Infidelity – why do we stray?

We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies. Martin Luther King.

Inevitably every therapist will encounter in a client the impact of infidelity. Statistically speaking, a considerable amount of people are likely to experience its effect. 30% of men and 20% women will have an affair during their lifetime.

So it occurred to me as part of the healing process, understanding infidelity can be therapeutically useful. At first this lead to reading and dissemination of ideas regarding monogamy and our biological evolution. However, what resonated most, are the theories about how infidelity and its causes are related to the ways in which we love.

Most people will agree, one of the most defining human behaviours is our need for and drive to find love. Cross culturally, 85% of us marry, but why do we love? It is suggested that we have three primary brain systems that interact and relate to love. The first is pretty straight forward, the sex drive, which evolved to motivate us to reproduce. This system isn’t so focussed on love so nor limiting us to be monogamous. Again quite simple to understand that in many cases it is the driver that leads to infidelity. The second focuses on romance, it’s suggested that it evolved to help us focus on a specific mating partner. Finally is our capacity for attachment, we evolved this to motivate us to remain together with a partner at least long enough to rear a child through infancy.  

So these three neural systems interact with each and of course interact with that of another person’s. What really feels important is that this system makes it possible to feel deeply attached to one person whilst at the same time feel intense romantic feelings for another and feel the sex drive for even more people. Problematic indeed, or not dependant on your morals.

These beliefs have led to further definitions of infidelity as sexual infidelity sex without any romantic involvement), romantic infidelity (romantic involvement with another without sex) and finally, romantic and sexual infidelity.

Over half of us will try to woo or flirt with someone already in a relationship with an overview to become involved with someone either sexually, romantically or both. Trying to poach someone for romance is far more common than actual sexual infidelity. Perhaps even more interesting is the findings of one study focussing on relationship dissatisfaction and adultery. It found that most individuals who committed adultery were moderately to very happy with their existing relationship. So why be adulterous? This would seem to suggest the motivation lies in the genes quite literally, if you’ll excuse the pun.

Our capacity to stray is down to a gene called the 334 vasopressin allele, located in a region of the Vasopressin System in our brains. We’re not limited to just having one, it is dose dependant, where several copies have been identified, this correlated with even lower feelings of satisfaction being in a relationship. So a significant factor in determining infidelity is the presence of 334 vasopressin allele. I wonder if rather than asking for a pre-nuptial, in the future there will be a trend towards reviewing gene code.

So if you’re still awake you're probably wondering how knowledge of this helps. Well in response to infidelity, we experience great feelings of rejection. This in turn can create intense self-criticism, for example focussing on our appearance, blaming, shame and anger. Infidelity is a powerful emotional trigger, and one of the most common traumatic experiences. However, if we take a moment to consider that if some people are hard wired to have a temperament to stray, we shouldn’t take it so personally. This is relevant to the healing process in terms of acceptance. Some people might not want to forgive but it can help to forget, so our ability to trust isn’t irrevocably damaged. In reality, we have no heads up of probability for infidelity, but in creating an awareness of why monogamy isn’t for everyone it can help with developing empathy. Our empathetic ability being critical factor in our healing process.  

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