Motivation and emotion/Book/2016/Physical versus emotional infidelity

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Physical versus emotional infidelity:
What are the emotional effects of physical compared to emotional infidelity?
And which one has the greatest effect?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Imagine you receive a private message on Facebook from a woman who is telling you how incredibly good looking you are.  You like what she is saying so you begin giving her compliments back. You continue to engage and begin to have deeper and more meaningful conversations. You start telling each other secrets and your partner has no idea that you are conversing with another woman.  However, you begin developing feelings for her, start questioning your current relationship and wonder whether your partner is the one for you.

Or perhaps you are unhappily married, you are working with a man who makes you laugh, who you get along great with, you start flirting with each other and going out to lunches together. You start messaging each other and before you know it you have taken your platonic relationship with your work colleague up a level and have cheated on your husband by getting physically involved with that person. 

What motivated these people to cheat? What are the emotional effects of infidelity? Are the emotional effects greater following emotional infidelity or physical infidelity? And what theories can be applied to understanding why people are unfaithful?

Definitions[edit | edit source]

Infidelity is also known as being unfaithful, disloyal, cheating, committing adultery or having an affair (Oxford English Dictionary, 2016) and is said to occur when someone who is married or is in a monogamous relationship has cheated on their spouse or partner either emotionally and/or physically.  

Cheating is subjective and can mean different things to different people.  For the purposes of this book chapter, emotional infidelity is defined as engaging in an emotional relationship with someone outside of your committed relationship, which fosters emotional intimacy (Meyers, 2011) including the investment of time and attention in someone else (Shackelford, LeBlanc & Drass, 2000).  Physical or sexual infidelity is defined as engaging in sexual activities such as kissing, sexual intercourse or any other sexual behaviour with someone other than one’s spouse or long-term partner (Oxford English Dictionary, 2016; Shackelford et al., 2000).

Why people cheat[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. People cheat for a range of different reasons, and in the age of online dating, apps such Tinder and internet hacks such as the Ashley Madison scandal, highlight how common cheating can be.

Although the majority of people expect relationship exclusivity, people engage in affairs for a range of reasons including, but not limited to, experiencing dissatisfaction within their relationship, sexual opportunities, stronger sexual needs, desires and interests, inequity within the relationship, lack of emotional intimacy and love, to fulfill or enhance their ego (Treas & Giesen, 2000), for revenge, to feel young again and simply due to boredom (Barta & Kiene, 2005).

How common is infidelity?[edit | edit source]

Infidelity occurs cross-culturally and is the leading cause for divorce in 160 cultures (Shackelford et al., 2000).  The extent of people engaging in an extramarital affair can differ quite considerably from 26% to 75% (Shackelford et al., 2000), however a substantive review conducted in 2005 suggests that up to 25% of people have been cheated on or engaged in a sexual and/or emotional relationship outside of their current primary relationship (Blow & Hartnett, 2005). Furthermore, up to 65% of women and 58% of men believe they have been cheated on in a previous relationship (Edlund, 2006).

Typically men are 79% more likely than women to engage in sexual relations outside of their marriage (Treas & Giesen, 2000).  Religiosity has also been linked to infidelity, with religious women less likely to have an affair than non-religious women (Elmslie & Tebalidi, 2008).  However, these findings were not transferable to men, with mens[grammar?] religiosity not affecting their decision to engage in adultery (Elmslie & Tebalidi, 2008). 

So how likely is it that a relationship can withstand or survive an indiscretion?  Research has suggested that only 44% of people who’s[grammar?] partner has been unfaithful would leave the relationship, however, the most interesting finding is that 14% would actually ignore the transgression or forgive their partner without any further thought (Afifi, Falato & Weiner, 2001).  This is somewhat surprising given that most people disapprove of infidelity (Afifi et al., 2001) and expect monogamy within their relationship (Treas & Giesen, 2000). 

