Are Men and Women More Threatened by Emotional or Sexual Infidelity?

The green eyed monster — chances are most people have experienced, at least once, the not-so-pleasant feeling of jealousy. In fact, the term “green-eyed monster” was coined as far back as 1603 in the Shakespearian play, The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice:

Beware of jealousy, my lord! It’s a green-eyed monster that makes fun of the victims it devours. The man who knows his wife is cheating on him is happy, because at least he isn’t friends with the man she’s sleeping with. But think of the unhappiness of a man who worships his wife, yet doubts her faithfulness. He suspects her, but still loves her. (Shakespeare, 1622).

Literally, humans have been dealing with and writing about relationship jealousy for over 400 years…before computers, phones, Tinder, and malls. One would think that after centuries, humans would have developed better reactions to jealousy or at least better understand it. But sadly jealousy is an intensely personal yet seemingly universal feeling that we are simply terrible at dealing with; both men and women.

A massive study on this subject has been completed by Dr. Frederick of Chapman University, which measured relationship jealousy (Frederick & Fales, 2014). Chapman polled almost 64,000 Americans about emotional and sexual infidelity. Participants were asked to imagine two situations and indicate which scenario was more upsetting. The first situation was that their partner was having sex with someone else, but did not fall in love (sexual infidelity). The second situation was that their partner did not have sex with someone else, but did fall in love (emotional infidelity). The study design allowed researchers to explore jealousy responses not only between gender, but also between varying sexual orientations, to better understand jealousy causes and responses.

This study demonstrated support for an evolutionary model claiming certain biological and adaptive factors impact the jealousy response. It revolves around the notion of paternal investment and uncertainty. For males, there is always a chance that their child could have a different father, whereas women never experience maternal uncertainty. Therefore while jealousy is expected from both men and women, the evolutionary theory states that men will feel more distress about threats to sexual exclusivity whereas women are concerned more with loss of partner commitment, resources, and attention. The results supported the theory because they showed that heterosexual males reported the deepest levels of jealousy about sexual infidelity. In contrast, heterosexual women, homosexual men, homosexual women, and bisexual men and women all reported they would be more upset about emotional infidelity.

You might be thinking, “wait, that doesn’t make sense!” When infidelity occurs, men don’t immediately think about losing their chance to reproduce. The theory implies that jealousy is an adaptive mechanism, inherited from ancestors who lived in much more hostile environments. For example, humans developed a liking for sugar, fat, and protein, all of which are adaptive solutions to scarcity of food. Do we like just like the taste, or is there something deeper at play? Adaptation mechanisms exist in today’s society because they were behaviors that helped our ancestors survive and we are not necessarily always aware of the logic behind it, like jealousy.

So why is jealousy so bad and why does it matter if people respond differently to infidelity? Regardless of gender and sexual orientation, people can become jealous in relationships, and statistics show how the fear of actual or suspect infidelity can be one of the most stressful and upsetting events in a relationship.

According to Buss (2000) “sexual infidelity causes divorce worldwide more than any other marital violation, being closely rivaled only by the infertility of the union.” Additionally, jealousy can lead to devastating physical and mental consequences such as partner abuse, depression, anxiety, violence, and is a strong predictor of partner aggression. Also infidelity is one of the top factors associated with homicide in the United States and accounts for nearly one-third of murders (Barash & Lipton, 2001). The negative consequences of jealousy range from broken hearts and abandonment to extreme cases of violence.

So in your own relationship, it is important to have an open conversation about cheating with your significant other. When discussing infidelity, remember that there is no single definition, and it varies on a continuum from emotional to sexual.

Make sure that you share with your partner what infidelity means to you — how you define it, is it strictly sexual, emotional, or both? If yes, will it be expected, not tolerated, and what about online cheating? Also, while keeping the evolutionary model in mind, remember that jealousy is not a mark of immaturity, rather it is an extremely important adaptation which helped our ancestors survive; emotional wisdom! Just don’t go overboard.

What would be worse to you, emotional or sexual infidelity?

You can access Chapman’s blog here.


Barash, D. P., & Lipton, J. E. (2001). The myth of monogamy: Fidelity and infidelity in animals and people. New York, NY: W. H. Freeman.

Brand, R. J., Markey, C. M., Mills, A., and Hodges, S. D. (2007). Sex differences in self-reported infidelity and its correlates. Sex Roles, 57, 101-109.

Buss, D. M. (2000). The dangerous passion: Why jealousy is as necessary as love and sex. New York, NY: The Free Press.

Frederick, D. (2014). Upset over sexual versus emotional infidelity among gay, lesbian, bisexual, and heterosexual individuals. Retrieved March 2, 2015, from

Shakespeare, W. (1622). The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. Retrieved March 2, 2015, from

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