Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Yer Cheatin' Heart: The Relationship Between Beauty and Betrayal

The Fête of the Order of Cuckoldry Before the Throne of Her Majesty, Infidelity, France, c. 1815

Looking at appearance and infidelity vis-à-vis the Petraeus household made me curious about what role beauty actually does play in betrayal. Most of us know from casual observation that it’s fully possible for a person to cheat with someone who isn’t as physically attractive as that person’s primary partner—but is there any sort of pattern there? Are people likelier to cheat with someone who’s conventionally better-looking than one’s partner?

I was surprised/relieved to find that there weren’t any studies available that delved into that particular question. (Not sure how that would work in a lab setting anyway: “Please send photo of mistress to...”?) But there’s a wealth of research looking at other intersections of appearance and infidelity. Some of the more interesting findings:

1) Women reported feeling more threatened when “the other woman” was particularly attractive—but only in cases of emotional infidelity. In sexual infidelity, the other woman’s appearance had no effect on the wife/girlfriend’s feelings about the betrayal.

I was surprised by the findings of this study at first. On the surface, our culture tends to equate beauty with sex appeal more than it connects beauty and lovability. (The frowsy girl in movies never gets laid, but someone’s gonna see her heart of gold, right?) So wouldn’t a woman feel more threatened by an attractive rival when the betrayal was sexual more than emotional?

But with a closer look, it makes perfect sense. Sexual infidelity can be as meaningless as a drunken, regrettable one-night stand; emotional infidelity implies not a fleeting crush but something with a deeper current that develops over time. In other words: Someone cheating sexually could just want one specific part of a person (ahem)—but someone cheating emotionally is entranced with the entirety of the third party. And in a culture that likes to make-believe that a woman’s value as a person lies in her beauty and feminine charms, it’s logical that a beautiful woman—i.e. a valuable woman—is going to pose a greater threat in situations of emotional infidelity. When your partner becomes emotionally invested in another person, it stings regardless of who that person is. But when it’s someone whose value is evident, the threat is greater because your own value diminishes comparatively. With sexual infidelity, the value of the person isn’t called into question as sharply as it with emotional infidelity, so a beautiful “rival” poses less of a threat.

2) Women are more likely than men to end a marriage after their own infidelity—and the more attractive the woman as compared to her husband, the likelier she is to do so.

To put it plainly, attractive women are likelier than men to use infidelity as an opportunity to “trade up,” in the language of this study. The lesson here seems clear: Beauty increases a woman’s “market value,” while infidelity (including the person’s own infidelity) lessens the value an individual gets from her or his partner. Put the two together and it’s not hard to see how a woman might feel as though the algorithm of the relationship has changed after infidelity, to the point where ending the relationship makes sense in a way that it might not if she weren’t confident of her “market value.” By the way, I’m putting that in quotes because it makes me a little queasy not to.

3) Women were twice as likely as men to endorse “the other person makes me feel attractive” as an acceptable reason for infidelity.

Endorse is a strong word here but it’s the word used in the study so I’m borrowing it here; the participants weren’t necessarily saying infidelity was hunky-dory under any circumstance. With that weakened use of endorse in mind, take this in: 20% of men endorsed cheating if the other person made them feel attractive, while 42% of women said the same. In addition, women were 6% likelier to endorse infidelity when the cheating party wasn’t attracted to their spouse. (In fact, the only reason for cheating that men endorsed significantly more than women was “Opportunity presented itself,” with 32% of men signing on.)