Theories[edit | edit source]

Part of what makes us all unique and individual is our reactions to events, situations and stimuli that happen in our lives. People react differently to different things and differently to the same things.  To further understand why people cheat and the effects of physical and emotional infidelity researchers have used a number of theories and models to explore the motivation behind cheating and determine whether emotional or physical infidelity has a greater effect on someone’s well-being.

Evolutionary perspective[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Should either party in a relationship feel as if their chances of becoming a parent are threatened either person may seek fulfilment elsewhere such as through another relationship to increase the chance that their genes will be passed on.

The evolutionary perspective suggests that sexual motivation is biologically based with a focus on reproduction (Elmslie & Tebaldi, 2008).  Although men and women in heterosexual relationships choose their sexual partners based on reproduction there[grammar?] mating reasons differ.  Men seek younger women who are able to bare[spelling?] children, whereas women seek a man with good genetics who can provide for the family (Levy & Kelly, 2009).  Evolutionary theory suggests that infidelity can occur when either sex is dissatisfied with their partner being unable to reproduce offspring due to possible fertility issues as both sexes want to ensure their genetics will be passed on (Elmslie & Tebaldi, 2008).

Attachment theory[edit | edit source]

Another aspect of evolutionary psychology, infidelity has been linked to attachment theory. This theory of attachment was developed by researchers Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters & Wall in 1978, classifying attachment styles displayed in children in three types; secure attachment, anxious-ambivalent attachment and avoidant attachment (Bogaert & Sadava, 2002).  Research suggests that the type of attachment style children experience or are subject to from their parent or carer, they model and transfer into their adult relationships providing them with an foundation and understanding of how relationships work and what to expect (Bogaert & Sadava, 2002).

Adults who display an avoidant attachment style can be emotionally distant, find intimacy uncomfortable, find it hard to trust and depend on others and rarely let anyone get too close (Bogaert & Sadava, 2002).  Anxious-ambivalent traits include labeling potential partners as untrustworthy, feeling as though they are unable to depend on their partner, thinking that others avoid getting too close to them by avoiding engaging in a relationship with them or worry their partner doesn’t love them (Bogaert & Sadava, 2002). 

Secure attachment individuals tend to have more successful relationships than individuals with anxious-ambivalent or avoidant attachment styles as they show trust and confidence in their relationship, including in intimacy, [grammar?] they make friendships easily and bond with others, they feel secure and committed in their relationship and put little time into worrying about potential relationship failure in the future (Bogaert & Sadava, 2002). 

Adults who display high levels of avoidance attachment are more likely to engage in an affair as they feel insecure in their relationship and therefore seek pleasure from someone who they have no emotional ties to (Bogaert & Sadava, 2002).  Interestingly, children whose parents were unfaithful were more likely to be unfaithful themselves (Platt, Nalbone, Casanova & Wetchler, 2008).

Personality traits and infidelity[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. Eysencks' Big 5 personality traits have been explored to determine if specific traits make someone more likely to engage in infidelity.

Could ones[grammar?] personality make them more likely to engage in infidelity?  Eysencks’ Big Five personality traits have been explored to determine if specific personality traits can predict whether someone is more likely to engage in relationship infidelity. The personality traits extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness and neuroticism are associated with individuals who participate in risky forms of sexual behaviour including infidelity (Schmitt, 2004).  A universal study consisting of 16,363 individuals from 10 world regions found that men who are high in extraversion are more likely to value relationship exclusivity whereas women high in agreeableness and conscientiousness have a higher regard for relationship exclusivity.  Ones[grammar?] openness did not predict the likelihood of them straying from their primary relationship (Schmitt, 2004).

So can ones[grammar?] personality predict infidelity? Cross cultural research has been able to suggest that personality traits such as someone low in agreeableness and low in conscientiousness as being more likely to be unfaithful.  These personality traits may be reflected through their lack of trust and empathy and their unreliable and disorganised nature.  Relationships where people place similar value on conscientiousness and openness to new experiences and have similar levels of agreeableness and neuroticism are more likely remain faithful in a relationship (Tsapelas, Fisher & Aron, 2010).

