You’re in love now, and doing great--so great that you consider committing forever. But forever is a long time, and you know feelings can change. You’d love to commit, but not if your partner is going to rip your heart out and stomp on it, adultery-style.
Blind faith in your partner’s pledged faithfulness sounds virtuous, but is impractical. Instead you find yourself trying to step out of today’s romantic haze to calculate the odds: “Twenty years out, am I in for a heart-stomping?”
What factors go into a calculation like that?
Factors too numerous to mention. Of course gender, since men and women have different cheating styles; attractiveness, since the hot are more likely to be invited to cheat; power, since power is an aphrodisiac; extroversion, since those who mingle more widely may tingle more widely. And there’s your partner’s to-do list, since idle hands are the devil’s plaything.
And that doesn’t begin to factor how things might change. How will your comparative looks fade over time? Whose libido will fade faster? Will one of you get clingy and the other restless? Will your partner stay true if you fall ill? Will your partner accept what the ravages of time do to us all eventually, or bolt in search of the fling that reaffirms? How much does your partner declare absolute commitment to integrity and moral principle? And how much can you trust those declarations to be more than lip service?
So many factors, the odds are practically incalculable.
Still, there’s one factor to monitor, that’s often overlooked until it’s too late. People sometimes misdiagnose it as narcissism. It deserves more detailed understanding and appreciation than that.
Partnership is a negotiation over freedom and safety, two qualities of utmost value, all the more so when tethering to each other as tightly as marrying. Ideally, partnership yields ample quantities of both qualities, partners feeling free to be themselves, unshackled, un-oppressed, and partners also feeling safe, well held, secure, not anxious about heart stompings of any sort, including the adulterous kind.
The sad truth about humans is that, though we’re nice when we feel safe, in a pinch, feeling unsafe or threatened, we tend to release our meanest dogs.
For many of us, the story of our love lives starts with a romantic quest for someone who doesn’t release those mean dogs when threatened. And never finding an exception to that human tendency, we settle into the reality that there will be those dogs from time to time. If we’re self-aware, we discover that even we aren’t exceptions to the human tendency, that we too release our meanest dogs in a pinch.
Not all mean dogs bark yangly. Just as there are different cheating styles, there are different mean-dog styles. Some mean dogs whimper self-pityingly, some take little under/over-the-radar nips, the kiss of death by a thousand cuts (See Yintimidation). There are just so many ways to be mean and we humans have discovered and used them all in a pinch, including focusing on your partner’s style of being mean while conveniently ignoring our styles.
The biggest threat to long term-partnership is stresscalation, a tit-for-tat, arms race in mean-dog tactics, an unleashed, escalating dog fight, two people each feeling unsafe, scrambling for safety and in the process, making each other feel unsafe on purpose, inadvertently or both.
Given that in a pinch, any of us might release our meanest dogs, there’s the potential for those dogfights in any relationship., but with some partners more so than with others, and those are the partners to watch out for.
With some of us it takes a whole lot of threat before we release our mean dogs, and they don't stay released for long. Early on we wonder if we've over-reacted. We take responsibility for contributing to the stresscalation, and we back down. With others of us, the tiniest pinch of threat makes us release the mean dogs and we never relent. We can't imagine how we contributed to the stresscalation. We assume it was all our partner's fault.
In the course of your courtship and early time together, listen for your partner’s efforts to de-escalate the stresscalation. If you don’t ever find your partner working to tether his or her mean dog, you might be dealing with someone who hasn’t yet discovered his or her capacity to employ mean dog tactics in a pinch. You might be with someone who knows all about your contribution to stresscalation, but is blind to his or her’s, a person who still feels exempt from that human tendency to release the mean dogs in a pinch.
To people like this, you are always be the one who started it. Their mean dogs fight self-righteously. They'll never say sorry for contributing, or consider your feedback about how they might have contributed. They'll be insulted and outraged that you would even suggest they might have contributed. Their intransigence will frustrate you which they'll take as further evidence that you're the only stress-bunny in the interaction.
If you are with someone who makes you do all the de-escalation, watch out. The work you do may never be enough. That’s the kind of person who when feeling unsafe for whatever reason, could escalate without bounds, reaching for safety by any means, including adultery, and will claim that you drove them to it, never noticing his or her contribution.
Narcissistic? Sure, but who isn’t? We all feel our fear and pain more than other people’s. We all care about our personal fate disproportionately to others, and well we should.
This isn’t about whether you like yourself a lot, it’s about how easily you feel unsafe, what you do about it, and what you do about what you do about it. A partner who, in a pinch lets the dogs out fast and fierce, whatever their unleashed style of meanness, and yet doesn’t know or acknowledge that he or she does that, will always escalate and never help deescalate, and will escalate right into someone else’s arms and say you caused it.
Oh, and one more thing. If you’re like that, quick and stubborn with your mean dogs when you feel unsafe, you can actually drive your partner away and into someone else's arms. Don't assume you're the one who handles, releases and re-leashes the mean dogs rationally. Most people who don't handle them rationally assume they do, so thinking you do doesn't really exempt you.
Look both ways before crossing the street into full commitment.