The UK Independent pointed out in one of their articles that up until two hundred years ago, couples married for proof of genetic monogamy, to pass down their sheep and farmland to their children. This monogamy was necessary to ensure that no one cheated outside of the family lines and that property ownership stayed within the male lineage. Today, heterosexual and homosexual marriages form a legal framework for sharing property and to give their children a secure home. The hope for married and committed partners is that they share that common desire and will love each other until death. However, for over half of us, love wilts on the vine before we are anywhere near death or even old age.
You can easily find many articles on the Internet recommending how men and women can keep infidelity out of their relationships. There are countless listicles (numbered lists presented as articles) on the subject that grab one's attention with headlines like, "The Eight Reasons People Cheat on Their Partners" and "The Five Reasons Why People Have Affairs." Most of these articles (be they informed or not) blame emotional voids and sexual curiosity as the prime causes of infidelity. This may be so but there's got to be more to it than that.
The Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy, states that half of American married women and nearly two-thirds of American married men will have an extramarital affair. That's an alarmingly high statistic. A University of California study twenty years ago reported that a quarter of men and less than one-eighth of women had had an affair. In only 10 years, those numbers have more than doubled. That's a fourfold increase! Alfred Kinsey's research into human sexuality stirred controversy in the 1940s and 50s. He pioneered controversial research into human sexual behaviour which grew into the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction at Indiana University. He also wrote two books, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (in 1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (in 1953). His work influenced societal and cultural values worldwide. He developed a scale measuring sexual orientation, now known as the Kinsey Scale, which ranges from 0 to 6, where 0 is exclusively heterosexual and 6 is exclusively homosexual. Prior to Kinsey's highly controversial data gathering methods, academic understanding of the human sexual act was until then, naively conservative. Kinsey's research blew the lid on what people got up to in the bedroom (and elsewhere of course). One must question the fourfold increase in affairs and ask if it is because people are having more of them or is it because we live in an emancipated world and admit to having had them? I suspect that it is a bit of both.
Another aspect to consider is the smudging of the definition of what constitutes cheating. In Kinsey's day, cheating involved physical contact with a person other than your committed partner. However, according to the BBC, just over a third of the Internet hosts explicit adult content. This might have once been pornographic pictures and movies but the Internet-porn industry now hosts live video streams, virtual sex chatrooms and the latest innovations, letting people interact with each other, using wearable Bluetooth remotely controlled stimulators and other sex toys. But it doesn't stop there, cybersex is not limited to porn websites and there is a growing trend for one-on-one sexting using one's PC and smartphone. I asked a young client, "If you're in some chat room masturbating, watching other people doing the same, are you really cheating?" "No," he said quickly, defended the practice and fobbing it off as inconsequential self-release. This is the first time in history that we can cheat on our partner while lying in bed next to them. Therefore, it is imperative that partners define the context and parameters of what constitutes cheating.
I don't think there's much point in delving deeply into the stats except that they might help you, if you've been cheated upon, to realise that, while it may be terrible, you are not alone. The flipside of giving these statistics is a narcissistic justification for cheating: If so many others are doing it, why shouldn't I? Eric Anderson, writing for the Washington Post in 2012 said that cheating and affairs are more common among the rich and less common in conservative cultures. They might be less frequent in conservative cultures but, from my experience, they are endemic amongst the impoverished in the townships here in South Africa. Anderson adds that the more money and celebrity men have, the more likely they are to cheat and poorer women are more likely to cheat than wealthy ones. One wonders if the latter is transactional sex to raise money or if these women, due to their impoverishment, are emotionally broken and therefore more prone to cheating. Still on the stats, the UK Independent said that it seems as if we aren't very good at choosing our lovers either because only 10% of affairs last up to a month and the rest last, at most, a year or two. Very few extramarital affairs last longer than three or four years, they say. We do know that a couple is more likely to stay married when they thoroughly discuss the whole situation. Peggy Vaughan found in her research that absolute honesty and openness in discussing the details of the affair significantly increased the likelihood of rebuilding and maintaining a relationship. In fact, 86% of those who openly and at length discussed the situation stayed committed to each other and together.
Here's a bit of trivia you can share with your mates at your next braai (oh, that's South African for a barbeque): Rafael Wlod-ar-ski and his team of researchers at Oxford University correlated the rate of infidelity and the length of a respondent's ring finger compared to their index finger. Their conclusion: the longer the ring finger when compared to the index finger, the higher the statistical chance is for cheating. This adds a whole new meaning to 'showing the middle finger!' On what basis however, do they make this claim? Well, it appears that the greater the amount of testosterone in the womb, the longer the foetus's middle finger will grow. Mm, does this then mean that men can at last, now blame their mothers for their need to cheat?