Read cynically, this confirms the wretched stereotype of women as hopelessly vain, forever needing to be fawned over and then getting huffy enough to cheat if that fawning stops. But I interpret this rather as a sad comment on what all these studies are driving at: Plenty of women still internalize their value as lying in their looks. Feeling beautiful under someone else’s gaze can be intoxicating—and so validating that it might trump other values one might hold dear. Bathing in that gaze is often construed as such a foundational condition of a relationship that it might be easy for some women to quietly substitute in that feeling for commitment and fidelity. Indeed, so much advice given to women about how to “catch his eye” is geared toward maximizing physical attractiveness that if you squint hard enough, catching his eye can appear to be the grand prize that women are supposed to shoot for—not the relationship itself. Little wonder that under that paradigm, plenty of women might be willing to excuse infidelity with “but he makes me feel beautiful.” Plus, since attractiveness is often seen as the way one “earns” sex (only the beautiful get to do the nasty, you know), it makes sense that having your appearance highly valued by another lays the groundwork for beauty’s payoff.

4) Men married to women they believe to have a high infidelity risk are likelier than other men to use “mate retention tactics” to keep their wives from straying. Women, on the other hand, were no more or less likely to deploy such tactics regardless of whether they thought their husbands might cheat. 

You’ve gotta love these “tactics” too: punishing the woman for whatever it is that makes him think she might stray, putting down competitors, submission and debasement, and “concealment of mate,” whatever that means (the study didn’t say). Of course, that’s better than the tactics used by men who perceive their wives to be more attractive than they themselves are: emotional manipulation, derogation, sexual threats, and violence against rivals. And once again, women who perceived their husbands to be more attractive than they themselves are weren’t more likely to use those tactics.

These tidbits are just randomly dispiriting until you look at another finding of the study and see exactly how dispiriting it really is: There was no correlation between how hot a guy thinks his wife is and how likely he thinks she is to cheat on him. Yet a woman’s perceived beauty and her perceived risk of infidelity are not only punished, but are punished in much the same way. (Not all the “mate retention tactics” measured in the survey were negative ones; love and care were considered tactics, for example.) So basically: Women are groomed to maximize their attractiveness, in part because that’s supposed to snag you a higher-quality mate. Yet getting into a relationship with a man who thinks you’re better-looking than he thinks he is carries risk. Talk about feeling cheated, eh?

*     *     *

These findings are hardly conclusive, largely because some of them relied upon hypothetical infidelities, and also because the conclusions drawn from the studies are rather oblique. (Plus, I’m skeptical of beauty studies to begin with.) Intellectually, what I gather from them is what popped up plenty of times above: As long as we see women’s value as lying largely in their appearance, there will be a relationship between beauty and betrayal, even if that relationship isn’t as straightforward as some people would make it seem.

Personally, though, I take something else from this data: Since there’s no pattern here as far as actual behavior, there’s little use fretting about one’s own appearance in conjunction with infidelity. I know that when I’ve been cheated on, my instinct (after seething rage) is to wonder why I alone wasn’t enough for my partner. And, yes, to wonder whether the betrayal happened because I ceased to be attractive in the cheater’s eyes. (I didn’t say it was a healthy instinct, people.) But looking at all these studies, they’re...fuzzy. Weird little conclusions come up, none of which explain the only thing I’ve really cared about when I’ve been betrayed—or, for that matter, when I’ve had the poor judgment to betray a partner myself: Why. The why of betrayal sears and smolders, and at least in my case, it never fully burns out, even years later. I don’t feel anger when I think of my high school boyfriend telling me he kissed his ex during a snowball fight, but the why still flickers, even if the only emotion it provokes in me is nostalgia for the time when that was the most complicated thing I could imagine happening in my intimate life.

These studies don’t provide a why. And as satisfying as it would be to have something concrete we could turn to in times of the heartbreak of betrayal, it’s fitting that no why emerges. Can we ever know why? If “opportunity presented itself” is one of the more popular reasons for cheating, there really isn’t a why. It might be cold comfort to see that beauty isn’t really a part of the why—or it might not be comfort at all, depending upon your relationship with beauty, and with infidelity, for that matter. But only when we learn to take our own perspective on appearance out of the equation can we begin to see “opportunity,” disappointment, and the chaos of love and desire—the unsatisfying but undeniable components that are likely a part of the why—as the real flame-throwers here.

This is part two of a three-part series on appearance and infidelity. Part one is here; look for part three next week.


