Infidelity’s opposing forces

A colleague once remarked that humans were not biologically made to be monogamous. Hmm…an interesting issue. I would say yes and no.

I think there are two mechanisms in human nature that clash. One contributes to infidelity while the other favours monogamy. They both have to do with the survival of the species.

The first, of course, is our innate biological sex drive that ensures the propogation of human DNA. We simply wouldn’t exist without it. That’s why orgasms feel so good. They make us want to seek out the sensation over and over again. (It is also why adolescent boys have no time left for homework). Sexual attraction does not disappear after one has found a partner. Anyone else that comes along will tend to produce the same reaction in us, sometimes making it too difficult to resist the urge to stray.

So why then do we even seek long-term relationships? That’s where the second survival mechanism comes in. This one involves the need to form groups and attachments. Social behaviour helps us survive in a world where being alone makes us vulnerable. A solitary person may have a harder time finding food or defending against a predator.

Our offspring are also more likely to survive if they are taken care of by a group rather than an individual. This is what favours a structured society, usually involving families or other stable entities. Over the course of time, evolving societies develop cultural habits and beliefs that favour their own survival. The stable bond between parents is thus a key factor in the survival of both the culture and the species.

Last week’s column was inspired by two clients who were seen one after the other. The contrast between the two was striking since one had been caught having an affair by his wife, while the other was dealing with his wife’s affair. Infidelity is a difficult subject to discuss without eliciting strong emotions in some readers. I had trouble finding an angle that was sufficiently neutral since I regularly see clients on both sides of the issue. I decided to simply focus on factors that influence infidelity. I threw in a non-committal ending and voila. Here it is:


(Source: Être infidèle ou pas, là est la question.* Journal Métro; December 2, 2008. *Veuillez noter que la dernière partie est manquante du site du Journal. Voici la fin:   Telle est la nature humaine. L’attirance sexuelle est ce qui assure la survie de l’espèce. Malheureusement, cette attirance n’assure pas toujours la survie d’une relation.)

It certainly made for an interesting afternoon. One client was in my office to help deal with the consequences of having cheated on his wife, while the one in the waiting room had recently found out that his wife was cheating on him.

As a psychologist, I see many people who have affairs or who are affected by infidelity on the part of their spouses and partners. While there are many reasons for infidelity, the formula is a simple one; the stronger the attraction for another, and the weaker the factors that inhibit us, the likelier it is to happen.

Part 1: Attraction (Let’s go there!)

The first part of infidelity is quite easy to understand. It’s a matter of basic biology. Two compatible individuals, when they get along, and especially if they share laughs and common interests, can easily develop sexual desires for each other. When you have frequent interactions with someone, such as at work or through an association, this becomes much more likely to happen. That’s why, despite being frowned upon, office romances are so common.

Part 2: Inhibition (Don’t go there!)

Despite the ease with which attraction develops, very few people act on it when they are already in a committed relationship. For some, it is a question of moral values. They simply would never consider it an option, no matter how strong the attraction for another.

For others, fear of being caught is what inhibits their desires. When this is the sole reason, those who can convince themselves that they won’t get caught, may still risk an affair. Of course most people do not expect to get caught. Just like fast drivers who often get away with speeding, they sometimes get caught when they least expect it.

Others are less inhibited because they may not fully appreciate the impact that infidelity can have on their current partners. If they do not think the effect will be a big deal, or if they cannot empathize accurately with people, they are more likely to respond to an attraction.

Finally, some people may find themselves in a very unsatisfying marriage or relationship. Despite this, the thought of being alone, or of facing a separation, with all that it implies, keeps many people in unhappy circumstances. In such cases, the attraction for another person that comes along can fulfill gaping needs and can easily overwhelm any factors that would otherwise inhibit them.

Such is human nature. Sexual attraction is what ensures the survival of the species. Unfortunately, it does not always ensure the survival of a relationship.

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Posted in Relationships.

Posted on 08 Dec 2008

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