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The Causes of Infidelity: Players Gonna Play?

Cheating Happens even in Happy Marriages. Is Monogamy the Problem?

Source: Tumisu/Pixaby

At some point in their adult lives most Americans will willingly, and often publicly and proudly, enter a monogamous intimate relationship. Over time, up to roughly half of them will stray and have covert extra-pair relations.

Popular opinion often attributes infidelity to character flaws or relationship deficits: people cheat because they are weak or selfish; or they cheat because their relationship is misaligned, stagnant, or frayed.

These explanations are pleasing in their implicit support of social convention: monogamy is the social norm, ideal, and expectation. Those who deviate or fail to uphold it must be deviants or failures.

Deficit explanations also make intuitive sense. A person’s relationship behavior should have something to do with who the person is and how the relationship is going. Indeed, psychological research over the years has shown that both individual characteristics and relationship factors do play a role in shaping decisions about infidelity. For example, narcissistic men are more likely to have affairs than conscientious ones, and less satisfied married partners are more likely to opt for infidelity.

Alas, these deficit explanations for infidelity are undermined by accumulating research data showing that personal or relational dysfunction is neither necessary nor sufficient to account for infidelity. Infidelity cuts across age, class, race, and personality spectra. Extra-pair intimate relations do not necessarily signify low intelligence, weak character, or a demented personality (see: Albert Einstein, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, FDR, MLK, Picasso, Frida Kahlo, Cleopatra, etc.). Nor do they signify marital misery. Many of the people who have affairs report that their marriages are satisfying. The majority of them don’t wish to leave their marriage.

The data also reveal that infidelity is an umbrella term under which cluster many different behaviors and motives. Some affairs are primarily emotional while others are sex-centered; some take place entirely online while others involve real world trysts. Some are short term flings while others last for decades. Some participants experience the secrecy of their encounters as a turn-on, others as a torture. The psychologist Offer Zur has identified no less than eleven distinct types of affairs, including conflict avoidance, existential, and exit affairs.

Adding to the noise is the fact that not everyone agrees on what qualifies as true infidelity. For example, while 97% of respondents in a recent survey agreed that intercourse was definitely cheating, only roughly 50% thought deep emotional bond qualified as such.

The data show that many more Americans have affairs than condone the practice openly. Most people who have affairs experience inner turmoil about it. To some degree, such turmoil is a feature of our psychological architecture, which must balance inherently opposing desires. We wish for order, stability, fidelity, and predictability. But we also seek change, novelty, thrill, autonomy and spontaneity. A home from which you can’t get away is not a home but a prison. A traveller with no home to come back to is not a traveller but a refugee.

An acknowledgment of this inherent tension underlies the argument advanced by the popular sex educator and lecturer Esther Perel, who contends that a measure of emotional autonomy is essential for sexual passion to thrive between committed partners, and that affairs may serve a useful purpose in our interpersonal journey. “Affairs have a lot to teach us about relationships—what we expect, what we think we want, and what we feel entitled to. They open the door to a deeper conversation about values, human nature and the fragility of eros, and force us to grapple with some of the most unsettling questions: How do we negotiate the elusive balance between our emotional and our erotic needs? Is possessiveness intrinsic to love or an arcane vestige of patriarchy? Is it really so that what we don’t know doesn’t hurt? How do we learn to trust again? Can love ever be plural?”

In fact our ambiguity about infidelity, the difficulty to either truly embrace or resist its potent cocktail of ecstasy and devastation, may speak to a deep truth about the nature of human love. As Freud had observed, our love relations are inherently ambiguous. Diagnosing (in his book, Totem and Taboo) a bereaved widow’s guilt as an expression of her unconscious hostility toward her deceased husband, Freud wrote: “Such hostility, hidden in the unconscious behind tender love, exists in almost all cases of intensive emotional allegiance to a particular person, indeed it represents the classic case, the prototype of the ambivalence of human emotions.”

We resent the people we love, in large part because by loving them we give them power to hurt us, and we resent those who have power to hurt us. Extra-pair entanglements are one path through which that resentment may express itself. For example, recent research by Christin L. Munsch, of the University of Connecticut has shown that economic dependence increased the odds that the dependent partner will cheat.

"The findings,” the author said, “indicate people like feeling relatively equal in their relationships. People don't like to feel dependent on another person."

Such psychological explanations are illuminating, but human beings are not purely or merely psychological. Our psychology is formed along biological parameters and embedded in a social milieu. Thus more recently, attempts to understand extra-pair intimate relations have expanded to take into account both biological and cultural factors.

