Wish you could guarantee faithfulness in your partner? Wish you had a way to secure the future of your love? Researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, McGill University in Montreal and Stony Brook University have been studying how and why people bond faithfully. Their work is featured in a recently-published New York Times article, The Science of a Happy Marriage, by Tara Parker-Pope. The scientists’ studies range from examining the effect of the “fidelity gene” and brain chemistry; the impact of flirting; and exploring the effect of couple exercises designed to measure rates of reported love and relationship satisfaction.
As I read the article, I grew uneasy. I found myself with more than a few unanswered concerns. The researchers and the reporter fail to talk about the uncontrollable aspects of adultery. They don't take into consideration the mystery of attraction; the realities of sex and love addiction; and the hard truth that sometimes an affair can be a doorway to growth for all adult parties concerned. (The question of adultery's impact on the children in a family or families cannot be near so easily resolved - if ever.)
The article ended on an up-beat note. One set of researchers studied "self-expansion" and how a loving connection can make us feel opened out and more fulfilled. They proposed that "couples who explore new places and try new things will tap into feelings of self-expansion, lifting their level of commitment."
“'We enter relationships because the other person becomes part of ourselves, and that expands us,” Dr. Aron said. “That’s why people who fall in love stay up all night talking and it feels really exciting. We think couples can get some of that back by doing challenging and exciting things together.'" I confess I didn't find his revelation earth-shaking. Counselors have been encouraging couple for decades to find new activities to share. And, I knew it wasn't as simple as that.
As I researched She Bets Her Life, I kept coming across the connections between gambling, drug and sex/ romance addiction. The trajectory of all of them seemed the same. …a little didn’t do it, so a little got more and more. (Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Mr. Brownstone) There were similarities in the actions of neurotransmitters; the way a sense of the forbidden heightened the pleasure; and the degree to which the addicts - no matter the addiction - found themselves powerless over their thoughts and behaviors.
I'd been writing this post at my day-job. I had just finished writing the previous paragraph when a volunteer came in and spontaneously told a story of a friend of hers. We'd been talking about the value of opening up to others. She told me that her friend is married to an alcoholic who's been having affairs since the beginning of the marriage. I found myself launching into prescriptions - the couple needs to get counseling; they could check out AA, and Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, and Alanon and 12-step support groups for partners of sex and love addicts. She agreed.
Then we just looked at each other. Both of us have been around the spiritual block enough times to know that human life is filled with many more uncontrollables than controllables. "And, besides," she said, "It's their decision if they want to make a change."
We smiled, shrugged and she went on her way. I returned to this post. I felt sorrow for the betrayed wife. I’ve been on all three sides of triangles. I remembered how it feels to discover that the person I trusted had been living a second life. I remembered how the lacerating memory of that feeling had not stopped me in my own affairs. But I knew that the triangle in the volunteer's story would play out the way it would. I'm not saying that couples can't learn ways to be more present, more loving, more capable of both creating and taking space around each other and the connection. But I do wonder, after fifty-five years of being in relationships and witnessing them, how much can we control our connections? How much of whether or not anyone chooses one sexual partner and is faithful to them for life is a matter of fate – or grace?
You might want to read the article for yourself: