Is Emotional or Physical Cheating Worse?

He Said/She Said

Model couple intimate
(Image credit: ShaneKato)

He Said: Cheating, when you whittle it down to its essence, is an expression of contempt. It's how we tell each other in sometimes subtle, other times obvious ways that we do not need our partners. It is how we punish each other for the frustrations we have in our common lives. Sometimes we cheat to hurt our partners; other times we do so to hurt ourselves. We nurture other relationships to fill gaps or needs that remain unfulfilled with our partners and find substitutes for contributions to our lives that we wish they would meet, but unfortunately do not. We cheat out of frustration, desire, anger, and resentment. To be fair, good things can sometimes come out of cheating. In the end, though, cheating inevitably hurts at least one person — and usually more than that.

For men, physical cheating is more painful than emotional cheating because we, as a gender, relate to everything in a physical way first. This is our nature. We are possessive and protective of our partners in a way that is reminiscent of cavemen protecting cavewomen with spears and clubs. Sure, we don't mind if you take a male friend shopping (secretly, some of us are thanking him). If we are out, though, we are always watching other men and aware of who is paying attention to you. When we leave you alone at an event, we scan the room to take an inventory of the men who noticed you, speak to you, and come close to you. Does it seem a little silly? Possibly. In our defense, though, we can't help it; it's instinctual. The reality is that while we don't care with whom you shop, talk, eat, or text, we do care deeply about who looks at you, smells your hair, holds your hand, and takes you to bed. For men, the act of learning about our partner's infidelity is, simply put, emasculating — and the rejection that comes with this realization is painful. This pain, in turn, is only magnified by how much we care for our partners.

In the end, the reason that physical cheating is so painful is that we can envision it. We can play back the rendezvous in our mind over and over and relive our partner seeking comfort or escape in the arms of another. When you compare this to emotional cheating, it is clear why physical cheating is more painful to deal with, and why physical cheating leads to the end of so many relationships. 

She Said: Without a doubt, when it comes to cheating, sexual indiscretions are the lesser of the two evils — not because it's necessarily easier to forgive a partner's one-night stand, but because an emotional affair generally means the cheater has already thrown in the towel on your relationship.

Take the most recent political cheating scandal, for example. When Governor Mark Sanford revealed that he had been cheating on his wife, I was surprised to find that some people had sympathy for him on the grounds that he was in love with his mistress. Now, he says he's going to try falling back in love with his wife (how noble!). I won't be holding my breath.

Here's my issue with this claim, whoever makes it — there is no such thing as accidentally getting a little too drunk and carrying on a passionate love affair. There's no emotional cheating equivalent to a one-night stand. It's generally quite a calculated and elaborate production to hide one.

That's not to say that physical cheating happens only under those one-night-only inebriated conditions, but purely physically cheating generally does — if you're having a long-term sexual affair or hooking up with a friend who isn't your significant other, chances are that it's either a result of or has resulted in emotional infidelity as well.

So the problem isn't that one kind of cheating is more or less forgivable than the other — it's that forgiving and forgetting isn't an option when your partner has emotionally cheated. Your partner doesn't want to be forgiven — they want out. They want out but can't or won't pull the trigger, consciously or subconsciously forcing their partner to be the one who calls it quits. In Governor Sanford's case, neither he nor is wife is doing that — instead she'll try to forgive him for his infidelity while he tries to fall in love with her. I can fathom forgiving and moving past a boyfriend's one-night-stand, but I don't know a single couple who has been able to continue dating after an emotional infidelity — especially when, as in the governor's case, the cheater needs to make a concerted effort to fall back in love with their significant other.

On the Soapbox

Abraham Lloyd is a divorced dad, closet geek, and aspiring author dating in New York City. He believes all men should own at least five jackets, know how to dance, and pay on a first date. You can tweet him at

Diana Vilibert is Marie Claire's associate Web editor, a chronic oversharer, closet romantic, and blind-date addict. You can e-stalk her at