david_m_buss's picture
Professor of Psychology, University of Texas, Austin; Author, When Men Behave Badly

Sexual Conflict Theory

A fascinating parallel has occurred in the history of the traditionally separate disciplines of evolutionary biology and psychology. Biologists historically viewed reproduction as an inherently cooperative venture. A male and female would couple for the shared goal of reproduction of mutual offspring. In psychology, romantic harmony was presumed to be the normal state. Major conflicts within romantic couples were and still are typically seen as signs of dysfunction. A radical reformulation embodied by sexual conflict theory changes these views.

Sexual conflict occurs whenever the reproductive interests of an individual male and individual female diverge, or more precisely when the "interests" of genes inhabiting individual male and female interactants diverge. Sexual conflict theory defines the many circumstances in which discord is predictable and entirely expected.

Consider deception on the mating market. If a man is pursuing a short-term mating strategy and the woman for whom he has sexual interest is pursuing a long-term mating strategy, conflict between these interactants is virtually inevitable. Men are known to feign long-term commitment, interest, or emotional involvement for the goal of casual sex, interfering with women's long-term mating strategy. Men's have evolved sophisticated strategies of sexual exploitation. Conversely, women sometimes present themselves as costless sexual opportunities, and then intercalate themselves into a man's mating mind to such a profound degree that he wakes up one morning and suddenly realizes that he can't live without her—one version of the ‘bait and switch' tactic in women's evolved arsenal.

Once coupled in a long-term romantic union, a man and a woman often still diverge in their evolutionary interests. A sexual infidelity by the woman might benefit her by securing superior genes for her progeny, an event that comes with catastrophic costs to her hapless partner who unknowingly devotes resources to a rival's child. From a woman's perspective, a man's infidelity risks the diversion of precious resources to rival women and their children. It poses the danger of losing the man's commitment entirely. Sexual infidelity, emotional infidelity, and resource infidelity are such common sources of sexual conflict that theorists have coined distinct phrases for each.

But all is not lost. As evolutionist Helena Cronin has eloquently noted, sexual conflict arises in the context of sexual cooperation. The evolutionary conditions for sexual cooperation are well-specified: When relationships are entirely monogamous; when there is zero probability of infidelity or defection; when the couple produces offspring together, the shared vehicles of their genetic cargo; and when joint resources cannot be differentially channeled, such as to one set of in-laws versus another.

These conditions are sometimes met, leading to great love and harmony between a man and a woman. The prevalence of deception, sexual coercion, stalking, intimate partner violence, murder, and the many forms of infidelity reveal that conflict between the sexes is ubiquitous. Sexual conflict theory, a logical consequence of modern evolutionary genetics, provides the most beautiful theoretical explanation for these darker sides of human sexual interaction.