  1. regarding point #4, I know several cases of unfaithful husbands who have stay with they wife, girlfriends etc, and they take extreme measures to avoid an infidelity from their partners side. They don't leave them to stay alone outside their homes, they drive them everywhere they need, if there is a meeting they go too and if they can't go they do other plans so their partner must decline the invitation. they are always alert, looking for that man with whom they will cheat on him. The worst is that when you comment this situation to those women, whom would never ever cheat on their man, most of them see it as a way of care, he is not jealous or insecure, he is just "overprotecting"
    In Argentina we call it "to have a straw tail" It's to know what you did, and to be afraid of being put in the situation by your partner; a thing must women I know won't do.

    1. Romy, that phrase is just perfect--the "straw tail." I've seen a few cases like this myself and it's just heartbreaking. I suppose it makes a sad sort of sense, though: If you're willing to cheat on your partner, you're going to think *everyone* is able/willing/eager to do the same. Ugh!

    2. I had been all over the internet trying to find someone who could help me out with my situation, I loved my my husband so much but he never loved me rather he goes out with other females then one day I found in the internet where he had helped many women who had the same issue with me, when i contacted him he said he will help me and just as he said. my husband concetred fully on me and he stopped all his bad habit I was astounded because so many say they are the best but can't back it. but prof really surprised me till today, his love spell not only brought my husband back but also the spell made my husband to change to a good man

  2. I am married, and I have, to some extent, cheated on my husband. I haven't gone as far as sex. Rather it has been allowing another man to detail how enamored he is of my physicality. We've had a little intimate physical contact, but we've explicitly avoided kissing. He is married as well. I am ashamed of my unhealthy behavior, but I've had difficulty putting a stop to it. It is incredibly seductive to be told that one is beautiful and desirable by a man who is beautiful and desirable himself. He is the (very) tall, dark, and handsome stereotype, plus incredibly fit. I've been too weak to rebuke his attention, though I have tried a few times. He lives nearby, but we generally limit ourselves to phone or email, exchanging the occasional (never fully nude) photo. I know the reasons behind my involvement are pathetic. I am told I am beautiful from other sources and don't need to engage in this degrading behavior for validation, but I do seem to have a psychological weakness for sustained flattery. All of this is to say that I understand the basis for number three. I don't have an emotional or intellectual relationship with this guy and I don't want one. We are unlikely to ever kiss or sleep together. But it's gone way beyond ordinary flirting and the whole thing has been secret and illicit, and the only thing I have gotten out of it is the flattery. I know very little about his wife. He has deliberately kept her an abstraction, and, if she were any less so, I probably couldn't have done what I have done. I don't think he has any real reason to do this to her. I would guess it's just boredom and egotism coupled with the fact that I am physically different--taller, bustier, more hourglass. The only points of dissatisfaction he has ever brought up are her jealousy and possessiveness. He has sworn up and down that he has never transgressed with another woman, not that it particularly matters to me.

    My husband has never engaged in any "mate-guarding" behavior, and I don't think I could tolerate it. Jealousy and possessiveness have always been huge turn-offs to me. He is aware that other men seek me out, but we've traditionally had a strong relationship where this did not matter. Unfortunately, we have been struggling with some hugely stressful long-term events, and he has been increasingly withdrawn. I connect his lack of attention with my vulnerability to the flattery from the "other man", but, ultimately, responsibility for the bad behavior is mine alone.

    Sadly, in this time of our difficulty, attention from an attractive man (and some others) has confirmed my "market value" as you put it. It can make me feel less tolerant of being ignored or ill-treated by my husband. At the same time, I am grappling with the idea that no man or relationship might fully satisfy me, and that partners aren't simply replaceable because one is attractive. I could easily find a sex partner. I could easily find men who would like to start a relationship with me. I could not easily find a man whose feelings I could reciprocate and whose failings I could live with.

    So I won't be flogged too hard, I'd like to note that I haven't been in contact with my paramour for a while now. I know what I've said is unattractive, but I was interested in this post and thought my experiences might be somewhat relevant.

