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Defining and Distinguishing Sexual and Emotional Infidelity

Abstract

Researchers studying interpersonal relationships often distinguish between “sexual infidelity” and “emotional infidelity.” Yet, it remains largely unclear whether and how individuals actually conceptualize these constructs in their own lives, and how men and women vary, if at all, in their definitions and understanding of different types of infidelity. The current research used a mixed-methodology approach to explore the epistemological nature of sexual infidelity and emotional infidelity. In Study 1, 379 participants provided open-ended definitions of what they believe constitutes sexual infidelity and emotional infidelity. In Study 2, responses were then coded by a different group of outside raters to examine overall themes in the definitions provided and how prototypical these definitions were for each type of infidelity. Results identified and examined the definitions with the highest mean ratings in terms of how well they represented emotional infidelity or sexual infidelity. Overall, both men and women had more consistency in their definitions of what constituted sexual infidelity than on what constituted emotional infidelity, suggesting that emotional infidelity is a more vague and complex concept than sexual infidelity. Additionally, when asked to define sexual and emotional infidelity, many participants focused on specific behaviors (including deception), but when asked to consider the types of infidelity as distinct from each other, participants focused on feelings. By exploring how individuals actually define these constructs, these data provide a more accurate and rich depiction of how individuals define acts of infidelity than currently exists in the relationship literature.

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Acknowledgments

For assistance with coding the definitions of sexual and emotional infidelity we thank Jamille Borer, Raina Hafftka, Bradley Hassinger, Nolan Marsh, and Allison Thomsen.

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Correspondence to Amanda E. Guitar.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

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Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

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Guitar, A.E., Geher, G., Kruger, D.J. et al. Defining and Distinguishing Sexual and Emotional Infidelity. Curr Psychol 36, 434–446 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-016-9432-4

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Keywords

  • Emotional infidelity
  • Sexual infidelity
  • Evolutionary psychology
  • Gender differences