The Other Woman Might Have Stolen Your Man, But You'll Come Out The Winner

love triangle
Cheated-on women may take a break from romance, but this is when they gather strength and intelligence for selecting a future better mate. geralt, public domain

Nature, our often cruel “mother,” divides the world into winners and losers. We feel the tragic truth of this most intensely in matters of the heart. Yet some romantic failures are victories in disguise, new research and the many heated discussions of Beyonce’s Lemonade suggest. Women who lose an unfaithful partner to another woman actually win in the long run, say the researchers. Commonly, abandoned women take a temporary break from romance, and though this pause looks like defeat, appearances can be deceiving.

“We feel that during this break is where the positive effects (increased relationship awareness, increased self-awareness, increased mating intelligence) arise,” Dr. Craig Eric Morris, co-author of the study, tells Medical Daily in an email.

For romantics, love is all around us. Scientists, on the other hand, think a little more coldly about this emotion. According to those wearing white lab coats, most of us will enter — and exit — a series of romantic relationships throughout our lives. Even those who eventually form a lasting bond will run through a number of failures before hitting the passion jackpot.

Since the overwhelming majority of us (more than 85 percent) will go through at least one break-up, Morris and colleagues from SUNY Binghamton and University College London explored the aftermath of these unhappy events in a 2015 study of anonymous survey responses from 5,705 participants in 96 countries. Among their discoveries: post-relationship responses differed by gender.

“Women talk about loneliness, vulnerability, insomnia, sadness, etc. far more so than men,” says Morris. “Women also rarely report that they began to abuse alcohol or drugs, got into fights, broke things which men frequently report. Even the language used is very different. Men use profanity and extremely hostile verbiage about the ‘ex’ far more than do women.”

Laws of Nature 

Despite these differences, Morris and his co-researchers noted an important similarity: both men and women report intense feelings and among both sexes, the “rejected” suffered significantly higher levels of post-relationship grief compared to “breakup initiators.”

However, another gender difference appeared in the research: women respondents said they had initiated a breakup 39 percent of the time with a mutual decision occurring 24 percent of the time. By contrast, men respondents said they’d initiated a breakup only 28 percent of the time with a mutual decision occurring 25 percent of the time. More often than not, women felt some level of power or responsibility for a romantic separation while almost half the time, men felt powerless.

And, while many people might assume “infidelity” would rank high on a list of reasons for two people parting ways, “lack of communication” was selected nearly twice as often by roughly half the men and women. Yet, “other” also received a lot of hits so infidelity, Morris and his colleagues suggest, might play a hidden role in many breakups.

When Winning Looks Like Losing

In a new publication, the researchers once again explored the aftermath of breakup though only one specific type: when one woman poaches another woman’s man. They highlight the ways in which humans (and women, in particular) have adapted according to the laws of evolution to cope with both competition and breakups.

“For women, the general competition for male attention, and specifically attention from high-quality mates, is multifaceted,” write the researchers. “There are four themes of female mate competition: self-promotion, competitor derogation, mate manipulation, and competitor manipulation.”

These themes come most starkly into play during partner poachings.

While a man is more likely to call out and physically confront another man suspected of trying to steal his mate, a woman is more likely to start or spread rumors or exclude her rival — in other words, a woman tries to hurt her rival through social, not physical means. This is not ineffective, the researchers say. The label of being sexually permissive has a powerful negative impact on a woman’s social status and “reproductive fitness,” according to the authors.

“Evolutionarily, sexual promiscuity is often a short-term strategy, for while at that moment a woman may have “won the battle” by accessing additional resources, building future intersexual alliances, or successfully poaching a mate, she could be “losing the war” by engaging in reputation-damaging behavior that will reduce her ability to acquire a long-term mate of high quality in the future,” write the researchers.

Morris and his colleagues conclude the woman who loses her mate will go through a period of personal growth. Her post-relationship grief and betrayal will ultimately give way to knowledge that will help her detect low-value mates. (Unfortunately, they do not offer statistics on what actually happens in the aftermath of mate poaching.) Conversely, the researchers say, the 'other woman' is stuck in a relationship with a partner who has a demonstrated history of deception.  

In the long-term, then, she is nothing but a loser. Are you listening, Becky with the good hair?

Source: Morris CE, Reiber C, Roman E. Quantitative Sex Differences in Response to the Dissolution of a Romantic Relationship. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences. 2016.

Morris CE, Beaussart ML, Reiber C, Krajewski LS. Intrasexual Mate Competition and Breakups: Who Really Wins? The Oxford Handbook of Women and Competition. 2016.

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