    1. This is a flog-free zone, no worries there. I've never been married but once fell into a similar situation when I was supposed to be committed to someone else, and years later I can look at that situation and see that I was really, really hungry for the validation that attention gave me. It sounds like whatever stresses are happening with you and your husband are making you hungry as well. And no, it's not admirable, but it's understandable, and I hope you're not redoubling the confusion on this by being too hard on yourself.

      That lack of satisfaction you're talking about--not so much with your partner but in the larger sense, that no one relationship might ever fully satisfy you--is very real, and is, I'm guessing, a primary reason people cheat. Certainly it has been one of my primary reasons, in my youth. With age I've learned to be okay with that--not that it's okay to be in a relationship that's *unsatisfying*, but being unsatisfied is different than being not fully 100% satisfied. Temperamentally, I'm not really built that way, and accepting that about myself was helpful in recognizing what was actually working for me and what wasn't. I mean, I'm committed to living in New York City for the rest of my life and I still have fantasies about leaving! And that's nowhere near as confusing a relationship as most romances. Anyway, just a thought. I wish you the best, and I'm glad you put this out there.


    2. I was having a boyfriend. We were known for long time only through phone. Suddenly through some event we met together and we promised we will be together for ever. Both of us are married and not satisfied with the present spouse. But because of some misunderstanding I quarreled with him and humiliated him in front of his friends. After that I realized my mistake and apologized with him like anything. He told me he will try to forget everything. After that we met once and he promised me everything happened because of misunderstanding and now we will together for ever.But after that we never met each other. when we plan to meet some hindrance will happen then it will stop. Also no proper communication. But for me he is my everything. He is the only one who gave such a good satisfaction in my life. I wanted him. I wanted him to meet me, to have sex with me, love me everything. He is very good.and l know He was made for me. But some hindrance keep keeping us apart. i tried to get close to him but nothing was working out until one day i heard about a spell caster called, i decide to try his love spell and definitely it worked out perfectly for me, it never took time for the spell to start working, after some few days this guy i am loving came to me and wanted us to start dating, we are in love now, our lover is so tight that nothing can brings us apart, this love spell is wonderful

  3. These last two posts were very well written and thought-provoking as always, but they also triggered some sadness in me. This topic is hard, painful and difficult to handle due to complicated behavioural pattern underlying it, but I feel the need to add my experience with this.

    As much I would like to think that my family history (stories of different kinds of infidelity (that I know about) reach as far as 4 generations back) and my education (biology) has toughen me up by giving me a realistic insight on the topic and freed me from blindly believing the happily-ever-after relationship scenario, I can't help feeling quite numb after reading "the opportunity presented itself" reason. Reminds me of the movie "Last night". My thoughts on the whole thing have changed a lot during the last decade, evolving from bitter “men are heartless and immoral bastards for doing this to women” to conciliatory and philosophical “people do crappy things regardless of their gender, but too bad that they don’t always match up according to their virtues”.

    Still, I sometimes wish that there would be some kind of system or scale that determined whether or not someone would cheat on his or her partner based on [whatever] fixed parameters. Although I’ve never been cheated on (not that I know about) or vice versa, experiences of my girl-friends and women in my family still make me flinch internally. Real sorrows, real blows that no one (including the unfaithful party) really gets and is able to explain. And those “opportunity presented itself” reasons (a.k.a. “it just happened”) don’t make it any easier. As you stated, Autumn, the questions remain. Why? What did I/they do wrong? What could have prevented this from happening? And I feel quite sad that there can’t be 100% certainity. At all. Because I guess it’s just the way life is – like weather forecast. I just have to find a way to cope with it.

    1. "Still, I sometimes wish that there would be some kind of system or scale that determined whether or not someone would cheat on his or her partner based on [whatever] fixed parameters."
      Wouldn't that be glorious? I've relaxed a lot in my old age, but something I still wish people came with was a guide book. Love is terrifying sometimes. When I was cheated on, I know the "why HER?" question was what eventually killed our relationship. I could get over the cheating, but not over his lack of explaination.

