Yer Cheatin’ Heart: Beauty and Infidelity
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.