We live in a culture where around half of all marriages end in divorce. Infidelity is the reason for divorce in a third of these cases. Does this mean that as a society, we are no longer committed to monogamy? In Vietnam, as an example, adultery is endemic and it's worth noting that Vietnam is an especially repressed culture which highly values fidelity and virginity. This somehow backfires in a weird recursive loop in which wives, even when they know about their philandering husbands will keep tight-lipped and go on with their lives to preserve their families.
There are a couple of myths out there too. One of them is, "Your partner won't stray as long as you keep your sex life exciting." Monogamy though, does not necessarily offer one a lifetime of sexual contentment. Although society cherishes the idea of monogamy, the expectation of exclusive sexual activity is unsustainable for most couples. There is a growing trend in Canada, Australia and the USA towards polyamorous relationships — these are ones where a person has a few other committed partners. I spoke about this in depth in Soul Searching Episode 30, Polyamory — Committed Intimate Relationships with a Limited Number of other People.
The website divorcedwives.com lists the following eight reasons for cheating: (1) lack of attention and intimacy; (2) revenge for having been cheated upon; (3) bad sex; (4) heightened sexuality and sensuality after weight loss or plastic surgery; (5) financial independence leading to freer sexual expression; (6) compensating for low self-esteem; (7) feeling under-appreciated; and (8) to alleviate boredom. These eight reasons are common situations people find themselves in, which may lead to infidelity. Take low self-esteem as an example. It is an emotional situation (or state of mind) that, during those moments of desperation, may lead to an affair where one could find emotional support from another. These eight reasons are potential precursors to infidelity. By therapeutically resolving these problems, one makes cheating a less likely outcome. But there is more to it than that. All of us will experience some of these eight situations from time to time, yet many of us will resist the urge to go out and have a fling, why? To murder our aggressor is an opportunity we all have but sane people don't do that sort of thing. While the fantasy of murdering your aggressor might be forefront in your mind, there is another part of your thinking that controls and manages this impulse. Can you build impulse control and if so, how? There are two factors that overarch these eight infidelity reasons and describe the problem behind the problem. These two factors are: (1) the thrill of illicit sex; and (2) the lack of self-control.
Sexual motivation (libido) is a person's overall sexual drive or desire for sexual activity. Biological, psychological, and social factors decide one's motivation levels. In most mammalian species, sex hormones control the ability to engage in sexual behaviour. However, sex hormones do not directly regulate the ability to copulate in primates (including humans); rather, they are only one influence on the motivation to engage in sexual activity. According to William Masters and Virginia Johnson, sex cycles consist of four phases: excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution. The intrinsic (inner) motivation to pursue sex arises during the excitement phase and resolution is the return to the unaroused state.
The hypothalamus is a small area at the base of your brain consisting of several groups of nerve-cell bodies that receive input from the emotional centres of your brain. Studies with laboratory animals show that destruction of certain parts of the hypothalamus causes complete elimination of sexual behaviour, leading to the belief that the hypothalamus plays a vital role in sexual arousal. The hypothalamus produces various hormones which the pituitary gland, another tiny brain structure lying near the hypothalamus, regulates and secretes. I cringe at the cruelty of vivisection but nature often has models which we can study to better understand ourselves. Voles offer just such an opportunity. They give us insight into why some of us may be more prone to having affairs and others, not. Voles are rodents and a relative of the mouse, only a bit stouter than a mouse. Prairie voles are one of the only truly monogamous mammals on earth, staying faithful to their partner for life. They are very different from their very promiscuous cousins, the mountain voles. Studies of these tiny, furry animals reveals that the one difference between the two voles is that the monogamous vole has more of the drug, vaso-press-in. The promiscuous female mountain vole had more hormone receptor inhibitors for the brain chemical oxytocin, the hormone responsible for pair bonding. Vasopressin and oxytocin affect pair bonding and the inhibition of oxytocin creates a resistance to pair bonding thus leading to more promiscuity. Interesting to note that human females when stressed have lower rates of oxytocin. Some scientists say that the high from dopamine (our feel-good drug) released by lying and hiding (the thrill of illicit sex) may also help explain why cheaters can become obsessive cheaters. So, there may well be a cellular basis for monogamy or polyamory but we don't have enough information yet to measure a person's propensity for infidelity by asking them to test their vasopressin and oxytocin levels.
