Academic journal article The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality

How Contingencies of Self-Worth Influence Reactions to Emotional and Sexual Infidelity

Academic journal article The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality

How Contingencies of Self-Worth Influence Reactions to Emotional and Sexual Infidelity

Article excerpt

How do men and women interpret the meaning of sexual infidelities? Is it different from the way they interpret emotional infidelities? People make different attributions regarding infidelity depending on their self-worth. The influence of this intrapsychic factor on reactions to infidelity deserves greater study. Some people will construe infidelity as evidence of their partners' lack of trustworthiness. Others might attribute infidelity to situational factors beyond anyone's control, and avoid blaming their partners altogether. However, if one's sense of self-worth is highly contingent on external sources their attributions may change. In these cases, one may interpret infidelity to mean that others find him or her undesirable and unlovable. In the present study, we sought to investigate how self-worth might influence reactions to sexual versus emotional infidelity using the Contingencies of Self-Worth Scale (CSWS) and the Buss Jealousy Instrument. A chi square analysis was used to determine whether reactions to infidelity depended on sex and Hotelling's T-square test was used to determine whether CSWS domains were dependent on sex. Binomial logistic regressions were conducted to assess between-sex and within-sex differences in reactions to emotional versus sexual infidelity. There was no significant difference between men's and women's reactions to sexual versus emotional infidelity. Greater distress associated with sexual infidelity was found in men whose self-worth was contingent on competition, but this difference was not found in women. Clinicians may benefit from an awareness of how intrapsychic factors influence clients' reactions to infidelity.

KEY WORDS: Contingent self-worth, emotional infidelity, infidelity, jealousy, sexual infidelity


How do men and women interpret the meaning of sexual and emotional infidelities? Reactions to infidelity have long been a source of interest among academic researchers. Research in this area has grown in part because admissions of infidelity are common during the course of couples therapy, and can be challenging for clinicians to address (Dupree, White, Olsen, & Lafleur, 2007). Scholars in this area often make a distinction between two forms of infidelity: sexual and emotional (e.g., Glass & Wright, 1992; Salovey & Rothman, 1991). Sexual infidelity involves sexual activity with an extra-dyadic partner, while emotional infidelity involves the diversion of romantic love, time, and attention toward someone outside of the relationship. In both cases, the underlying emotional contract between partners must be violated for infidelity to have occurred (i.e., the relationship is expected to be monogamous rather than consensually non-monogamous). The focus of this study is to identify whether the intrapsychic factor, Contingent Self-Worth (CSW), causes individuals to feel more distress from one of these two types of infidelity.

Infidelity is one of the most commonly cited causes of divorce (Betzig, 1989; Scott, Rhoades, Stanley, Allen, & Markman, 2013), though it is important to note that both divorce and infidelity per se are often caused by underlying relationship dissatisfaction (Buss & Shackelford, 1997; Previti & Amato, 2004). Other factors such as low Conscientiousness and high Narcissism have also been implicated as potential causes of infidelity (Buss & Shackelford, 1997). Given the role of infidelity in divorce, a comprehensive understanding of how people react to infidelity may have significant social import. This is especially true given that male sexual jealousy is the leading proximate cause of spouse battering and homicide across cultures worldwide (Wilson & Daly, 1998).

Initial interest in the distinction between sexual and emotional infidelity was spurred by Buss and his colleagues who found that women tend to be more distressed by emotional infidelities, while men tend to be relatively more distressed by sexual infidelities (Buss, Larsen, Westen, & Semmelroth, 1992). …

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