The Science Behind the Gender Infidelity Gap - The Bad Influence - Medium

Joe Duncan 10-13 minutes 12/22/2021

Cheaters were always more likely to be men — until now…

Joe Duncan

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Compared to the average Hollywood marriage, Keanu Reeves’ marriage to Winona Ryder has been nothing shy of saintly. The couple is married at the time of this writing and has been married ever since they worked together on Bram Stroker’s Dracula in 1992.

Seriously, Keanu and Winona both deserve applause for their longstanding, happy marriage that many people aspire to.

As I write this, several people in my life are going through the agony of the black stain of infidelity. Now, as they each dust themselves off, discussions are in order to determine where their relationships will proceed from here — if they proceed at all. For some, one instance of cheating is a wrap.

Their relationships are ruined and they need to start sorting assets.

The Problems of Adultery

Infidelity has plagued humans for as long as socially enforced monogamy has been a thing. And it’s one of the rare things that virtually everyone agrees on. Study after study has confirmed that people frown on adulterers almost universally. There’s a great stigma that comes along with adultery, for several reasons.

As I always said, beginning my voyage into ethical non-monogamy many years ago, “It was never the sex that bothered me about infidelity, it’s the betrayal.”

It’s the lying.

It’s the willingness to put the relationship in jeopardy just to fulfill a selfish emotional need, without so much as giving our partners a heads up and explaining what we’re going through.

It’s the sneaking around that bothers most people.

Cheating is a choice of the self at the expense of everyone else involved. This is because commitment is promissory, by definition. When we commit to sexual exclusivity with someone, we commit our future selves as well as our present selves. When we cheat, we quit the symbolic sacrifice that we offered to our partners as a testament to our commitment, for better or worse.

The Gender Infidelity Gap

For the longest time in Western Culture, men have been more likely to cheat than women. Theories ranging from the ubiquitous of the male gaze to men simply having more testosterone have abounded as theorists tried to explain what it was about men that made them innately more unfaithful than women.

This is the gender infidelity gap. You may have heard of the gender pay gap, well, there’s an infidelity gap as well. For the longest time, men have been more likely to cheat on women than the other way around. But that’s all been changing over the last few decades.

First, let’s go over the eight main reasons that people commit infidelity, and then we’ll explore the gender infidelity gap and why it’s finally closing.

Why Do People Cheat?

According to a review of studies on infidelity, a study that compiled a lot of data about infidelity spanning back decades, there are eight main reasons people cheat.

They are:

Usually, instances of infidelity can be boiled down to one or more of these eight motivating factors.

And what’s interesting to consider is that while all of these reasons are personal, they’re also social.

For most people, while our relationships are a part of who we are and they’re a shared experience between us and our partners, they’re also a reflection of how we view ourselves and our role in society at large.

Ever been really upset because your partner’s parents insisted on making your relationship a living hell? Have you ever had a partner whose friends refused to accept you for whatever reason? This happens all the time and it can sometimes put a serious strain on an otherwise happy relationship.

Our partners are like a mirror that reflects our inner choices and desires.

And this social aspect has something to do with the gender infidelity gap….

Sex, Infidelity, and Power

I’m going to say something quite controversial, here, but hear me out…almost every relationship in the world has an element of power involved. Power and sex relations are so deeply intertwined in the experiences of most people that they don’t even know how to untangle the two.

Tragically, a lot of people in this world care very much about how their relationship looks in the eyes of their peers. We want to show off our partners and, if our partners embarrass us, we might shut them away on social occasions and look elsewhere.

The pragmatist in me understands this to be true, along with the fact that finances, responsibility, and other household factors play a huge role in sex and relationships. But at the same time, the idealist in me understands that we must transcend this.

Personally, I believe that true, healthy, happy, and lasting love should not, and arguably cannot, be based on a power dynamic. Our partners aren’t accessories, they’re human beings.

This is precisely what Keanu and Winona have gotten right — they see each other as equals rather than rungs on the hierarchical ladder of society.

The Closing Infidelity Gap

And it also illuminates why the gender infidelity gap is closing. You see, historically, as harsh as this is to say, it’s people who looked down on their partners who cheated the most often.