Mira Kirshenbaum, a couples' counsellor, said to TIME senior reporter Andrea Sachs that most cheaters say, "I never meant for this to happen," and they're being honest when they say that. Typically, they're in a committed relationship until the other person somehow floats into their world. Kirshenbaum says, the image that I have is like someone who has been wandering around with a couple of empty wine glasses who suddenly meets someone with a bottle of wine and they want a little. It starts very innocently. Very slowly they get to know each other. It's often an emotional affair to begin with until they happen to cross the line. Remorse sets in after they've crossed it but it also feels wonderful because it was a line they were hungry to cross. It's exciting yet terrifying and it keeps on going. People, in their initial encounters with an affair, become intoxicated by the feeling they get. It will however, never last. It can't. Being in two relationships is inherently unsustainable. It's like a house of cards. And the longer it keeps going, the more likely it is to come crashing down. Then the pressure mounts and the central structure becomes that of a three-way tug of war. The person who is cheating is just trying to keep everything stable, trying to keep it the same, not changing anything. The other two people, the lover and the spouse, put on the pressure. It will eventually blow up.
Can we mend our relationships after the discovery of an affair? Certainly so! The person cheated on has the talent for forgiveness and the cheater, the sincere feelings of being truly sorry. It's only egoistic revenge, spite, judgement, blame and denial that will prevent reconciliation. But, is honesty the best policy and therefore the best way to go?
Kirshenbaum has this to say: If you're going to be found out, then it's better for you to be the one to make the confession first — and I agree with her. I'm an advocate of truth and there's an entire show, Soul Searching Episode 15, I Swear to Tell the Truth, which focusses on the benefits of honesty.
Kirshenbaum has a slightly different take. She says that it took her a very long time to come around to a different way of thinking regarding the disclosure of an affair. She advocates that it isn't always prudent to disclose a once-off affair. It is a terrible thing for a person to inflict terrible pain on someone else and one can carry lots of guilt for having done so. This is the confession's consequence. It puts the other person in a permanent state of hurt, grief and loss of trust and an inability to feel safe, and it doesn't alleviate your guilt either. Your relationship is dealt a potentially devastating blow. Honesty is great, but it's an abstract moral principle. The higher moral principle, she says, is not to hurt people — and, once again, I agree with her. She adds, when you confess to having an affair, you are hurting someone more than you can ever imagine. Confessing your affair is the kind of honesty that is unnecessarily destructive.
So, is Kirshenbaum advocating deceit and conscienceless continuation? No, she's not. I like the way she resolves this dilemma of whether to confess or not: She says, if you care that much about honesty, figure out who you want to be with, commit to that relationship and devote the rest of your life to making it the most honest relationship you can have. There caveats, in the event that you put your spouse at risk because of unprotected sex and the risk of HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases, it's then, certainly here in South Africa, your legal obligation to tell your partner.
Kirshenbaum's advice is retrospective action but I prefer preventative action. The adage is, 'Prevention is better than cure.' I was recently listening to an audio book published by The Great Courses. Professor C. Nathan DeWall speaks of The Scientific Secrets for Self-Control. Researchers found that we have a flexible capacity to control our impulses. Earlier in this show I said that we all could murder our aggressor yet sane people don't do that sort of thing. Why not? Prof DeWall says that we have an executive override that rules against our more primitive response and calls it to a halt. Impulses are well-rehearsed shortcut responses to everyday challenges we face in life. Flight and fight is a sympathetic nervous system impulse of ours, designed to keep us safe. Shopping for your groceries is a series of shortcut impulses. Marketers have used incredible ingenuity to install shortcuts in your brain so that you will not only recognise their product but will choose it over other brands on the shelf. We recognise and buy products by the colour of their packaging, the brand font and package shape. DeWall says that every time we try to control an impulse, it reduces our self-control energy a little, like discharging a battery. We are, when we have a lot of self-control energy, able to control impulses better than we can when that energy is exhausted. He also says that you can learn to build impulse control energy, not only topping up the battery but also increasing its size too. It's useful to know that you can build control-stamina which you can later use to sidestep and affair. The longer you delay controlling your sexual-impulse, the more self-control energy you use and the weaker you get in being able to override it. The more you are sexually aroused, the more your impulse-control stamina weakens. It's so much easier nipping the affair in the bud by saying, "Thank you but I would prefer not going down this path with you because I'd like to preserve my relationship." It'd be so much easier to have this discussion long before you're in the hotel room busy getting undressed. Further imagine returning home and saying this to your partner, "Hey sweetheart, there was this person who really hit on me today at our conference and I nearly lost my balance but I said that I am in a committed relationship and the whole thing was averted."
One night in Bangkok, I can feel the Devil walking next to me — Murray Head.
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I should have known better — a song by English rock band the Beatles composed by John Lennon.
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