Many people who have been unfaithful to their spouse do not believe they are truly forgiven, even if their partner assures them they are, according to a new study at Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU).
“We have a strong tendency not to believe our partner when they tell us we are forgiven,” said Dr. Mons Bendixen, associate professor in the department of psychology.
Infidelity is quite common: At least 20 percent of couples — and perhaps many more, depending on where you set the limit — are unfaithful to their spouse.
For the study, researchers conducted a survey with 92 young heterosexual couples who answered questions about imagined sexual or emotional infidelity by their partner and themselves.
According to the findings, when the unfaithful partner really does not believe that he or she is forgiven — even if the other partner is quite reassuring — the unfaithful partner will tend to overcompensate. For example, he or she may become more attentive, buy gifts, or do other things that they think their partner will appreciate.
Underestimating the degree of forgiveness is most likely an evolutionary mechanism, because the relationship may be in danger.
“The cost could be high if you think you are forgiven, but really are not. You might not work hard enough to mend the relationship,” said Bendixen.
In fact, in this particular case, it may be to your advantage to be wrong. The error management theory (EMT), a theory of evolved perceptual errors, can help explain why. When interpreting signals, we can make one of two false assumptions: we can believe that something exists even if it doesn’t, and we can believe that something doesn’t exist even if it does.
From an evolutionary perspective, it’s a question of which errors are more adaptable.
“An example is men who think women are interested in sex, even though the women’s intention is just to be nice. The most important thing for men in situations like this is not to miss a sexual opportunity,” says Bendixen.
The survey findings also show that most partners aren’t particularly intent on getting revenge or seeing their partner suffer. That doesn’t mean that it never happens, of course, but the probability is the same for both sexes. Instead, they are more likely to pull away and want to keep some distance.
“Partners want the infidelity to have a cost, but will rarely respond by being unfaithful themselves,” said evolutionary psychologist Dr. Trond Viggo Grøntvedt in NTNU’s department of public health and nursing.
There is also no difference between men and women when it comes to whether they would break up with the unfaithful partner or not. However, there is one major difference between the genders regarding which types of behaviors qualify as cheating.
Although sexual infidelity strongly affects both men and women, emotional infidelity is much harder on women than it is on men.
Men who have been caught engaging in emotional infidelity often do not believe that they have done anything wrong. As a result, they do not attempt to make up for anything, at least not as much as if they had been sexually unfaithful.
“Men often do not understand how hard emotional infidelity is on women,” said Professor Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair in the Department of Psychology. “Many men do not see this as infidelity at all, since they did not have sex with the other woman.”
At the same time, men are more likely to forgive this form of infidelity in their spouse. Men have less need to distance themselves from their partner than women do, and they look at emotional infidelity as less threatening to the relationship than women do.
These findings confirm the psychologists’ predictions. Previously, they investigated jealousy reactions in women and men around the suspicion of infidelity. Many of the same patterns were found in that study.
Women become most jealous at the thought of their partner being emotionally unfaithful, while men become most jealous in the case of sexual infidelity. These reactions are in line with the evolutionary theory of parental investment.
For most women, it has historically been worse for them if their partner breaks up than it has been for most men. Becoming emotionally attached to someone other than themselves has therefore been more threatening to women than to men.
Whether these responses would apply to all heterosexual relationships is unknown. Participants of this study were quite young, so in theory they could more easily find a new partner than older people, and we can assume they knew they would talk to each other about the answers afterwards.
But the conditions were the same for both sexes, and gender differences are still quite clear.