    2. This is an interesting article. I have never been physically cheated on (that I know of) but men I have dated in the past have been infatuated with/attracted to other women. One even went so far as to give someone else his number, though nothing ever came of it as far as I know. In these situations I've found the opposite of your hypothesis was true: They were always *less* attractive then me! Which I think actually bothered me more. I would have been pissed if they were supermodels because I don't tolerate any sort of infidelity, but the fact that they were less attractive felt insulting. Like it was worth fucking things up with me for that person? It wasn't just their physical attractiveness either, they were generally just sort or normal unassuming people. No one had a great career or was really special in any way I could think of. When I asked the guy who gave his phone number out what was so great about this woman that it was worth destroying our relationship he responded with "nothing." and when pressed further with why he would do it then he said simply "because she was non threatening" with an emphasis on the fact that i was not. This leads me to the conclusion that men will most likely cheat with whoever they think is "easy" that they won't have to work as hard for, especially if the current romantic partner is stressing them out. I'm the least controlling person ever in a relationship, in fact I don't want someone to just not cheat on me because they haven't had the opportunity, but when it comes to the idea of a partner possibly straying I'm not threatened by beautiful women. I'm not threatened by successful women. I'm threatened by average women who will be easy to land take my partner's bullshit much more willingly than I will.

    3. I typed that way too fast, sorry for typos!

    4. Signe, the topic is indeed a sad, painful one. It is really difficult to find that line between the cynicism you describe and a normal human acceptance that good people sometimes make really dumb mistakes. I don't think there's ever a satisfying explanation.

      Your comment is making me think of the saying "Once a cheater, always a cheater." I think that's true, but not in a way that means one (or one's partner) is always doomed to be a cheater. I was a terrible girlfriend in this regard when I was younger, and it was because I was so eager for validation of my "value" that I sought that validation wherever I could find it. And my temperament was built as such that though I felt bad about it, I was also capable of doing it in the first place. With maturity, I began to see that I couldn't change my impulses or my feelings or my temperament, but my actual behavior was 100% within my control--in fact, it's the only thing that is. The longer my track record goes of sticking to the better behavior, the better I feel, and I now feel like I'm at the point where whatever impulses are there can be swatted away like gnats. I'm guessing that's how people who are not disposed to infidelity deal with the natural attraction that happens no matter how committed one is to one's partner. And I've gotta say, it feels great.

    5. Cassie, I've fantasized about a bar code that you could scan with potential partners. Like, I can deal with some flaws that other people couldn't--and then there are flaws that, to me, are enormous red flags, whereas for someone else it might be manageable. If only we could scan someone beforehand to see which flaws they really have!

    6. Kristine Rose, that makes total sense to me--the "why HER?" factor. I've been cheated on with people who are conventionally less attractive than I am, and people who are more conventionally attractive than I am, and they both stung in different ways. An old boyfriend cheated on me with a woman who was downright unattractive and I found myself having mean-spirited thoughts about her looks--totally understandable given the circumstances, but also not a way I really want to operate in my life, and not something I'm generally prone to.

      The third part of this series deals with this more directly, actually, the subjective question of "the other woman" and her looks, so stay tuned!

    7. Yeah, I see what you mean. I think if these people were less attractive but really smart or successful or had something else going for them that I didn't that would have been ok too. But for him to say it was worth throwing our relationship away over someone not remarkable in any way just because it was seemingly less work than being with me really hurt. It made me feel really vulnerable because it didn't matter how pretty or smart I was or tangible things I could work on about myself, I was "too much work" to be worth it.

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  4. "(The frowsy girl in movies never gets laid, but someone’s gonna see her heart of gold, right?)"

    The word "lay" implies passivity

    1. Hmm, that's interesting--especially because I've heard it used by men (about women) far more frequently than the other way around.

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