Self-expansion model[edit | edit source]

The self-expansion model has been linked to infidelity in relationships through assuming individuals pursue relationships to expand themselves, their self-efficacy and to receive potential benefits from the relationship such as their partners resources (Aron, Steele, Kashdan & Perez, 2006). 

If an individual in a relationship feels they require greater amounts of intimacy, sex, security, emotional involvement or companionship, plus feel they are lacking opportunities for self-expansion they are more vulnerable to seeking and attaining these things elsewhere such as through another relationship (Lewandowski & Ackerman, 2006).  This theory also suggests that if an individual is seeking a relationship for self-expansion and not for love and there is limited romantic or physical attraction individuals will fulfill their needs via another source (Lewandowski & Ackerman, 2006). [Summarise and abbreviate]

Additional theories[edit | edit source]

Table 1. Additional theories associated with infidelity.

Additional theories and descriptions.
The deficit model
The deficit model suggests when a relationship is not satisfying an individuals needs through factors such as intimacy, sex and security and an individual is experiencing conflict within their relationship they are likely to seek intimacy or companionship outside of their relationship (Chuick, 2009; Tsapelas et al., 2010).
The personal growth model
Suggests individuals engage in an affair not because they are unhappy in their relationship but because they have a desire to discover themselves and to satisfy their need of feeling important to others (Chuick, 2009)[grammar?].

Understanding the emotional effects of infidelity[edit | edit source]

Damaged self-esteem, sadness, jealousy, guilt, humiliation, happiness, anger, helplessness, anxiousness, confusion and distress are all emotional reactions that people can experience upon learning that your partner has been unfaithful (Shackelford et al., 2000).  But does ones emotional reaction or the extent to which the infidelity effects someone differ depending on whether an individual had been cheated on sexually, emotionally, or both, by their partner?

The emotional impact of infidelity can differ depending on a number of factors including ones[grammar?] gender, whether their partner engaged in emotional or physical infidelity or both, how one learnt of their partners indiscretion and can also depend on ones personality and attachment style.

Men and women have significantly different emotional reactions to infidelity (Edlund, 2006; Levy & Kelly, 2010; Shackelford et al., 2000).  The most common reactions men experience upon hearing of a partner’s infidelity is relieved, suicidal, happy and sexually aroused (Shackelford et al., 2000).  Whereas women are more likely to feel nauseated, depressed, undesirable, insecure, helpless, abandoned and anxious (Shackelford et al., 2000).  Women also tend to seek comfort and companionship from their friends (Miller & Maner, 2008).  However, regardless of gender, physical infidelity is more likely to make someone feel nauseated and repulsed whereas emotional infidelity is more likely to make someone feel undesirable and insecure (Shackelford et al., 2000)[Provide more detail]

Figure 4. Sadness is one of the most common emotions one experiences upon learning that their partner has been unfaithful.

Can our attachment style influence our emotional response?  The link between sex differences and attachment style and how emotional verse physical infidelity inflicts jealous responses in males and females has been explored (Levy & Kelly, 2010).  Secure individuals find emotional infidelity harder to cope with than physical infidelity whereas dismissive individuals find physical infidelity a greater betrayal than emotional infidelity (Levy & Kelly, 2010)[Provide more detail].  There is also a difference in males and females[grammar?] jealousy responses to sexual compared to emotional infidelity with men three to four times more likely to find sexual intimacy more distressing than females as another man has come where he is not welcome threatening his territory and potential of future offspring (Levy & Kelly, 2010).  In addition, men reportedly have significantly lower physical, social and intellectual self-esteem after a relationship in which their significant other was unfaithful compared to a woman who’s husband has been sexually unfaithful (Shackelford, 2001).

