Individual Traits Trump Sex Differences in Determining Relationship Success

April 23, 2013
Anthony Weiner - is it cheating?

Anthony Weiner – is it cheating?

A recent opinion piece in the New York Times concluded that “categorical” sex differences are based on an “indefensible model of human behavior.” In A Tangle of the Sexes, researchers Bobbi Carothers and Harry Reis claim that sex differences do not explain behavior choices, which should be ascribed to “various personal qualities.” They studied a wide range of behaviors and found that they exist on the same continuum for both sexes, rather than eliciting choices generalized to either sex.

Across analyses spanning 122 attributes from more than 13,000 individuals, one conclusion stood out: instead of dividing into two groups, men and women overlapped considerably on attributes like the frequency of science-related activities, interest in casual sex, or the allure of a potential mate’s virginity.

Even stereotypical traits, like assertiveness or valuing close friendships, fell along a continuum. In other words, we found little or no evidence of categorical distinctions based on sex.

I am particularly intrigued by their focus on promiscuity and the value individuals place on virginity. This has been found elsewhere – specifically in the study of sociosexuality. From my post on the orientation of the population on the continuum of restricted to unrestricted:

 While men in general are more unrestricted in sociosexual orientation than women, the variance within each sex is much greater than variance between the sexes.

For example, when subjects were asked whether they’d ever had sex with someone the day they met, here’s how the percentages break down for an affirmative response:

Top 20%: unrestricted 59% 78%
Bottom 20%: restricted 6% 12%


While there are profound biological sex differences, including hormonal activity and various brain characteristics, it’s true that much of mating behavior is not explained by gender. There is indeed great intrasexual variation, and this is a cornerstone of my own understanding of how the SMP works. “All women are like that” is essentially from a pre-literacy stage of understanding sex differences. If we instead focus on sociosexual compatibility, we can easily see that the top 20%, or unrestricted folks, are going to be far better matched with one another than with someone in the bottom 20%, or restricted group.

A new study on cheating provides additional valuable insights. The research examines how individuals regard a variety of behaviors when undertaken by a long-term partner, and explores what constitutes cheating. Specific actions studied include the sexual, erotic, and romantic, as well as those providing financial support to another member of the opposite sex.

Three key individual differences predicted subjects’ responses:

1. Those who perceived limited availability of alternative mates were more likely to identify ambiguous behavior as cheating.

2. Religiosity predicted lower tolerance of ambiguous behavior.

3. Women were more likely than men to consider behaviors aimed at actively deceiving one’s partner as cheating.

That last one surprised me – I wonder if men are more willing to be deceived. For the record, here’s the definition:


  1. Act dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage
  2. Deceive or trick

Synonyms:  deceive, swindle, trick, defraud, fool, delude, dupe

I’m not really seeing how “actively deceiving” one’s partner is not synonymous with cheating…

In any case, the first factor – the unique perception of the individual – had a much larger effect than gender. More on that in a minute. Here’s how the whole sample ranked cheating behaviors in a monogamous, long-term relationship. (Who on earth are the 2.3% who don’t think P in V qualifies? Or the 17.4% who are OK with texting erotic messages?):

% Consider it cheating
Penile-vaginal intercourse97.7
Oral Sex96.8
Taking a shower together96.2
Kissing on the lips88.7
E-mailing pictures of themselves
Texting erotic messages82.6
Watching a pornographic movie
Sleeping in the same bed68.4
Holding hands63.2
Staying in the same hotel room52.7
Forming a deep emotional bond52.4
Spending lots of time together52.2
Sitting in lap52.2
Accompanying to a formal event43.4
Going out to dinner41.4
Talking on the phone several times a
Giving $500 to the other person37.6
Kissing on the cheek36.9
Sharing secrets36.5
Supporting the other person financially35.8
Hugging for more than 10 seconds34.5
Calling when upset about their
relationship partner
Taking a road trip out of state32.6
Telling dirty jokes25.9
Calling when upset about work19.2
Hugging briefly (less than 10 seconds)12.2
Giving $5 to the other person8.1

Note: N = 456, 67%F, 33%M, 2 public midwestern universities

More women than men considered 10 behaviors cheating, mostly in the sexual and erotic categories (though there was the least variation in the responses about sexual activity). A much higher percentage of men felt that giving financial support to someone else constituted cheating.

However, by far the most important predictor of attitudes about cheating was an Insecure Attachment Style. This also predicted those most and least likely to cheat. Impulsivity in sex and aggression are most prevalent in those who have experienced disturbed family relationships. “When caregivers do not provide a safe and emotionally warm environment, children can become insecurely attached.”

Insecure Attachment can go one of two ways: Avoidant or Anxious

Avoidant Attachment Style

Characterized by chronic attempts to inhibit attachment:

  1. Minimizes expressions of distress.
  2. Dislikes intimacy, prefers psychological distance.
  3. Denies anything is wrong.
  4. Experiences less jealousy.
  5. Grieves less after a breakup.

Not surprisingly, Avoidant types are less likely to identify ambiguous behaviors as cheating. They had lower scores on five of the survey items.

Anxious Attachment Style

Characterized by hypervigilance to threats to the relationship:

  1. Perceives lower availability of alternative mates.
  2. Overestimates threats to the relationship.
  3. Underestimates partner’s level of commitment.
  4. More likely to perceive partner as insensitive.
  5. Experiences more jealousy.
  6. Imagines relationship difficulties.

Anxious types are more likely to identify ambiguous behaviors as cheating. They had higher ratings for 18 of the 27 behaviors.

The study found no sex differences in who had an Insecure Attachment Style. However, I think it’s fair to say that in general, women will prefer Avoidant men to Anxious ones, and men will prefer Anxious women to Avoidant ones. Anxious men and Avoidant women are likely to struggle in the SMP.

It’s clear that what constitutes cheating is contextual – it depends on the individuals in the relationship. I’ve always found that the best definition of cheating relies solely on deception: If you’re doing something you wouldn’t want your partner to know about, it’s cheating.

Clearly, if your partner is Anxious, you may hide what other people would consider perfectly appropriate and platonic behavior. If your partner is Avoidant, you may find that you need to act out just to get him to pay attention to you. Obviously, neither of these matches is compatible, and neither of these relationship dynamics is healthy.

Insecure Attachment Style is correlated to a whole bunch of bad stuff. It’s tragic, because many of these individuals are damaged through no fault of their own. But you don’t want to pin your hopes on a head case. That’s a disaster in waiting.

Some people are always searching for the loophole, so when you do enter a committed relationship, make sure to talk about your expectations around fidelity.

In my view, there is definitely a Mars Venus thing going on. But when it comes to relationship fitness and compatibility, the most important predictors of success are not specific to gender, but to personality traits (nature) and shared environment (nurture).