In looking at the sheer number of people who have had affairs or are likely to do so at least once in their life—a figure estimated by some to be as high as 80 per cent—I can’t help but wonder at the very concept of lifetime monogamy. Given actual human behavior, it seems obvious that the monogamy mandate is at best difficult to sustain and at worst an unnatural state that has been (irrationally?) elevated to the level of cultural icon.
While psychologists often analyze the reasons spouses cheat—as if cheating is the exception, not the rule—perhaps it would be instructive to consider, for a change, why some people never cheat at all. Rather than examining what’s “wrong” with those who stray, let’s look at what’s exceptional about those who stay faithful. Could it be that they have unique values or character attributes that make them not only loyal partners, but extraordinary ones as well?
I’d like to offer some thoughts about those special qualities, extrapolating from existing research on infidelity along with my 20+ years working with couples. Think of this as a starting point in exploring why some people remain sexually exclusive despite temptation, even in relationships that are less than “perfect”:
Lack of a “Cheating Gene”: As bizarre as it may sound, some men appear to have a particular genetic anomaly that puts them at risk for cheating. Swedish researches found that men who had a certain gene variant, called “allele 334” were more likely to report difficulties in their marriages, including infidelity. Allele 334 affects the fluctuation of the brain chemical vasopressin, which regulates emotional interaction and impacts men far more acutely than women. The study concluded that 40% of men carry either one or two copies of this gene variant, making them susceptible to the risks associated with it. Researchers say that men with two copies of the allele have twice the risk of experiencing marital problems if married; and are also twice as likely as men without the allele to be unmarried.
In addition, other studies note that the brains of cheaters are unlike non-cheaters in a different way: they show higher levels of activity in the areas that signify a tendency toward risk-taking and impulsive behavior. These factors could in part explain why men still cheat more often than women.
While it is downright reductionist to presume that men are too weak to overcome genetic or neurological predispositions and remain faithful, the fact that such biological markers exist at all raises many interesting questions—among them: should a woman insist on a genetic profile and brain scans from her sweetheart before walking down the aisle?
Insecurity & Rigidity: There will always be folks who are monogamous for reasons that say more about their fears and insecurities than their strengths—for instance, men and women who question their sexual desirability, or who fear the wrath of god or community should they stray. However, these people are highly susceptible to “falling off the wagon” when life stresses whittle away at their “faith” or an unexpected opportunity makes them feel suddenly potent or wanted.
It has been my observation that when brittle rules about monogamy are imposed by external sources they are more prone to shattering than when motivation is derived from within. The following reasons for faithfulness strike me as potentially far more lasting and meaningful:
Compassion or Fear of Hurting the One You Love: Some people witness the chaotic aftermath of an affair in their family of origin when one parent is left inconsolable due to the other’s infidelity. Some see friends suffer after a mate’s betrayal. In either case, they vow they will never allow their own behavior to cause such grief to someone they love—and they remain true to that vow.
Investment in Romantic Ideals: In my own private practice I see many couples whose relationships are floundering. Often, one partner’s sexual disinterest is sufficient to stir the other’s understandable urge to cheat. Yet, in many of these cases, the spouse with stronger desire remains so committed to his or her own romantic ideals that he prefers to struggle in the relationship, shore up his own patience, say “no” to alluring opportunity, work hard in therapy—whatever it takes—rather than seek satisfaction or solace elsewhere. It is their personal belief in the meaning of marriage, and their faith in love, that gives such people strength.
A Sense of Integrity Derived from Within: We could spend hours debating whether a person’s “integrity” is self-determined or culturally imposed. I happen to believe that it is a bit of both; that in the end we each decide what sort of behavior is and is not consistent with our sense of who we are authentically, or who we hope to become. When we disregard our own ethical limits, we tend to also impose our own internal consequences for behaving in a way that lacks integrity.
When infidelity flies in the face of one’s deep inner guidance system, it is a betrayal of personal values and integrity and, as a result, would cost dearly in guilt or the unbearable weight of disappointment in one’s self. A person with this kind of ethical make-up would rather leave a troubled relationship—or risk broaching the idea of an open marriage—than cheat. Cheating would hurt them too much and any pleasure to be found in an affair would hardly be worth the self-imposed punishment.
Self-Awareness as Protection Against Extramarital Urges: Most people cheat for reasons that make sense. I’m not defending cheating here, but let’s understand that the vast majority of cheaters are not sex “addicts” who fail to control their urges; they’re people who are needy in some way—whether what they need is emotional or sexual.
For example, women cheat most often to achieve:
- Emotional closeness with someone
- Feeling important again
- Feeling desirable, special
- Relief from boredom or loneliness
- Reawakening of sexual excitement
Men often cheat to achieve:
- A more active sex life
- Sexual variety
- Satisfaction of curiosity about sex with a particular person
- Feeling important or special; garnering approval
- Closeness or intimacy
People who recognize the trigger that might prime them for extramarital sex can become wary of urges to pull it, and, therefore, better able to cope with those feelings. Still, let’s be realistic: when needs are unmet and unaddressed in a relationship, the chance of cheating escalates. Men and women who recognize this and learn to guard against letting problems remain unsolved are better equipped to reject temptations to stray.
These characteristics may not represent an exhaustive list of qualities that deter cheating, but they do cover a lot of ground. Most importantly, if they stimulate your thinking about your own motivations, about what strengthens your ability to protect your relationship from upheaval, then they’ve served their intended purpose. After all, we can speak generally about love and betrayal ad infinitum, but it’s all just an intellectual exercise until the issue hits home. When it’s personal, it matters—and the responsibility for choices is our own.