Regardless of your gender, being cheated on is a devastating experience. However, men and women sometimes have differences in the way they experience infidelity. Whether it’s the reasons they choose to cheat or the way they cope with a cheating partner, it can vary sometimes depending on the gender. Let’s dig a little deeper into how men and women can experience cheating differently.
*For the purposes of this article, we focused on the male and female gender, but recognize that many people may identify with a different gender category, such as transgender, binary, and/or fluid. Overall, this information is very general, and should be seen as a “starting point” and not as fact.
Why do people cheat?
First off, why does someone choose to cheat when it can cause such devastating effects? Each situation and person is different, but we do know that some patterns of behavior arise when we look at a person’s gender. It used to be believed that men engaged more in infidelity than women, but more recent studies have seen that gap narrowing especially when you look at the range of what is considered “cheating” behavior (e.g., emotional connection, kissing).
Why do women tend to cheat?
While it’s not true for all women, women are often motivated to cheat by emotional factors. When women experience dissatisfaction, feel ignored or casted aside, or are angry with their partners, it is more likely that they will cheat. This can be particularly true if they feel neglected or unappreciated in their current relationship.
Many women who cheat shared they found a strong emotional connection with someone and were feeling unfulfilled in a current relationship. For women, it’s not all about the sex; it’s more about intimacy.
In some cases, women may cheat as a way of seeking validation or self-esteem. If they are feeling insecure or unfulfilled in other areas of their life, such as their career or personal life, they may use infidelity as a way of boosting their self-esteem or feeling more desirable.
It is important to note all these reasons can be true for men as well. None of these reasons excuse the behavior, but give us a chance to understand what might motivate a person to do something they may regret.
Why do men tend to cheat?
Speaking in broad strokes, men often cheat for sexual satisfaction. Studies have suggested that, for men, emotional satisfaction in a relationship is more strongly tied to feeling sexually fulfilled than it is for women.
In some cases, men who cheat may be looking for excitement or fulfillment with the frequency or quality of sex that they feel are missing from their current relationship. Men who are also experiencing difficulties with arousal or sexual performance may also look for opportunities outside of their relationship because they feel less pressure to “perform” with someone who they’re less emotionally connected to.
But, just like women, men often cheat if they feel neglected or unappreciated in their current relationship. So, while we can glean some sort of explanation for what drives a person to cheat based on their gender, it’s not black and white. Gender, personality, life events… all can impact why we do the things we do.
The emotional impact of Infidelity
For anyone, infidelity is likely to cause big emotions – anger, sadness, shame. But what sets off those big feelings may be different depending on your gender.
Studies have suggested a gender difference in how a person emotionally responds to infidelity. In one study, results suggested that men were more likely to become distressed by the physical aspects of their partner’s infidelity vs. women were more distressed by imagining their partner forming a deep emotional bond with someone else.
The impact on relationships
Cheating can be a major hurdle in any relationship, and it’s important to acknowledge that men and women react to it differently.
For women, finding out that their partner has been unfaithful can be extremely distressing and may even lead to the end of the relationship. They may view their partner’s infidelity as a violation of the fundamental components of a healthy relationship, such as trust and commitment. Even if they choose to stay together, women may struggle to trust their partner again in the future.
Feelings of anger, shame, embarrassment and doubt may bring up questions about a woman’s self-worth and impact her self-esteem. Questions like, “Was I not good enough?” or “What did I do wrong… did I cause this?” can play over and over in someone’s head. These fears, questions and feelings are likely to take significant time to overcome, especially if the infidelity was kept a secret for an extended period.
Why might women have more intense emotional reactions? Women can tend to invest more emotionally in their relationships compared to men. They may place a higher value on the emotional connection and intimacy that comes with a committed relationship, and when that trust is broken, it can have a significant impact on their emotional well-being.
Women may also experience a sense of betrayal and a loss of trust in their partner after discovering infidelity (this is also true for men). This can make it difficult for them to trust their partner in the future, even if they decide to stay together.
Men have feelings too! And when their partners cheat, it can bring up a broad range of emotions.
Betrayal and anger are common emotional responses for men when they discover their partner’s infidelity. For many men, the idea of their partner physically being intimate with another person is more distressing than the idea of an emotional connection. They may feel like their partner has broken the trust and commitment that are necessary for a healthy relationship. Men may also experience feelings of rejection, inadequacy, and a loss of self-esteem.
Some men may even feel guilty or responsible for their partner’s infidelity. They may wonder if they weren’t fulfilling their partner’s needs (especially physically) or if they contributed to their partner’s decision to cheat.
If a man decides to stay in the relationship after infidelity, he may find it difficult to rebuild trust and intimacy with his partner. He may struggle to trust his partner again in the future, even if she expresses regret and a desire to work on the relationship.
Coping with infidelity
Dealing with infidelity is a challenging and lengthy process, and men and women may need varying types of support to navigate through it.
Women’s coping mechanisms
Women deal with the emotional toll of infidelity in various ways, influenced by their personality, past experiences, and support system.
One common strategy for coping is seeking comfort and advice from friends or family members. Talking to someone who can offer emotional support and a listening ear can help process the complex emotions that come with infidelity. Women may also choose to speak with a therapist or another professional, who can provide guidance on how to heal and move forward.
Engaging in self-care activities such as exercise, meditation, or spending time in nature is another effective method of coping. These activities can help alleviate stress and anxiety, and promote feelings of self-worth and well-being. On the flipside, it’s also vital to notice when a coping strategy may feel like it’s helping, but in the long run is harmful. Sure, a bottle of wine or throwing caution to the wind can (a.k.a., risky behavior) feel good in the moment, but in the long run can make it harder to really heal.
Some women may attempt to rebuild trust and intimacy with their partner through open and honest communication, setting boundaries, and working on improving the relationship’s dynamics.
Ultimately, the most effective coping mechanisms for women vary and depend on their unique needs and situation. Seeking support and guidance from trusted professionals and loved ones is a crucial step in the healing process.
Men’s coping mechanisms
Men handle the emotional consequences of infidelity in a variety of ways, influenced by their personality, past experiences, and support system.
One common approach for coping is engaging in activities that provide a sense of control or achievement. This can include focusing on work, hobbies, or physical fitness. By channeling their energy into these activities, many men can distract themselves from the pain of infidelity and gain a sense of accomplishment and purpose.
Leaning on friends and family is another great avenue. While it may be hard to open up about their emotions (especially shame & sadness), having the space to be real+honest is invaluable. And, just like women, men should check in with what may be making them feel better in the moment (e.g., substances, risky behaviors) is probably an avoidance tactic and doesn’t actually make these feelings go away. In the long run, these behaviors make it harder to move forward, whether that is with their partner or not.
Some men may try to rebuild trust and intimacy with their partner by improving the relationship’s dynamics through open communication and setting boundaries.
At the end of the day, the most effective coping mechanisms for men vary depending on their unique needs and circumstances. Seeking guidance and support from trusted professionals and loved ones is an essential step in the healing process.
Although both men and women go through emotional distress and trauma when dealing with infidelity, they don’t always react the same. Being aware of these differences can assist individuals in managing the healing process more efficiently.
Dr. Vivian Oberling is the Founding Psychologist at Pace Groups. She is also a licensed clinical psychologist who has dedicated her career to improving the lives of clients across the lifespan. Background-wise, she’s been trained and worked in academic centers and hospitals (Stanford, Harvard, UCLA, Kaiser and Rady Children’s), and utilizes evidence-based treatments and research to enhance non-clinical, supportive services.