional ways.
Author’s Note: Names have been changed in this piece to protect the privacy of those mentioned.
Alana Saltz is a freelance writer and editor living in Los Angeles. Her essays have been published in blogs like The Urban Dater,Writing Forward, and HelloGiggles. She has an MFA in Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles and recently completed a memoir about her struggles with anxiety disorder and depression. You can visit her website at alanasaltz.com or follow her on Twitter @alanasaltz.