Biology explains why men stray, but reason and affection hold the keys to happy, monogamous marriages between women and men.
“It is necessary to the happiness of men that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing or disbelieving it consists in professing to believing what he does not believe.” Thomas Paine
“No adultery is bloodless.” Natalia Ginsburg
As Jenny walked through the door, just back from a three day visit to see her sister, she felt something strange come over her as she entered the house. She brushed it off and moved her luggage into the bedroom so she could unpack. Her husband Jack was still at work and would not be home until later. As she pulled out her clothes and was putting them away, her little Yorkie popped up from under their bed with a shiny thing in its mouth. She ignored it at first, but then something seemed peculiar; instead of it being one of Binkies’ toys it looked metallic. She snatched the item from her doggy’s mouth and suddenly it struck her: the lipstick was not hers.
At first she couldn’t quite comprehend it. She went into denial. Perhaps one of her girlfriends had dropped it. She realized, though, that none of them wore glitter lipstick. Yet surely, she thought, she must be mistaken.
When Jack got home, she confronted him with the lipstick. At first he lied about it, but he was caught red handed: eventually he confessed to having a woman over when Jenny was out of town. She implored him to tell her why, but he could not give her an adequate answer.
They had been estranged since the children were born when she became a stay-at-home mom, and they had fought often about a variety of issues—his long hours, her not feeling loved, his not feeling appreciated—the list had grown larger over time.
So why did he cheat? Is it inherent in men to cheat or are there environmental factors that contribute to this circumstance that destroys relationships and the trust that holds them together? Do men cheat for different reasons than women and is there anything we could know that would help save relationships if there is infidelity?
When Jenny and Jack came in to talk about their issues, Jenny was very angry not only about the infidelity but with Jack’s judgmental attitude toward her, and his inability to take responsibility for how he was acting towards her. Jack didn’t want to articulate how insecure he felt after the children were born: how unimportant he felt, or how much he needed her approval and attention.
When they were first married, they both worked in the same industry and had lots in common. After the children were born, they lost touch with one another. He felt that she was preoccupied with motherhood and he was having a hard time with it. He felt abandoned, like she no longer cared about him. He didn’t feel that she appreciated how hard he was working to support the family and instead was angry with him for not spending enough time with the family. Both of them had difficulty talking about their needs and what was not working in their relationship. They had drifted apart and didn’t know how to come back together again without it turning into a fight.
Jack had taken Jenny’s motherhood as a rejection of him and acted out as a form of revenge. She saw him turn away from her, spending more and more time with his friends. What they needed was to understand their their lives had changed, and make it work for them again. Jack needed to see that he was acting out his fears and using it as an entitlement to see other women. He was having a great deal of trouble adjusting to having children and was blaming his wife for it instead of looking more deeply into his own insecurities.
Once all of this came out and they could talk it through, their relationship improved markedly. They needed a place to talk and make room for each other in their new life. Jack realized that motherhood was difficult and how he had taken it personally and blamed her for his insecurity about not being the center of her life.
Dr. Gary Neuman interviewed over 200 couples for his book The Truth About Cheating. He discovered that 48% of men rated emotional dissatisfaction as the primary reason for infidelity. Only 8% of men rated sexual dissatisfaction as the reason. “They want their wives to show them that they are appreciated, they want women to know how hard they are trying.” He goes on to point out that men have difficulty expressing these feelings because they believe it is “unmanly” to ask for a pat on the back. Ultimately most affairs occur because people are emotionally lonely.
Another reason why men cheat is the “birds of a feather” phenomenon. Neuman offers that 77% of the men he interviewed said they had a friend who cheated. It appears that when guys get together and they all agree to cheat, it legitimizes their behavior and diminishes their sense of guilt. Neuman also points out that only 12% of men who cheated thought that their mistress was more attractive than their wives. This leads us back to the more intriguing aspects of marital infidelity, like the unexpressed underpinnings of emotional need.
All men know that cheating is socially unacceptable. They learn about monogamy through the values expressed in their families of origin, religious training, education, and marriage vows; movies, television and music. Men who decide to behave counter to our outwardly expressed cultural mores develop their own personal codes for cheating. They use rationales like: It’s okay to cheat, just not in your own zip code, or they believe that it’s their birthright to cheat. For these men cheating is their measure of success, of “living life to the fullest.” There are many psychological methods that men use to give themselves permission to cheat: she doesn’t put out, she cheated on me, it’s fun, it’s okay as long as you don’t get caught, she doesn’t turn me on, she’s a nag, the opportunity was there, I don’t love her anymore, it’s an ego boost, or the thrill of the chase. Men often feel trapped and drained and yearn for the excitement of courtship that was lost after they got married and settled down. However they rationalize it, inevitably it comes down to a choice that men make in spite of the risk to their reputation, their faith and their marriage.
Pop culture and the culture at large both tout the virtues of true love and monogamy while propelling sex into all categories of advertisements. What forms the bulwark that enables men and women to be faithful in a marital state? Certainly the loss of community support, the ebbing of religious, social and family values, have made an impact on the overall sense of values toward monogamy. The formation of solid moral values and the development of moral character in men is one answer to the compelling social issue of infidelity. The highest level of moral development in a man or woman is when they must face themselves as the final arbiter for their moral behavior.
