Researchers look at some of the differences between how men and women cope with cheating and breakups... with some surprising findings.
Breakups in relationships can be tough, particularly when they are the result of infidelity, but a recent essay from researchers at Binghamton University and University College London argues the experience of being cheated on provides women with a unique evolutionary advantage.
The essay is primarily based on a study the researchers published in 2015. Through an anonymous online survey 5,705 participants across 96 countries, they found that women who lose their mates to other women gain important dating experience for the future and actually fare better than the women who ‘stole’ their significant other.
“Our thesis is that the woman who 'loses' her mate to another woman will go through a period of post-relationship grief and betrayal, but come out of the experience with higher mating intelligence that allows her to better detect cues in future mates that may indicate low mate value. Hence, in the long-term, she 'wins,'" said Craig Morris, research associate at Binghamton and lead author on the paper, in a press release.
"The 'other woman,' conversely, is now in a relationship with a partner who has a demonstrated history of deception and, likely, infidelity. Thus, in the long-term, she 'loses.'"
Breakups are a common human experience, with over 85 percent of people experiencing at least one in their lifetime and most of us experiencing an average of three by age 30, according to Morris.
In their 2015 study, he and fellow researchers also found that while women are impacted by the end of a relationship harder when it happens, as with infidelity, they fare better in the long-run.
According to the university, the researchers found that that women tend to be more negatively affected by breakups, reporting higher levels of both physical and emotional pain. On a scale of one (none) to 10 (unbearable) Women averaged 6.84 in terms of emotional anguish versus 6.58 in men. In terms of physical pain, women averaged 4.21 versus men's 3.75. But while breakups hit women the hardest emotionally and physically, women tend to recover more fully and come out emotionally stronger. Men, on the other hand, never fully recover — they simply move on.
According to Morris, a biocultural anthropologist and evolutionist, the difference in how men and women deal with the end of a relationship traces back to our evolution and biology.
"If we have evolved to seek out and maintain relationships, then it seems logical that there would be evolved mechanisms and responses to relationship termination,” he said in a release.
For example, since men have evolved to compete for the romantic attention of women, the loss of a high-quality mate for a man may not "hurt" as much at first, Morris said.
"The man will likely feel the loss deeply and for a very long period of time as it 'sinks in' that he must 'start competing' all over again to replace what he has lost — or worse still, come to the realization that the loss is irreplaceable," he said.
Morris argues that the evolutionary and biological consequences are greater for women and thus the emotional impact is too.
"Put simply, women are evolved to invest far more in a relationship than a man," Morris said in a statement. "A brief romantic encounter could lead to nine months of pregnancy followed by many years of lactation for an ancestral woman, while the man may have 'left the scene' literally minutes after the encounter, with no further biological investment.”
“It is this 'risk' of higher biological investment that, over evolutionary time, has made women choosier about selecting a high-quality mate. Hence, the loss of a relationship with a high-quality mate 'hurts' more for a woman."
Breakups can be devastating. “People lose jobs, students withdraw from classes, and individuals can initiate extremely self-destructive behavior,” but through continued research on the physical and emotional impacts of breakups Morris hopes to develop ways to mitigate the negative effects, he said in a 2015 press release..
For the brokenhearted he offers this condolence, "they can learn that they are not alone — that virtually everyone goes through this, that it's okay to seek help if needed, and that they will get through it," he said.
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Editor's note (May 2): the original version stated more than 5,705 participants were surveyed. The number was in fact 5,705 exactly.