Science of our infidelity

What if promiscuity was the result of brain wiring? What if that wiring was the result of inherited genes that impact us in ways we can not possibly anticipate?

What if what we want in a partner changes over time — not because anything happened but just because time had passed? What if infidelity isn’t “his fault” or “her fault” but caused by an invisible process outside of anyone’s control?

This musing was sparked by an article by Dr. Richard A. Friedman, professor of clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Read that article here.

I’ll jump to Dr. Friedman’s conclusion and work backwards: “For some, there is little innate temptation to cheat; for others, sexual monogamy is an uphill battle against their own biology.”

The  “biology” or propensity toward infidelity, appears to be linked to the amount and location of hormones, or receptors for those hormones, in our brains and are the result of genetic “programming.” Oxytocin and vasopressin are especially relevant. These impact behavior. In fact, according to one study, “Forty percent of the variation in promiscuous behavior in women could be attributed to genes.”

Men have their own variants. Evolution has favored men who spread their genes far and wide: i.e., prone to infidelity. But I’d like to rephrase that: Evolution favors genes able to spread far and wide through behavior of the organism in which they are carried, and that they influence to favor that spreading.

Some of you are now thinking I use this to justify any and all sorts of behavior, but that’s not the case. There are other biological forces at work as well, and social forces, etc. In the overlapping circles of self, family and society, there are many competing forces at work. It’s a pretty dynamic system. Understanding the causes of behavior does not change the fact that certain behaviors are destructive and painful.

At the same time, accurate understanding can at least mitigate that pain, and possibly reduce  the destruction. Continuing with mistaken beliefs not only prolongs pain and destruction, but often adds to it.

A partner cheating on us can lead to the belief that we are inadequate, when the real cause has little to do with us and is result of that partner’s wiring. It can be confusing when the cheating partner doesn’t know the real cause of their own behavior and blames us for being “inattentive.”

Dr. Friedman writes of a friend: “… (she had a) propensity for sexual exploration that seemed in some ways independent of the emotional status of her relationships.”

For those prone to exploration, we might believe our partner has become boring, when it is in fact our own wiring that causes us to seek new stimulation. Nothing changed for them. We do not need to judge them as lacking when our wandering is internal to us.

At the same time, belief that a partner is “immoral” or that they simply choose to hurt us, or are indifferent to our pain is probably not true and diminishes the joy that once existed.

All that said, we do not always get what we want. Hard decisions still have to be made. But to make those decisions well, we have to recognize that differences between people exist, and often for historical and/or biological reasons that are nobody’s fault.

But we still have to decide what we are willing to live with, and what we are willing to risk. There are no guarantees.

One thought on “Science of our infidelity

  1. joyce

    Well Jessica, I think your very perceptive. ……and I’ll take it one step further if I might……… I think that 40 year itch so common in men is because it’s their bodies acknowledgement of the fact that they’re aging and this is their one last chance to spread their genes. The fact that they usually choose someone much younger than their wife is a nod toward the fact that younger women are better choices for carrying that gene pool forward. Looking back over the years I would say that I don’t think most people are meant to live in long term committed relationships. If that were so there would be more people doing it. If you think about it, most infatuations run about three months, or three monthly cycles. Given the fact that without birth control of some kind most women would be pregnant in three cycles. So Mother nature wins again……… lol I think marriage evolved because society decided that marriage was a safer bet for the transfer of property and power. It was never about love. Thats a modern concept. But now that women are able to support themselves and own their own property you are seeing fewer women rush to the altar. Speaking from experience I believe that most women lose themselves when they marry. Suddenly it becomes about his needs and his job, and then it’s the children needs and schools. I was forty before I found myself again. And while it’s true that you can’t have it all…………. iIcame pretty darn close and I’d still do it again.


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