The Human Male Animal
Science suggests that there are three hormones that regulate monogamy. It is the combination of oxytocin, arginine vasopressin, and testosterone that make up the chemical concoction for the inner workings of men. Oxytocin stimulates the brains of primates to maintain pair bonds in males and females through its release during sex, touch, or any positive social signal. Arginine vasopressin stimulates mate and offspring guarding behavior in male, socially monogamous mammals, which is critical to pair bonding. Testosterone is the stimulant for libido.
The incidence of oxytocin and vasopressin receptors in the brain reveal a tendency for monogamy among humans, suggesting that we are a monogamous species. The culprit in this mix is testosterone. As it turns out testosterone is in conflict with the pairing effects of oxytocin. Testosterone inhibits the uptake of oxytocin in the brain. Men have five times more testosterone than women, on average, stimulating the desire for more sexual partners. But men are not just hormones: we are social animals who respond to social cues. Win a game and your testosterone gets a bump. Make a killing in the stock market and it jumps off the map. This is why very successful men are at more risk than the rest of us. This news does not mean men can’t keep their proverbial penis in their pants but it does require a strong marriage and some killer values to prevent those temptations from getting the best of us.
For most species, dominant males are more reproductive. What does this mean in our modern world of love and romance? With attractive females seemingly everywhere, because of the ubiquity of media images, and the loosening of religious and cultural limits on promiscuous behavior, it makes for a very heady set of challenges for modern people. How then are men and women able to stay true to their promise of fidelity while keeping their primal tendencies at bay?
Anthropologists point out that men have two minds, one is on home and hearth and the other is a roving eye. This dichotomy makes it clear that a strong relationship with couples who make time for each other, for fun, regular sex and making their relationship a high priority, creates some protection from that male tendency to stray. Couples who have developed skills for solving problems efficiently and have created a dialogue that includes positive affirmations and appreciation can avoid the pitfalls of resentment, entitlement, and frustration which can lead to cheating. Notwithstanding that there are men—and to a lesser degree, women—who feel that it is their birthright and are committed to cheating, there are plenty of men and women who are interested in keeping it true blue. The question is how do they do it?
Fundamentally men and women need to understand and accept that infidelity psychologically disconnects them from their mate. It’s a secret they must keep and therefore it puts a wedge between them. It’s a clandestine lifestyle and creates distance. Men need to consider who they become when they cheat. They become liars and cheaters who have broken the promise to be faithful. To be fully responsible is to understand the risk to one’s marriage—how it would affect one’s children, family and friends—for the cheating behavior to be revealed. The truth that men who cheat must confront is that they get to choose what kind of man they want to be. The challenge for men is to be in harmony—with their family, personal values, and drives—and to do the work that relationships require to make them viable and satisfying, instead of escaping into another world.
For men and women to be faithful they need to affirm towards one another that they:
- Make a commitment to creating a positive, supportive, honest, high priority marriage or relationship.
- Introduce fun, recreation, mutual interests and association with other couples who are also faithful.
- Don’t let resentments build: make a space to resolve them.
- As the lack of appreciation and affirmation is a cause of cheating behavior, the obvious answer would be to show appreciation: affirm and validate one another’s efforts, ideas, thoughts and feelings.
- Work towards a resolution centered relationship. Getting mired in who said what to whom, one upsmanship, tit for tat, winning, being right, yelling, nagging, screaming, shutting down or acting out of revenge, fuels the entitlement to seek sexual solace elsewhere.
- Learn how to manage anger. Come from a positive or level place. Get to know who you are and what you want and need, so you don’t re-create dysfunctional family patterns.
- Practice tolerance, compassion, empathy and kindness.
- Develop a value system that includes monogamy.
- Monogamy requires that men accept that they may have to give up some freedom for a greater good.
- Honesty and transparency are the only sure fire methods for creating and maintaining a monogamous, intimate, and loving relationship. If the rule is that you must tell your mate everything you are thinking about doing, would you still do it?
With all the daunting challenges of monogamy, it would seem that a casual sexual encounter would be such a natural and easy outcome for this dilemma. Truth is, it’s not. The devastation, emotional distance, secrecy and guilt will your relationship. There is no ultimate panacea for the desire to stray, but the ability to talk openly about the subject helps to bring it out of the shadows. It’s the clandestine quality of sexual infidelity that so often makes it alluring, especially if it is mixed with longing and entitlement. In truth you can allow yourself to use the fantasy of a new sexual partner to stimulate yourself and connect with your mate. Bringing it all in instead of keeping it all out is the key to connecting with your partner.
Knowing that you have to give up something to have a happy life free of guilt and shame is part of what it means to be an adult. Sure, that female version of a chocolate layer cake looks so sweet, but remember, it also makes you feel sick afterward and in the long run, is not sustainable. In the classic story of The Odyssey of Ulysses, the Sirens lure sailors onto the rocks but Ulysses, having been warned, lashes himself to the mast of his ship and saves his crew from destruction. Like Ulysses, modern men find themselves being called from the shore on their Odyssey through life. The secret is to learn from the past and not be doomed to repeat it.
Read more: Shame Is Why We Fight
Image credit: oddsock/Flickr