When South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford was caught red-handed returning from a rendezvous with his Argentine mistress last June, he told the Associated Press that he had met his “soul mate.” His choice of words seemed to suggest that having a deep emotional and spiritual connection with Maria Belen Chapur somehow made his sexual infidelity to his now estranged wife, Jenny Sanford, less tawdry.
What the two-timing governor didn’t understand is that most women view emotional infidelity as worse, not better, than sexual betrayal. This may explain why Hillary Clinton stayed with Bill Clinton and seemed unconcerned about his sexual affair with Monica Lewinsky.
Past research has documented that most men become more green-eyed about sexual infidelity than they do about emotional infidelity. Women are the exact opposite, and this is true, according to conventional wisdom, worldwide. But why?
The prevailing theory dates back to our evolutionary origins: Men learned over the eons to be hyper-vigilant about sex because it was impossible to be absolutely certain they are the father of a child, while women became adamant about having a partner who is committed to raising a family.
However, new research now suggests an alternative explanation. Pennsylvania State University psychological scientists Kenneth Levy and Kristen Kelly propose that jealousy difference may be rooted more in individual personalities resulting from one’s own relationship history, but those differences can fall along gender lines.
Levy and Kelly doubted the prevailing evolutionary explanation because a conspicuous subset of men exist who, like most women, find emotional betrayal more distressing than sexual infidelity. Why would this be? Their hunch was that it might have to do with trust and emotional attachment.
Some people, men and women alike, are more secure in their attachments to others, while others tend not to need a close attachment in their relationships.
Psychologists see this compulsive self-reliance as a defensive strategy to protect against deep-seated feelings of vulnerability. Levy and Kelly hypothesized these individuals would tend to be more concerned with the sexual aspects of relationships rather than emotional intimacy.
The researchers took the classic approach to examine sex differences in jealousy. Levy and Kelly asked men and women which they would find more distressing, sexual or emotional infidelity. Participants also completed additional assessments including a standard and well validated measure of attachment style in romantic relationships.
The findings confirmed the scientists’ hypotheses, which they report in Physiological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. Those with a ‘dismissing’ attachment style— who prize their autonomy in relationships over commitment—were more distraught about sexual infidelity. Conversely, those in ‘securely attached’ relationships—including men—were much more likely to find emotional betrayal more hurtful.
These findings imply that psychological and cultural environments may have greater roles than previously recognized in determining how men and women deal differently with jealousy. The researchers say putting greater emphasis on secure attachment may be an effective means of reducing the kind of sexual jealousy that contributes to domestic violence.
Lynette Summerill, is an award-winning journalist who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona. In addition to writing about cancer-related issues, she writes a blog, Nonsmoking Nation, which follows global tobacco news and events.