Feeling jealous is common upon hearing that your partner has been unfaithful (Edlund, 2006), so is feeling humiliated, foolish and embarrassed (Shackelford et al., 2000).  However, some people have also reported feeling guilty or responsible for their partners’ indiscretions and blame themselves (Shackelford et al., 2000) thinking they could have done more to curb them from seeking comfort in another person or relationship.   

The way someone learns of their partners’ affair can also impact on their response.  The most harmful and damaging way to find out about a partners affair is through a third party, followed by catching the person in the act, by feeling suspicious, seeking out information and finding it and lastly by the person your partner was unfaithful with (Afifi et al., 2001).  This is due to personal feelings of embarrassment and shame which depending on how one finds out can be managed[factual?].

In addition to feelings of sadness, fear, hurt, anger and helplessness people have also reported that they felt content, happy, pleased and relieved to hear of their partners[grammar?] infidelity (Shackelford et al., 2000).  These feelings and responses suggest that the individual is unhappy or unsatisfied in their current relationship and are glad to have an excuse to leave the relationship. 

Infidelity not only impacts on the partner who has been cheated on but can also effect[grammar?] the cheater who has been unfaithful, with many people who have disclosed or confessed their indiscretions to their partner likely to experience psychological problems such as depression later on (Blow & Hartnett, 2005).  These feelings are also intensified if, as a result of the infidelity they have lost their job, they have lost or damaged other close relationships with friends and family therefore changing their social circle, or incur legal and financial consequences as a result of their actions (Blow & Hartnett, 2005).

In some instances learning of a partner's transgressions can also lead people to suicidal, violent or destructive behaviour (Shackelford et al., 2000).  This extreme behaviour is particularly prevalent in males where they feel anger and violent towards the male whom his wife or partner engaged in an affair with (Miller & Maner, 2008).  This could be due to feeling severely emotionally betrayed as the hurt has come from someone in who they had complete trust in (Afifi et al., 2001). 

Alternatives to monogamy[edit | edit source]

Figure 5. Some men and women engage in 'swinging' or polygamous relationships for different reasons, by not committing to one person it is one way people combat or avoid infidelity within their relationship.

Most people expect monogamy within their relationship, however there are people who choose not to commit to one person and engage in swinging or a polygamous relationship.  Further information about polygamous relationships and the different types of polygamous relationships is available at Polyamory and emotional need (Book chapter, 2016).

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

This chapter explored some motivational factors about why people choose to engage in an affair, however, it is likely there are additional reasons why individuals choose to stray and participate in behaviour which is hurtful and harmful to themselves but also their loved ones.  The chapter has also discussed the prevalence of infidelity and has hopefully raised awareness of how emotionally challenging and draining infidelity can be on all involved. Note, [missing something?] majority of the findings discussed are related to heterosexual relationships, findings may differ amongst same sex relationships.

So does emotional or physical infidelity have a greater emotional effect? The effects of infidelity differ from person to person and whether someone experiences greater hurt from sexual compared to emotional infidelity is hard to determine due to a range of reasons including gender differences, personality traits, support networks, attachment style and whether the individual has been subject to infidelity within a relationship before. Men and women have commonalities in their emotional responses to infidelity however the main influences on ones[grammar?] reaction to infidelity appear to lye[spelling?] in ones[grammar?] personality and attachment style.  

Given that 56% of men and 63% of women find their extramarital affair both emotionally and physically satisfying, it leaves you questioning whether some individuals who choose to engage in extramarital relations will continue to do so (Barta & Kiene, 2005).

