Why you should care
Science has some encouraging news for anyone who has been cheated on … or thinks they may have been.
Getting cheated on is one of the most devastating and damaging things that can happen in a person’s life. It can lead to emotional distress, anxiety, depression, an increase in risk-taking behavior and actual physical pain. A partner’s infidelity can even change our brain chemistry. In short, it hurts like hell, and the impact can be far-reaching.
But, as with so many aspects of human behavior, it turns out we are fairly adaptive creatures, especially over the long term, and even an experience as calamitous as being cheated on has a potentially large upside. In fact, new scientific research suggests that cheating may be neither as common nor as devastating as we imagine. And if you are worried that you are being cheated on, or are still recovering from the aftermath of infidelity, then science has some encouraging news for you.
Breaking up with a romantic partner can be particularly traumatic for women. Studies suggest that from an evolutionary perspective, women tend to be more selective in their mate choice and bear more of the costs of parental investment, and thus have more to lose when things go south. They have larger “recurrent fitness costs” to use the parlance of evolutionary psychology. Losing one’s partner to another woman can be especially challenging to overcome.
Still, where evolution taketh away, it can also giveth: It appears that natural selection may have also favored some psychological coping mechanisms to help those who have been bucked off the horse get back on … and get back on a better horse. Researchers at Binghamton University in New York state and University College London surveyed 5,705 people from 96 countries about the dynamics of their heterosexual breakups. They found that:
Women take breakups harder than men do, but they eventually get over them in a much healthier way, confronting the pain instead of avoiding it.
And even when it comes to relationships that end because of a partner’s infidelity, women may go through an initial period of grief and betrayal, but they also gain a better perspective for future relationships as a result. In fact, women who had been cheated on demonstrated a greater “mating intelligence.” “What this means (in their words),” says the study’s lead researcher, Binghamton’s Craig Morris, “is that they are more attuned to cues of infidelity in a future mate, more aware of how other women interact with their mate, and they also possess more self-confidence and more self-awareness and independence in general.”
Another major consolation according to the study? The “other woman” who poached your partner — and who is now with someone with a demonstrable record of infidelity — is indeed the loser (or perhaps an eventual winner if she too can learn from being cheated on).
Men may not experience the same gains from being cheated on, but there’s some good news for them on the infidelity front. According to several recent studies, male fears of being cuckolded and raising children who are not their own are largely overblown: Researchers estimate that only 1 to 2 percent of children are the product of cuckoldry (a much lower rate than the earliest studies suggested).
Why are cuckolds relatively rare? Well, according to Maarten H.D. Larmuseau, a geneticist at the University of Leuven in Belgium and a leading researcher in the field, this finding is primarily driven by the same dynamic that helps explain why breakups are harder on women: namely, the heavy costs associated with the dissolution of a long-term mating relationship in a species with heavy parental investment in offspring. In other words, the fitness costs of cheating and being caught are simply too high for most women to risk it.
Being the victim of infidelity is never going to be easy. But if the research is right, we can all breathe a bit easier that it is a little less likely and damaging than we think.
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