A study published in the Journal of Personality sheds light on the theoretical understanding of mistress relationships. According to the findings, these relationships may represent a compromise between men’s evolved preferences for short-term relationships and women’s evolved preferences for long-term relationships.
Mistress relationships are a form of infidelity whereby a married man becomes sexually involved with another women. While these relationships can be either long-term affairs or short-term flings, mistress relationships typically involve some level of emotional and material commitment. Despite the fact that mistress relationships are quite common over history and across the world, research on this type of relationship is lacking.
“Even though the literature on mate preferences is now a well-established one, surprisingly little is known about the kind of traits people value in an infidelity partner (despite it being a phenomenon that is found all over the world),” said study author Bryan K. C. Choy, a PhD candidate at Singapore Management University.
Choy and his team launched a series of studies in attempt to better understand mistress relationships. Notably, although married women can also engage in extramarital affairs, previous findings suggest that men are more oriented toward these arrangements. For this reason, the authors focused on men’s extramarital relations for the current study.
“As an initial step, we focused on one specific type of infidelity that (typically) attached men commit with an (usually) unattached woman—a mistress relationship,” Choy told PsyPost. “Such relationships have occurred throughout history and seem to vary in their characteristics; think, for instance, of the relationship between John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe (a relatively short affair lacking commitment) and that between Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles (an affair marked by relatively high levels of emotional investment and commitment).”
Choy and his team proposed that evolutionary theory might offer a potential explanation for mistress relationships. Since men’s reproductive success relies on access to a high number of sexual partners, men have an evolved preference for short-term relationships. Since women’s reproductive success relies on access to a highly invested partner, women have an evolved preference for long-term relationships. Due to these conflicting mate preferences, Choy and his colleagues proposed that people may have evolved to “settle” on mistress relationships since these arrangements include aspects of both short-term and long-term relationships.
The researchers found initial evidence for this hypothesis in a series of studies conducted among university students. Participants were asked what traits they think a man would look for in a mistress, and what traits they think a mistress would look for in a man. The results revealed that participants more often thought that a man would look for traits like physical attractiveness and youth — traits that tend to be prioritized in short-term relationships. By contrast, participants thought a mistress would look for traits like financial resources and social status — traits that tend to be prioritized in long-term relationships.
A follow-up study asked another group of students to design their ideal mistress partners by allocating a limited budget of “mate dollars” toward certain traits. Men were asked to imagine an ideal mistress, and women were asked to imagine a mate who they would be willing to be a mistress to. The results revealed that men spent more of their budget on traits related to sexuality/physical attractiveness/docility in a mistress relationship compared to warmth/commitment or resources/generosity. By contrast, women spent more on traits related to generosity/resources than traits related to sexuality/attractiveness/passion.
A final study yielded similar findings. This time, both men and women prioritized physical attractiveness in their mistress relationships, but only women additionally prioritized social status. When combined with the results from the earlier studies, these findings suggest that men prioritize traits that reflect short-term preferences when considering a mistress relationship. Women, on the other hand, prioritize traits that reflect short-term preferences in addition to traits that reflect long-term preferences.
“We drew on evolutionary perspectives, which have been a major driver of mate preferences research,” Choy explained. “Consistent with such perspectives, we found evidence that mistress relationships seem to be a compromise relationship, which describes an arrangement where men and women—who evolved to have some ideals in a mate that are inherently conflicting—attempt to pursue these conflicting ideals but usually only succeed partially.”
“What ends up happening is that such relationships comprise aspects of both sets of conflicting ideals. For mistress relationships, our evidence suggests that men treat them as more like a short-term fling (and in particular, prioritizing traits like physical attractiveness in a mistress), while women seem to treat mistress relationships as something relatively more long-term (prioritizing high social status, but also physical attractiveness, in a male partner).”
“Importantly, our findings don’t necessarily mean mean that men evolved a preference for having mistresses or that women evolved a preference for being a mistress per se,” Choy told PsyPost. “Instead, such relationships might reflect a by-product of men and women pursuing their conflicting (and evolved) ideals in a relationship.”
One substantial limitation to the research was that it did not investigate actual mistress relationships. Such a study would require researchers to recruit a sample of people with experience in mistress relationships and would run the risk of social desirability bias. Still, it may be an important step in confirming the generalizability of the findings.
“We view this research as an initial stab at a huge research question, so several extensions and improvements can be made,” Choy explained. “For one, our samples comprised undergraduates; although our evidence indicates that participants have similar levels of experience with infidelity as community samples, they do not have as much experience with marriage and mistress relationships. Notwithstanding the difficulties of recruiting willing participants with such experiences (i.e., preference for anonymity), doing so will represent an important next step for affirming our findings.”
“Our research also focused on men’s infidelity; of course, women can and do commit infidelity, so it will be interesting to examine women’s infidelity with unattached men (e.g., boy toys); such an investigation will be key to having a fuller picture of infidelity in modern societies.”
“Finally, it will be interesting to examine the longevity of mistress relationships,” Choy said. “Because a compromise relationship tends to be built on a relatively weak foundation (compromises and unfulfilled preferences), they can be quite unstable. Could the degree of compromise that individuals experience predict the success and failure of such relationships?”
“For better or worse, infidelity is a part of the human condition; thus, addressing the lack of research on mistress relationships seems like a reasonable thing to do,” the researcher concluded.
The study, “The long and short of mistress relationships: Sex-differentiated mate preferences reflect a compromise of mating ideals”, was authored by Bryan K. C. Choy, Norman P. Li, and Kenneth Tan.