A range of support networks are available for individuals who need help with infidelity including:

  • Relationship or family Counselors  
  • Psychologists

See also[edit | edit source]


Adultery and emotion (Book chapter, 2015)

Emotional abuse in romantic relationships (Book chapter, 2016)

Emotional affair (Wikipedia)

Infidelity (Book chapter, 2011)

Infidelity and needs (Book chapter, 2014)

Polyamory and emotional need fulfilment (Book chapter, 2016)

Sex and happiness (Book chapter, 2016)

Sexual swinging (Book chapter, 2016)

References[edit | edit source]

Afifi, W., Falato, W., & Weiner, J. (2001). Identity concerns following a severe relational transgression: The role of discovery method for the relational outcomes of infidelity. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 18(2), 291-308. doi:10.1177/0265407501182007

Aron, A., Steele, J., Kashdan, T., & Perez, M. (2006). When similars do not attract: Tests of a prediction from the self-expansion model. Personal Relationships, 13(4), 387-396. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.2006.00125.x

Barta, W. & Kiene, S. (2005). Motivations for infidelity in heterosexual dating couples: The roles of gender, personality differences, and sociosexual orientation. Journal of Social And Personal Relationships, 22(3), 339-360. doi:10.1177/0265407505052440

Blow, A. & Hartnett, K. (2005). Infidelity in committed relationships II: A substantive review. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 31(2), 217-233. doi:10.1111/j.1752-0606.2005.tb01556.x

Bogaert, A. & Sadava, S. (2002). Adult attachment and sexual behavior. Personal Relationships, 9(2), 191-204. doi:10.1111/1475-6811.00012

Chuick, C. D. (2009). Gender and infidelity: a study of the relationship between conformity to masculine norms and extrarelational involvement. PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) thesis, University of Iowa, 2009.

Edlund, J., Heider, J., Scherer, C., Farc, M., & Sagarin, B. (2006). Sex differences in jealousy in response to actual infidelity. Evolutionary Psychology, 4(1). doi:10.1177/147470490600400137

Elmslie, B. & Tebaldi, E. (2008). So, what did you do last night? The economics of infidelity. Kyklos, 61(3), 391-410. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6435.2008.00408.x

Infidelity - definition of infidelity in English | Oxford Dictionaries. (2016). Oxford Dictionaries | English.

L. Platt, R., Nalbone, D., Casanova, G., & Wetchler, J. (2008). Parental conflict and infidelity as predictors of adult children's attachment style and infidelity. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 36(2), 149-161. doi:10.1080/01926180701236258

Levy, K. & Kelly, K. (2009). Sex differences in jealousy: A contribution from attachment theory. Psychological Science, 21(2), 168-173. doi:10.1177/0956797609357708

Lewandowski, G., & Ackerman, R. (2006). Something's missing: Need fulfillment and self-expansion as predictors of susceptibility to infidelity. The Journal of Social Psychology, 146(4), 389-403. doi:10.3200/socp.146.4.389-403

Meyers, S. (2016). How to define emotional infidelity: different types cheating. Psychology Today.

Miller, S., & Maner, J. (2008). Coping with romantic betrayal: Sex differences in responses to partner infidelity. Evolutionary Psychology, 6(3). doi:10.1177/147470490800600305

Schmitt, D. (2004). The Big Five related to risky sexual behaviour across 10 world regions: differential personality associations of sexual promiscuity and relationship infidelity. European Journal of Personality, 18(4), 301-319. doi:10.1002/per.520

Shackelford, T. (2001). Self-esteem in marriage. Personality and individual differences, 30(3), 371-390. doi:10.1016/s0191-8869(00)00023-4

Shackelford, T., LeBlanc, G., & Drass, E. (2000). Emotional reactions to infidelity. Cognition & Emotion, 14(5), 643-659. doi:10.1080/02699930050117657

Treas, J., & Giesen, D. (2000). Sexual infidelity among married and cohabiting Americans. Journal of Marriage and Family, 62(1), 48-60. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2000.00048.x

Tsapelas, I, Fisher, H. E., & Aron, A. (2010). Infidelity: when, where, why. In W.R. Cupach & B.H. Spitzberg, The Dark Side of Close Relationships II (pp. 175-196) , New York: Routledge.

External links[edit | edit source]