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Jealousy, revenge, and forgiveness:

Young women's reactions to emotional and physical infidelity

By Jessica Davis


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Infidelity is defined as an act of unfaithfulness or violation of a contract, and has been demonstrated to be one of the most damaging events possible in a relationship between two people (Shackelford, LeBlanc, & Drass, 2000).   Reactions to infidelity can range from divorce to domestic violence (Vandello & Cohen, 2003).   One thing that is generally agreed upon is that there are two types of infidelity: physical infidelity, involving sexual contact with a third party, and emotional infidelity, involving the formation of an inappropriately strong attachment to another individual (Buss, Larsen, Westen, & Semmelroth, 1992).   Both sexes appear to be distressed by both types of infidelity, but in different ways, for different reasons, and, most interestingly, with varied results for the outcome of the relationship.   The purpose of the present research is to examine the ambiguity found in much of the current research as to whether or not women are truly more upset by emotional infidelity than physical infidelity, and if there are similarities in the way that they react to the two types of infidelity in terms of revenge and forgiveness.


Much research has been done focusing on the differences between the type of infidelity that men and women find most upsetting (Buss et al., 1992; Cramer, Abraham, Johnson, & Manning-Ryan, 2001; Cann, Mangum, & Wells, 2001; Hupka & Bank, 1996; Knox, Zusman, Kalzuny, & Sturdivant, 2000; Pietrzak, Laird, Stevens, & Thompson, 2002).   Men, the majority of researchers hold, find physical or sexual infidelity in a relationship most distressing, while women are more troubled by emotional infidelity by a partner. This theory traces the roots of the disparity between the sexes back to a time when the primary concern of all humans was the perpetuation of one's genes into the next generation.   A male, therefore, would have more to lose if a partner was unfaithful sexually, creating the possibility that the genes of the children born by his mate were not his own.   Women, on the other hand, being assured of the maternity of any offspring, would be placed in a far more precarious position should a man choose to become more attached emotionally to another woman, as it would decrease the likeliness that he would remain to support any offspring.   This theory has its roots in a classic study by Buss, Larsen, Westen, & Semmelroth, in which sex differences in the intensity of jealousy for different types of infidelity were observed (1992).   Buss et al. defined emotional infidelity as forming a deep emotional attachment to another person; sexual infidelity was defined as enjoying passionate sexual intercourse with another person.  

There are some theorists that also claim this evolutionary model is false, and that differences arise rather from differing perspectives on the relationship between emotional and physical infidelity.   This argument examines the issue from a standpoint of logic and rationality.   Termed the double-shot hypothesis, it suggests that women are more likely to choose emotional infidelity as more upsetting because they perceive there to be an implicit relationship with sexual infidelity (DeSteno & Salovey, 1996).   Specifically, if an individual has formed an emotional bond with someone, it is more likely than not that the two will enjoy a sexual relationship as well, but not the reverse.   Men, having reported a belief that either type of infidelity is equally likely to predict the other, were equally likely to choose emotional or physical infidelity as the more distressing of the two.

Revenge and Forgiveness

Research examining emotional responses to infidelity has found that with the exception of feelings of inadequacy, the most frequently reported emotions following infidelity are those of hostility or vengefulness (Shackelford et al, 2000).   Closely linked to this is the construct of forgiveness.   Some studies have proposed the relationship between the two to be one of opposites (Mullet, Houdbine, Laumonier, & Girard, 1998), identifying a "revenge versus forgiveness" factor.   Others have examined desire for revenge as a mitigating factor in the act of forgiveness (McCullough, Fincham, & Tsang, 2003).

Researchers focusing on the issue of forgiveness of an infidelity, specifically by women, have found that they tend to perceive a connection between emotional and sexual infidelity in a way that men do not (DeSteno & Salovey, 1996). If women choose emotional infidelity as more upsetting only as it is indicative of sexual infidelity, then it could be theorized that women are equally distressed by physical infidelity but place more emphasis on the conditions surrounding it.

Although many studies have examined the factors that may serve as predictors of infidelity (Atkins, Baucom, & Jacobson, 2001), far fewer have focused on the repercussions in relationships following issues of infidelity.   One study by Shackelford, Buss, and Bennett looked for a possible correlation between the choice of type of infidelity as most upsetting and the type of infidelity for which one would be most likely to end a relationship (2002).   Participants completed a survey involving four scenarios, two of which were indicative of sexual involvement and two of which implied emotional involvement.   The survey then called for choices between the sexual and emotional in response to two questions, the first being which scenario would be more distressing, and the second being which would be more difficult to forgive.   Not surprisingly, the authors discovered that men were more likely to end a relationship in response to physical infidelity and that the majority of women chose emotional causes as grounds for a breakup.   This was consistent with the previous findings of these researchers and was interpreted as supportive of the evolutionary approach to this issue.  

The various inconsistencies reported by researchers attempting to discover women's reactions to emotional and physical infidelity merit further investigation into the attitudes of this substantial subset of the population.   Based on the previous research conducted in this field, it is hypothesized that women given the option of reporting distress on a continuous scale rather than through forced-choice measures will rate physical and emotional infidelity as equally upsetting.   It is further hypothesized that the results of the analysis will show similar relationships in trends towards revenge and forgiveness for each of the two types of infidelity when presented as mutually exclusive, as opposed to previous methods, whose formats did not make this distinction.   Finally, a negative correlation between the perceived directionality of the two types of infidelity as they relate to one another (the likelihood of one type of infidelity to lead to another) is predicted.

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