On the biology front, evolutionary psychologists have argued that given its consistent prevalence throughout history and around the world, infidelity must be viewed as an adaptation, a tendency that confers reproductive advantages on both males and females. For males, it is a way to spread their seed. For females, a way to poach superior sperm for their offspring.

In this vein, the researcher Helen Fisher proposed that humans have evolved three distinctive brain systems related to mating. 1) The sex drive, which is largely indiscriminant, motivating us to seek sex with a broad range of partners; 2) romantic love, which works to focus our mating energy on specific partners, and, 3) the attachment system, which enables mating pairs to remain together over the years required to rear a child. This architecture explains our ability to experience deep attachment with one person while at the same time feeling lust for another.

The notion that extra-pair mating is baked into our biological hardware is also the thesis advanced by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá in their bestselling book “Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality.” They argue that our species has evolved and lived for most of its history with a “nonpossessive, gregarious sexuality.” Our current obsession with exclusivity emerged roughly 10,000 years ago with the rise of agriculture and private property, which made keeping familial lines of inheritance a pressing concern, leading in turn to the emergence of a male dominated social structure dedicated to controlling female sexuality and privileging monogamy.

Meanwhile, socio-culturally grounded research has shown that whether someone will have an affair depends in part on cultural norms and conditions. From this perspective, the improved life expectancy and birth control, the invention of Viagra, the emergence of the Internet, and women’s political and economic gains have as much or more to do with why and how affairs happen than people’s personality traits or relationship dynamics.

Culture also has a role in shaping how extra-pair intimate relations are perceived and judged. For example, in Iran an affair may be considered a crime against divine law, punishable by death, while in the US an affair will commonly be considered private drama, more likely to result in, at most, the loss of one’s home and marriage. A Brit may speak of ‘cheating,’ assigning a moral valence to an affair, while in France it may be described as a morally neutral ‘adventure.’

Clearly, the sociocultural ecology explains something important about people’s behavior in the same way that the availability of fast cars and wide, paved highways along with lax law enforcement help explain speeding. As the Yiddish saying goes: “The thief is not the mouse but the hole in the fence.“

At the same time, people’s behavior may provide hints as to problems in the social structure. Rampant tax evasion may point to flaws, unfairness, and inadequacies in the tax system. If our prisons fill up with recreational pot smokers, it may be a sign that our drug laws are messed up.

Similarly, the high prevalence of extra-pair intimate relations may be a symptom of the failure of the social ecology to abide the complex psychology and innate biological tendencies of its inhabitants. Perhaps the current way in which we structure relationships is experienced by many as a form of oppression from which they seek escape via extra-pair dalliance.

This is the essence of the criticism leveled at mainstream American culture by influential sex advice columnist Dan Savage, who said, “I acknowledge the advantages of monogamy when it comes to sexual safety, infections, emotional safety, paternity assurances. But people in monogamous relationships have to be willing to meet me a quarter of the way and acknowledge the drawbacks of monogamy around boredom, despair, lack of variety, sexual death and being taken for granted.”

This is also the view of British sociologist Catherine Hakim, who argues for a redrawing of our relationship rules in light of advances in technology and science: “As dating websites open up a global shop window of sexual possibilities, as life expectancy continues to rise and we become increasingly sexually aware, how can we still take the crushing old rules of fidelity, that turn marriage into a prison, for granted? Why should we not be able to recapture the heady thrills of youth, while protecting a secure home life?”

Hakim advocates for shedding the Puritan, moralistic, and rigid notions of monogamy for a more open, honest, and life affirming approach to sex and relationships. To her system, sex is like food: We need it; we enjoy it; we like to play with it. Most often we eat with our partners, but sometimes we eat alone, or out with friends, or with strangers. No one makes a fuss.

At the end of the day, perhaps we’re best to accept and encourage a plurality of intimate and sexual experiences, arrangements, and expressions.

Some people, by temperament, tradition, or a consciously considered personal choice value and aspire to monogamy in their love lives. For those, sexual and emotional wellbeing may be enhanced, rather than dulled, by the unique challenges of exclusivity. Happily bonded monogamous couples exist, often for the benefit of their friends, children, and society as a whole. Moreover a failure to achieve ‘pure’ monogamy need not invalidate the aspiration. It is the human condition to routinely fail to reach even our worthiest aspirations.

Others may experience the traditional monogamous model as a poor fit and view the monogamy aspiration as rigid, bereft, or foolhardy. Those should be encouraged to develop alternative models and romantic aspirations, which may enrich the social conversation and broaden social consciousness with regard to the meaning of love and sex. The mere newness or added complexity of these alternative models need not put them to ridicule. New ideas and social habits, miscast early as degenerate, often prove highly generative in time.