Men And Women Differ Greatly In Their Definitions Of Emotional Cheating, According To Research

Trauma borne from emotional infidelity could be avoided if both genders are able to find common ground.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | September 13, 2023

Research conducted by a team of American psychologists, led by Amanda Guitar of the University of Alabama, suggests that men and women have different ways of interpreting "emotional cheating" or "emotional infidelity" in relationships.

The study asked over a thousand participants to define, in their own words, what sexual and emotional infidelity meant to them on an individual level. These definitions were then analyzed to derive overarching themes and commonalities. Here are the two key findings from the exercise:

  1. For men, emotional infidelity is best defined as a situation where a person creates emotional distance in a relationship by thinking about or spending an inordinate amount of time with another person, to the point that their partner feels rejected or ignored emotionally.
  2. For women, emotional cheating consists of being "in love" or dedicated emotionally to someone else who has romantic potential.

"The emphasis on potential sexual activity as a component of emotional infidelity was particularly apparent in women's definitions," state the researchers.

Other themes regarding emotional cheating that differed between men and women were:

  • Men were more likely to believe that two people can be close and have no sexual attraction
  • Women were more likely to view emotional cheating as "pretending you feel a certain way for your current partner when you really don't feel that way most of the time and most likely feel that way for another person"
  • Women were more likely to believe that emotional infidelity could be characterized as becoming attached to another person with the intention of having a sexual relationship

"It is particularly noteworthy that women were more likely than men to see definitions that included facets associated with sexual activity as highly prototypical of emotional infidelity," say the authors. "This finding is consistent with past research showing that emotional infidelity is more conceptually complex than sexual infidelity and, further, that women are more likely than men to conflate emotional and sexual infidelity."

Even though women in the study were more likely to call attention to the sexual undertones of emotional infidelity, both genders agreed that there could be cases of emotional infidelity without sexual infidelity, or sexual infidelity without emotional infidelity.

Further, men and women were more aligned in their definition of sexual infidelity, which was best described as "when a person is in a relationship or a marriage and engages in sexual activity with another individual that is not his or her girlfriend/boyfriend or husband/wife."

"These findings paint emotional infidelity as more complex — and as having much less agreement between the sexes as to its elements," say the authors. "In short, emotional infidelity is a relatively complex phenomenon that is more likely to be interpreted in diverse ways as compared with sexual infidelity."

If you suspect your partner of engaging in emotional cheating, or have anxiety about your own struggles with it, psychological research has the following pieces of advice:

  1. Keep channels of communication open and don't shy away from difficult conversations, even if you need the help of a mental health professional. A study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family highlights that harboring secrets within a relationship can be detrimental to its well-being. Additionally, confiding one's hopes and dreams in someone other than one's primary partner can lead to a gradual erosion of emotional intimacy within one's relationship. Honest conversations about personal needs, desires and challenges can foster trust and emotional closeness, thereby reducing the temptation to seek emotional comfort from another person.
  2. Acknowledge, honestly, that your relationship is going to change over time. As relationships progress, they naturally undergo transformations, and the initial romance may fade over time, as observed in astudy published in Frontiers in Psychology. Failing to acknowledge such transitions can cause fractures in your relationship.