Tag Archives: oxytocin

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.