Fidelity, Infidelity and Psychology

Is fidelity natural? There are those who would say that of course it is natural. There are of course, those who would argue to the contrary.

For men, the minimum cost for reproduction is very low. All that is required is that he muster the energy required for a single act of sexual intercourse. By contrast, even the minimum cost for a woman is very high, namely 9 months of pregnancy, including prolonged periods of sickness and reduced physical mobility, plus years after that of caring for the child. These realities strongly influence our mating and relationship strategies.

For men, the best strategy would be to reproduce widely i.e. mate with as many women as possible, and thus multiply ones offspring. Sunderland youth Kevin MacDonald hit the tabloid press when he boasted of fathering seven children by seven mothers. From the point of view of producing as many offspring as possible, this strategy is flawless, and perfectly natural. Needless to say, this strategy involves infidelity, and lots of it. However, it does have its drawbacks.

Firstly, whilst it is possible for a man to “breed ’em and leave ’em”, by leaving his partner(s) abandoned and pregnant, he is actually reducing the chances of his genetic line being passed on. Particularly in the ancestral environment early humans lived in, dangers were ever present and resources such as food, clothing and shelter scarce. There was no guarantee that the woman would successfully bring the pregnancy to term, or raise the child to be healthy and strong if she had not had been provided for by a partner who stuck around.

Indeed, “sticking around” may seem like a bad strategy, as it limits the number of partners he has, and thus, the number of children he can produce at a time. However, by sticking around, he actually ensures that the child he does produce is protected, healthy and thus likely to go on and further propagate his genetic line. From the point of view of producing large numbers of offspring the “stick around” strategy is flawed. However, what it loses in quantity of offspring, it gains in quality of offspring.

For women, there is a “limited window of fertility”. Unlike men, who can produce children till their dying day, women have only a relatively short time in their lives in which they can produce. They will only produce a small number of children, so their focus is not so much on quantity. Their physical limitations as women means quantity will never factor in to their thinking, so their whole focus is on quality. And for quality offspring, you need a quality mate.

Women’s magazines abound with the quality of mates. Quizzes in women’s magazines may ask such questions as “Is he marriage material?”, and the agony aunts of newspapers and magazines abound with anguished questions from women trying to gage whether their partners are worthy of their continued attention and investment. What women want is a man who is high quality: intelligent, brave and capable of economically supporting her and offspring.

However, what if a woman cannot get as high a quality mate as she wants? This leaves her with a problem: she faces living out her short, precious years of fertility with a low quality mate, and thus will produce law quality offspring. One possible solution, is simply to cheat on him.

By cheating, the woman can be impregnated by a superior male to her regular partner, and thus improve the quality of her offspring. The cheating male gets the satisfaction of knowing he is impregnating yet another woman in addition to his regular partner. The fact he does not want to commit to her is irrelevant, as the woman can simply go back to her regular partner, and pass off the subsequent child as his. This is the infamous “cuckolding”.

Another variant of this is the “paternity confusion hypothesis”. In this, a woman deliberately sets out to sleep with as many men as she can, and then tells all the potential “culprits” that the subsequent child is his. Whilst he may be aware she has had other sexual partners, he does not want to run the risk of not providing for a child which may be his. Thus, a woman can extract resources from multiple partners, and possibly more so than she could from a single partner.

For women, infidelity does have serious potential consequences. The most obvious is that men generally respond explosively to infidelity, and it is not uncommon for women to be attacked or even killed by partners for infidelity. Whilst less explosive, but still very serious, men will often abandon an unfaithful partner, and thus deprive her of the care and protection he had previously offered.

In short, is fidelity natural? Yes. Is infidelity natural? Yes. For men, fidelity ensures higher quality offspring, although does so at the cost of reducing the number of offspring he can invest fully in. For women, fidelity is natural, as it is likely to secure the resource provision and care of her partner, although this may mean she has to settle for a lower quality partner. Infidelity allows her a chance to have higher quality offspring than she would have with her regular partner

Article provided by Michael McManus. Michael has a masters degree in social psychology. He completed his master’s thesis on the psychology of love triangles.

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