Mistress relationships may reflect a trade-off between male and female conflicting mate preferences
A study published in the personality diary highlights the theoretical understanding of mistress relationships. According to the results, 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 in which a married man becomes sexually involved with another woman. While these relationships can be either long-term affairs or short-term flings, mistress relationships usually involve some level of emotional and material commitment. Despite the fact that mistress relationships are quite common throughout history and across the world, research on this type of relationship is lacking.
“Even though the literature on mate preferences is now well established, surprisingly little is known about the type of traits people value in an unfaithful partner (although this is a phenomenon that the found all over the world),” the study’s author said. Bryan KC Choy, PhD student at Singapore Management University.
Choy and her team launched a series of studies to try to better understand relationships between mistresses. Notably, although married women may also engage in extramarital affairs, previous findings suggest that men are more oriented towards these arrangements. For this reason, the authors focused on men’s extramarital affairs for the present study.
“At first, we focused on a specific type of infidelity that (usually) attached men commit with a (usually) lonely woman — a mistress relationship,” Choy told PsyPost. “Such relationships have occurred throughout history and seem to vary in their characteristics; think, for example, of the relationship between John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe (a relatively short affair without commitment) and that between Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles (an affair marked by relatively high levels of emotional investment and of commitment).
Choy and her team have proposed that the theory of evolution could offer a potential explanation for mistress relationships. Since male reproductive success relies on access to a high number of sexual partners, males have an evolved preference for short-term relationships. Since women’s reproductive success relies on having a highly invested partner, women have an evolved preference for long-term relationships. Because of these conflicting mate preferences, Choy and her colleagues have proposed that people evolved to “settle” on mistress relationships since these arrangements include both short-term and long-term relationship aspects.
The researchers found initial evidence for this hypothesis in a series of studies with 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 a man would seek out traits like physical attractiveness and youthfulness – traits that tend to be prioritized in short-term relationships. In contrast, participants believed that a mistress would look for traits such as financial resources and social status – traits that tend to take priority in long-term relationships.
A follow-up study asked another group of college students to design their ideal mistress partners by allocating a limited budget of “mate dollars” to certain traits. Men were asked to imagine an ideal mistress, and women were asked to imagine a mate they would be willing to mistress. The results revealed that men spent more of their budget on traits related to sexuality/physical attractiveness/docility in a master relationship than warmth/commitment or resourcefulness/generosity. In contrast, women spent more on traits related to generosity/resources than on traits related to sexuality/attractiveness/passion.
A final study found similar results. This time, both men and women prioritized physical attractiveness in their mistress relationships, but only women also prioritized social status. When combined with findings from previous studies, these results suggest that men prioritize traits that reflect short-term preferences when considering a masterful relationship. Women, on the other hand, prioritize traits that reflect short-term preferences over traits that reflect long-term preferences.
“We drew inspiration from evolutionary perspectives, which have been a major driver of mate preference research,” Choy explained. “Consistent with these perspectives, we found evidence that mistress relationships appear to be a compromise relationship, which describes an arrangement where men and women – who have evolved to have ideals in a mate that are inherently contradictory – attempt to pursue these conflicting ideals but generally succeed only partially.
“What ends up happening is that such relationships include aspects of both sets of conflicting ideals. For master relationships, our evidence suggests that men treat them more as a short-term fling (and particularly , 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 ).
“It is important to note that our results do not necessarily mean that men developed a preference for having mistresses or that women developed a preference for being a mistress. in itself,” Choy told PsyPost. “Instead, such relationships might reflect a byproduct of men and women pursuing their conflicting (and evolved) ideals in a relationship.”
A substantial limitation of the research was that it did not investigate actual relationships between mistresses. 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, this can be an important step in confirming the generalizability of the results.
“We view this research as a first stab at a huge research question, so there are several extensions and refinements that can be made,” Choy explained. “On the one hand, our samples included 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 romantic relationships. Despite the difficulties of recruiting willing participants with such experiences (i.e., preference for anonymity), this will represent an important next step in affirming our findings.
“Our research also focused on male infidelity; of course, women can and do commit infidelity, so it will be interesting to examine women’s infidelity with single men (eg, toys for boys); such a survey will be essential to get 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 (compromise and unmet preferences), it can be quite unstable. Could the degree of compromise experienced by individuals predict the success and failure of such relationships? »
“For better or for worse, infidelity is part of the human condition; thus, addressing the lack of research on master relationships seems like a reasonable thing to do,” the researcher concluded.
The study, “The Long and the Short of Masterful Relationships: Gender-Differential Partner Preferences Reflect a Compromise of Mating Ideals,” was authored by Bryan KC Choy, Norman P. Li, and Kenneth Tan.