People with equal education or equal career pursuits usually don’t commit infidelity. When infidelity, of any sort, arises, it’s usually when one partner is pulling more of the socioeconomic weight than the other. Most people are very well-attuned to their social desirability, even if it’s on an unconscious level, and when the balance is interrupted, things tend to go awry.

While cheaters have historically been men more often than women, when women do cheat on their partners, their partners are usually less educated, unemployed, underemployed, or less physically attractive or desirable than them.

On the flip side of this, many men in committed relationships who love when their wives or girlfriends sleep with other men, report wanting this kind of relationship dynamic because they feel like their wives are the most beautiful women in the world, and that they’re fortunate to have them.

This is a profoundly social statement that speaks to a world outside of the union of the two partners.

Perhaps for some of these men, this is a peace offering, a way of acknowledging either a deep sense of inferiority or a way of confessing their good fortune to have been selected by such an incredible partner (in their eyes).

Infidelity Gap? Or Power Discrepancy?

When you add all of this up, it really makes you wonder if there ever truly was an infidelity gap, to begin with. Or was it that, historically, men had the power, the education, and the money, and thus they were more likely to commit infidelity simply because they could afford to do so.

As with each passing decade, women are being granted more and more rights, men no longer have the socioeconomic wherewithal to get away with the same kinds of unilateral abuse, including infidelity, that they used to.

Science seems to suggest this to be the case. While it’s true that broke people cheat, and that anyone can commit infidelity if the opportunity presents itself (and their impulse control is significantly lacking), people also tend to make somewhat rational choices, and thus socioeconomic status is one of the best predictors of infidelity around.

What should we take away from this? Besides the fact that Keanu Reeves is an awesome guy and a role model for men everywhere?

Smart Takeaways

First, we can use it to illuminate one simple fact about infidelity: that infidelity becomes more likely when people have the means and opportunity to cheat.

I’ve discussed elsewhere the overwhelming scientific evidence that suggests that humans aren’t really a monogamous species, that our monogamy has been socially enforced throughout history, and that when people can cheat without severe consequences, they do (and even when there are still severe consequences for cheating, they still do).

Not that this is a bad thing. Perhaps we should rethink monogamy altogether rather than trying to implement a series of tyrannical rules and pains that people must suffer as a result of having sex. At this point, it seems draconian.

Second, we can say that for most people, socioeconomic status is an important part of how they define themselves. This is really sad because I think we shouldn’t be defining ourselves in the eyes of others, but alas, this is the world we live in and it’s important to be realistic about it.

In order to not have our relationship defined in the eyes of the world around us, our partner needs to be on board with that, or it’s not going to work.

Lastly, the eight main reasons people commit infidelity can be branched into two subcategories, those who are happy with their primary relationship and those who are not.

The Two Primary Motivations for Infidelity

Only 20.4% of the relationships in the aforementioned study ended over the instances of infidelity reported. The rest of the people patched things up and moved on. The biggest predictor of the relationship failing after a cheating partner is the reason for the cheating.

When people cheated because they were unhappy with their current relationship (feeling unloved, lack of sex, anger), infidelity was usually the last straw. When people cheated in spite of having a happy relationship (sexual variety, desire for a different kink, circumstantial), they tended to smooth things over.

From this, we can learn that there really isn’t all that much you can do to prevent cheating entirely, per se. No amount of love or money or affection will prevent someone from having sex when they want to have sex. We can’t control other people.

But that doesn’t mean our relationships are destined to be doomed someday and we should throw the baby out with the bathwater, here. Relationships that were more robust and fulfilling did better after infidelity, so investing time and effort into the quality of your relationship may end up protecting it from falling apart, should a case of infidelity arise down the road.

The other option, of course, is just to have the discussion about alternatives, like open relationships and other forms of ethical non-monogamy, should the need arise.

You don’t have to dive right in. But it’s wise to start the conversation now and get things out in the open. Here are some book suggestions so you can learn more about human monogamy, fidelity, and perhaps do just that.