Alice In Wanderland

I follow you on Twitter, and I was disgusted to see your tweet about marriage, “No, humans aren’t naturally monogamous – which is why people say relationships ‘take work,’ while you never hear anybody talking about what a coal mine an affair can be.” If a person finds fidelity so challenging, they should stay single.

-Ethical Married Person

Reality has this bad habit of being kind of a bummer. So, sure, that person you married all those years ago still has the capacity to surprise you with crazy new positions in bed – but typically they’re yogi-like contortions they use to pick dead skin off the bottoms of their feet.

That line you quote, “relationships ‘take work,’ while you never hear … what a coal mine an affair can be,” is actually from one of my old columns. I tweeted it along with this advice: “Don’t just assume you & romantic partner (will) stay monogamous. Maybe discuss how, exactly, you’ll go about that.”

From where I sit – opening lots of letters and email from cheaters and the cheated upon – this is simply good, practical marriage- (and relationship-) preserving advice. But from some of the responses on Twitter, you’d think I’d suggested braising the family dog and serving him on a bed of greens with a “tennis ball” of candied yams.

Though some men and women on Twitter merely questioned my take, interestingly, the enraged responses (ranging from impersonally rabid to denigratingly hateful) came entirely from men. Granted, this may just have been due to chance (who was shirking work on Twitter just then), or it may reflect research on sex differences that suggests men tend to be more comfortable engaging in direct conflict.

However, though evolutionary psychologist David Buss, among others, finds that both men and women are deeply upset by infidelity – or the mere prospect of it – there seems to be a sex difference in who is more likely to go absolutely berserko over it. Buss, looking out over the anthropological literature, observes: “In cultures the world over, men find the thought of their partner having sexual intercourse with other men intolerable. Suspicion or detection of infidelity causes many men to lash out in furious anger rarely seen in other contexts.”

Evolutionary psychologists have speculated that the fierceness of male sexual jealousy may be an evolved adaptation to combat the uniquely male problem of “paternity uncertainty” – basically the “who actually is your daddy?” question. A woman, of course, knows that the tiny human who’s spent a good part of nine months sucker-punching her in the gut is hers. However, our male ancestors lacked access to 23andMe mail-in DNA tests. So male emotions seem to have evolved to act as an alarm system, goading men to protect themselves (like with a scary expression of anger to forewarn their partner), lest they be snookered into raising another man’s child.

The problem with the enraged response is that it kicks our brain into energy conservation mode – shunting blood flow away from our higher-reasoning department and toward our arms and legs and organs needed for “fight or flight.” So the mere mention of cheating – even coupled with suggestions for how to prevent it – kills any possibility of reasoned thinking. In our dumbed-down enraged state, all we’ve got is the knee-jerk response: “I am so totally moral, and so is my wife, and anyone who needs to discuss how they’ll stay monogamous is the Whore of Babylon!”

Unfortunately, aggressive denial of reality is particularly unhelpful for infidelity prevention. It’s especially unhelpful when it’s coupled with feelings of moral superiority. Organizational behaviorist Dolly Chugh and her colleagues find that people’s view of themselves as “moral, competent, and deserving … obstructs their ability” to make ethical decisions under pressure.

So, as the late infidelity researcher Peggy Vaughan advised, “a couple’s best hope for monogamy lies in rejecting the idea that they can assume monogamy without discussing the issue.” They should instead admit that “attractions to others are likely … no matter how much they love each other” and “engage in ongoing honest communication about the reality of the temptations and how to avoid the consequences of acting on those temptations.”

For example: What’s the plan if, say, marital sex gets a little sparse? If the marriage hits a rough patch? If that hot co-worker starts hitting on you when you’re drunk and a little unhappy while on a business trip?

Maybe it seems depressing to discuss this stuff. However, a wedding ring is not an electrified fence. Accepting that is probably your best bet for avoiding emotional devastation and divorce when, 25 years in, a “jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou” still keeps the old spark alive in bed – but only when supplemented with a well-charged cordless cattle prod.

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