The Young and the Restless

Exploring the psychology of 20-something relationships

Stewing in Infidelity: Why Do People Cheat?

What causes males and females to cheat on significant others?

Oh you done really did it now Kristen Stewart. You are the Brutus (et tu girlfriend?). The Benedict Arnold. The Jane Fonda of Vietnam. What compelled you to cheat on your brooding, snowy skin, delectable English pastry of a man? First blow was publicly playing in hot pants and stripper hair with your devilishly handsome director, but then—the coup de grâce came when you spit out a public apology like your indiscretions were as deserving of recognition as Roosevelt’s post-Pearl Harbor speech. Your infidelity will decidedly not live in infamy. Any hopes for exoneration proved to be fruitless if the giant U-haul carrying Pattinson’s possessions from the couple’s home is any indication. In short, what the frontal lobes was K-Stew thinking?

The concept of cheating is a hot needle stitching various male and female canvases. Interestingly, research shows that those who betray their partners underestimate their transgressions. Those who are guilty of duplicity tend to think they have a strong case for their betrayal and that if their significant other finds out, their relationship can actually be improved by the lessons learned. Pattinson might make the argument that the perpetrator’s silver lining judgment is flawed.

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Reasons for deception are vast. But, research executed across all cultures strongly demonstrates the impact of Parental Investment Theory. This theory derives from primal instincts whereby men maximize reproductive fitness and chances of increasing their genetic line by mating with as many women as possible. Swiftly spreading the seed however, also might lead to paternity uncertainty—the kiss of death to one’s genetic line. In fact, nearly two percent of men in the U.S. are unknowingly raising another man’s child. This is one reason males are significantly more jealous about physical infidelity than emotional infidelity—and one reason Pattinson couldn’t forgive his disingenuous lady for her physical gaffe. In contrast, women need men who are committed and providing fathers and thus care far more when a man cheats emotionally. Studies show that women are more inclined to forgive a man for a sexual indiscretion as opposed to an emotional dalliance with another woman.

Since we know that Kristen didn’t cheat to extend her progeny or maximize reproductive potential, then why sacrifice her best friend (her words), love of her life (her words), career (if we can call it that—my words) and reputation? Especially jeopardizing a juggernaut franchise that will surely lead to an awkward and baffling press tour in a couple of months. One reason for the swindle might be a common relationship vaporizer—boredom.

It wasn’t a surprise when the two stars joined forces due to one of the strongest precipitators of a relationship: propinquity, whereby people maintain a predilection for those who are physically nearer to them. A cycle begins where we tend to form relationships with those who are physically close to us because proximity begets familiarity and familiarity begets liking by way of the mere exposure effect. Think of a song you once detested. Did Nelly’s “Hot in Here” come to mind first? Because then you are executing this exercise correctly. The first time you heard the song you probably wanted to plug your ears with a rubber bowling ball—but the more you unwittingly heard it, despite trying to fight the urge, the more you listened to it alone in your car on your long pensive drives and started to like it. You now try to conceal your liking when you whisper every lyric at your neighbor’s son’s bar mitzvah. The mere exposure effect, powerful and prominent, took place and has similar effects with people. In fact, this phenomenon exerts such a supreme influence that we tend to like people whose faces we recognize, even if we’ve never met the person! Propinquity is what allows the mere exposure effect to occur and burgeon—and both processes are the reasons people who see each other everyday in work or schools grow to like each other even if the attraction wasn’t initially present. After the initial we like each other! and honeymoon stage of a relationship when neurotransmitters return to baseline levels, couples must engage in activities to keep things flavorful. Filming a series of films and traveling the world might exert a tremendous release of reward-activating neurotransmitters at first, but these feelings might hit a monotony ceiling after a finite time. Researchers studying close relationships have found that couples who engage in active and arousing activities to spice things up, like traveling, outdoor activities, eating at new restaurants, report greater levels of satisfaction than couples who engage in the monotonous same old, same old. It’s important to challenge one another, catch each other off guard, and ultimately grow.

Though it can be argued that K-Stew and Rob were engaging in arousing activities, like film premieres and eating shrimp cocktail on yachts surfacing the Aegean, this can still become old news if it starts to feel routine. Add monotony to a disruption in equity—whereby one partner feels like they are putting more into the relationship than the other, and dissolution might be an inevitable outcome. Those who cheat rather than break-up with their existing partner beforehand lie for a variety of reasons—some as aforementioned believe their transgression has merit and will be forgiven, while others are only interested in experimenting for a hot minute so they can satisfy the what-if and then return to their unknowing partner. It remains to be seen whether forgiveness is in Stewart’s future and whether Rascal Flatts will sing an acapella song titled “Before She Cheats.” One piece of advice couples can take away is to prevent monotony—keep the mere-exposure effect and attraction wheel in cycle by engaging in arousing and challenging activities together. In this case, if every couple bungee jumped off a bridge, would you too? The answer should be easy.

 

References

Aron, A., Norman, C. C., Aron, E. N., McKenna, C., & Heyman, R. E. (2000). Couples' shared participation in novel and arousing activities and experienced relationship quality. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 78, 273-284.

Buss, D. M., Larsen, R. J., Western, D., & Semmelroth, J. (1992). Sex differences in jealousy: Evolution, physiology, and psychology. Psychological Science, 3, 251-255.

Levy, K. N., & Kelly, K. M. (2010) Sex Differences in Jealousy: A Contribution From Attachment Theory. Psychological Science, 168–173.

Miller, R. S. & Perlman, D. (2009). Intimate Relationships. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Stillwell, A. M., & Baumeister, R. F. (1997). The construction of victim and perpetrator memories: Accuracy and distortion in role-based accounts. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23, 1157-1172.

Zajonc, R. B. (2001). Mere exposure: A gateway to the subliminal. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 10, 224-228. 

Kristine Keller, M.A. is in her final semester of the Psychology Masters program at New York University.

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