A woman secretly watches her partner cheat on her
Women and men look at different kinds of infidelity differently. But they forgive their partners pretty much the same way. Illustration photo: Shutterstock, NTB scanpix

How women and men forgive infidelity

Men and women react differently to different types of infidelity. But new findings about how we forgive cheating by our partners surprised researchers.

Infidelity is one of the most common reasons that heterosexual couples break up. Researchers who have studied 160 different cultures find this to be true worldwide.

However, men and women look at different types of infidelity differently.

  • Men usually regard physical infidelity – when their partner has sex with another person – more seriously than women do.
  • Women regard emotional infidelity – when their partner initiates a close relationship with another person – as more serious. (You can read more about why this is here.)

    A couple in bed. A man looks at his phone and a woman look at him dissapointingly

    Women look more harshly at emotional infidelity while men are more concerned about physical infidelity. Illustration-photo: Shutterstock, NTB scanpix

Both sexes forgive similarly

Despite experiencing the different types of infidelity differently, men and women are about equally willing to forgive their partner. And the new findings show that the degree of forgiveness is not related to the type of infidelity.

“We’re surprised that the differences between the sexes weren’t greater. The mechanisms underlying forgiveness are more or less identical between genders,” says Professor Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair at NTNU’s Department of Psychology.

He has co-authored a new article in the Journal of Relationships Research. The article addresses infidelity and the mechanisms behind forgiveness.

Perceived threat to the relationship most important

A research group at NTNU recruited 92 couples for the study. These couples independently completed a questionnaire related to issues described in hypothetical scenarios where the partner had been unfaithful in various ways.

  • One scenario describes the partner having sex with another person, but not falling in love.
  • In the other scenario, the partner falls in love with another person, but does not have sex.

    A mother watches as a child hugs her father as he's preparing to leave.

    All over the world, infidelity is one of the most common reasons that relationships end. Illustration-photo: Shutterstock, NTB scanpix

So how willing are people to forgive their partner? It turns out that men and women both process  their partner’s infidelity almost identically.

Most people, regardless of gender and the type of infidelity, think it unlikely that they would forgive their partner’s infidelity.

“Whether or not the couple breaks up depends primarily on how threatening to the relationship they perceive the infidelity to be,” says first author Trond Viggo Grøntvedt, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology.

The more threatening the infidelity feels, the worse it is for the relationship.

Willingness to forgive

Whether partners believe the relationship can continue also depends on how willing they are to forgive each other, especially in terms of avoiding distancing themselves from their partner.

Of course, great individual differences exist, even within each gender. People react differently to infidelity, according to their personality and the circumstances.

“A lot of people might think that couples who have a strong relationship would be better able to tolerate infidelity, but that wasn’t indicated in our study,” says Professor Mons Bendixen at NTNU’s Department of Psychology.

Blame and infidelity

Another aspect plays a role in cases of emotional infidelity, where no sex has taken place. To what extent can the unfaithful partner be blamed for what happened?

A woman on the verge of tears looks away as a man tries to talk to her.

If you willingly have sex with another person, it pretty much doesn’t matter whether you feel it’s your fault. Photo: Shutterstock/NTB scanpix

“The degree of blame attributed to the partner was linked to the willingness to forgive,” says Bendixen.

The relationship is at greater risk if the partner is required to bear a big part of the responsibility for ending up in an intimate relationship with someone else.

If you willingly have sex with another person, it pretty much doesn’t matter whether you feel it’s your fault.

“The blame factor doesn’t come into play when the partner is physically unfaithful,” Grøntvedt says.

If you voluntarily have sex with someone other than your partner, it’s more or less irrelevant whether you think it was mostly your fault or not. Possible forgiveness does not depend on accepting blame.

Watch a video that summarizes the article:

Source: Breakup Likelihood Following Hypothetical Sexual or Emotional Infidelity: Perceived Threat, Blame, and Forgiveness. Trond Viggo Grøntvedt, Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair and Mons Bendixen. https://doi.org/10.1017/jrr.2020.5