Researchers at the Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich investigated under what conditions behavior is identified as infidelity. Additionally, they wondered if there are combinations of behaviors that together qualify as infidelity but independently do not.
Their findings, published in The Journal of Sex Research, suggest infidelity is not simply intercourse outside of a relationship. Infidelity is a complex topic, often determined through context and compounding behaviors. The study measured four facets of infidelity: explicit behavior, emotional involvement, online contact, and duration.
The research revealed that intercourse and kissing were two explicit behaviors that typically qualify as infidelity. Their work also revealed that long hugs and no physical contact were often considered acts of infidelity when they were coupled with emotional involvement, erotic online content, and a long duration.
When their data was broken down by gender, they unexpectedly found there was no difference between men and women in what was identified as infidelity.
This study defines infidelity as “a sexual and/or emotional act engaged in by one person within a committed relationship, where such an act occurs outside of the primary relationship and constitutes a breach of trust and/or violation of agreed upon norms (overt and covert) by one or both individuals in that relationship in relation to romantic, emotional or sexual exclusivity.”
Behaviors that fit this definition are harmful to human relationships and human happiness. Moreover, the fallout of these behaviors will often envelop children, parents, siblings, and friends.
Prior research on this topic has focused on why infidelity occurs, the consequences of it, and how frequently it occurs. Christian Bozoyan and Claudia Schmiedeberg sought to expand our understanding of infidelity by determining which behaviors qualify as infidelity.
The study participants were taken from what is known as The German Family Panel. This panel contained 12,000 randomly chosen residents of Germany. This study secured 9,104 participants, of which 53% were women. The sample was also subdivided based on age, with 17% born in the 1970s, 30% in the 1980s, 27% in the 1990s, and the last 26% born in the 2000s.
Participants read a provided vignette and determined if the behavior described qualified as infidelity. The researchers had a cache of 26,633 vignettes that described either gender as engaging in explicit behaviors (intercourse, kisses, long hugs, or no physical contact) in different contexts that may have included emotional involvement, erotic online content, or long-term involvement. Each participant received nine randomly chosen vignettes. All the vignettes were used in the study.
The results expose the landscape of complex judgments on the subject of infidelity. The probability of intercourse being judged as infidelity was almost 100%; this was true in all circumstances.
On the other hand, kissing has a high probability of being identified as infidelity if emotional involvement, erotic online contact, and long duration were also true. The probability drops when kissing occurs with just two context factors, then one, then none. Similarly, the probability of someone calling a long hug infidelity is at 80% when there is emotional involvement, erotic online behavior, and long relationship duration. The probability falls to 11% when none of those factors are present.
This large data sample revealed some other interesting trends. First, the younger a person was, the more likely they were to identify something as infidelity, especially in the case of erotic online behavior. This is surprising as most believe younger generations are more fluid and compromising with their sexual behavior.
Second, they found no difference between men and women when judging whether the behavior of female characters in the vignettes was engaging in infidelity. This contradicts evolutionary theory, which posits that males are likely to judge female sexual behavior more harshly than men and would be less worried about emotional relationships as there would be no chance of pregnancy. In this study, men and women alike found emotional involvement concerning.
There were some identified limitations of the study. The sample was almost 100% German citizens; there is no way to know if these findings would be consistent across various cultures. Additionally, the age cohorts prevent conclusions about generational or developmental differences. You cannot infer from this data if the younger generation is strict about infidelity because of their age or if it is an artifact of their specific generation.
This research adds to our understanding of this topic. It suggests that future research on infidelity acknowledge that intercourse is not the only behavior that results in accusations of being unfaithful.
The study, “What is Infidelity?A Vignette Study on Norms and Attitudes toward Infidelity“, was published August 3, 2022.