The Science Of Cheating, And Why Some Of Us Are Born To Do It
If cheating is so awful, why do so many of us do it?
Brad did it with Angelina. Billy Bob Thornton did it (also with Angelina). Ethan Hawke and Jude Law did it with their kids’ nannies. Meg Ryan did it with Russell Crowe. Jay Z did it with Becky With The Good Hair. And Tiger Woods did it with at least a dozen different women.
I’m talking, of course, about cheating. And though these examples are famous, infidelity definitely isn’t reserved for celebrities. Being unfaithful, it seems, is human nature. Or maybe it’s actually animal nature? Could the impulse to cheat be traced back to a biological imperative that compels us to have as much sex with as many people as possible, for the sake of perpetuating the species?
The vast majority of animals practice serial polygyny; meaning males mate with multiple females, one at a time, one right after the other. And humans used to do this too, more or less. (In fact, some still do.) Despite popular belief, monogamy doesn’t actually come naturally to us.
Once upon a time, it was common for men to hook up with more than one woman at a time – and it wasn’t even particularly frowned upon. Take the Bible, for instance. Yep, the so-called ‘good book’ that millions of people look to as a moral guide to life is chock full of men taking multiple wives, and those wives encouraging their husbands to sleep with servant girls so they could have as many children as possible.
Yet these days, having an affair is considered by most of us to be one of the worst things a person could possibly do. After all, it’s not about perpetuating the species anymore. Evolutionary biology isn’t the reason people sign up for Ashley Madison accounts.
So, what gives?
Why we cheat
We all know we shouldn’t cheat, but how many of us are doing it anyway? An independent research group at the University of Chicago found that over the last two decades, the percentage of people cheating on their spouses has remained quite consistent, at about 21 per cent for married men and between 10 and 15 per cent for married women (and those numbers are suspected to be even higher, given the social stigma around cheating that prevents many of us from fessing up to participating in it).
Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray author, Christopher Ryan, PhD, believes this can all be chalked up to our animal nature. His view of monogamy is pretty dire.
‘The campaign to obscure the true nature of our species’ sexuality leaves half our marriages collapsing under an unstoppable tide of swirling sexual frustration, libido-killing boredom, impulsive betrayal, dysfunction, confusion, and shame,’ Ryan wrote in his 2010 book.
‘How many of the couples who manage to stay together for the long haul have done so by resigning themselves to sacrificing their eroticism on the altar of three of life’s irreplaceable joys: family stability, companionship, and emotional, if not sexual, intimacy?’
And yet, plenty of couples do manage to stay together without cheating, and many of them still keep things hot in the bedroom for the long haul. So why are some of us able to overpower our animal instincts while others fall at the mercy of them, to the detriment of their relationships? Maybe it’s genetic: a ground-breaking study out of the University of Queensland, Australia, found that some people may actually be genetically inclined to cheat.
Psychologist Brendan Zietsch, who headed the study, looked at the effect of vasopressin – a hormone that affects our ability to trust, feel empathy and sexually bond – on people’s propensity toward promiscuity. He determined that women with certain variants of the vasopressin receptor gene were more likely to cheat on their partners.
If we’re truly at the whim of our genetic makeup, then could the old saying ‘once a cheater, always a cheater,’ be right? Should we never again trust those who’ve done the dirty on us?
Unfortunately, it seems, cheating’s not an entirely black and white issue. While genetics may play a role in our likelihood of breaking our marital vows, there are plenty of other less scientific reasons people are unfaithful in their relationships. According to a 2014 Ashley Madison survey of 74,600 members, 20 per cent of women said they cheated because they were in a sexless marriage, while 35 per cent of married mothers who had affairs said they were looking to “spice things up” in the bedroom.
Overall, data seems to show that women are more likely to cheat for emotional reasons, while men conversely are likely to be motivated predominantly by sex: 44 per cent of women said they cheated because they were attracted to the person they were cheating with, and 32 per cent wanted to feel desired, while 48 per cent of male cheaters said they just wanted more sex than they were getting in their current relationship, with 47 per cent revealing their affairs were instigated by a desire for more variety in their sex lives.
What counts as cheating?
The definition of cheating itself is perhaps as unclear as our understanding of why we do it in the first place. Emotional affairs can be more devastating than physical ones, as well as being significantly harder to define. And on the whole, women tend to think emotional cheating is worse, while men think sexual infidelity is the bigger deal.
Obviously having intercourse with someone other than your partner is cheating – but what about kissing, or sending flirty texts? For the most part, people think that’s cheating, too. Ninety per cent of women say a passionate kiss constitutes cheating, while 75 per cent of men thought the same. And 68 per cent of women felt flirting over text was cheating, with just over half of men agreeing with them.
It’s worth noting that all of these polls are very American-centric; in other cultures, infidelity isn’t necessarily viewed through the same puritanical lens. For example, a 2014 study by the French Institute of Public Opinion found that 55 percent of French men and 32 per cent of French women admitted they’d been unfaithful to their partners. And not only are they cheating more, they’re apparently a lot cooler with it: according to a Pew Research study, only 47 per cent of French people think cheating is morally wrong. Out of 39 countries, France was the most forgiving of sexual infidelity.
But does that laissez-faire attitude result in happier relationships? Maybe not. Just because the French might not think cheating is wrong, and are willing to forgive, doesn’t mean they aren’t shattered when their partners betray them, wrote Pamela Druckerman in the 2007 book, Lust in Translation: Infidelity From Tokyo to Tennessee.
‘While [French] people aren’t amazed to discover that their partner has cheated on them, they’re still devastated.’
The ‘worst thing’ you can do?
Biological imperative, genetically-programmed impulse, or forgivable foible; cheating is still seen as one of the very worst things a person can do – at least according to the 1,535 people polled by Gallup in 2013.
When presented with a list of 20 actions and asked to rate each one as either ‘morally wrong’ or ‘morally acceptable’, married people having affairs came out as the absolute most unacceptable act. Ninety-one per cent of respondents said it was wrong –more than the number of people who disapproved of pornography, polygamy, human cloning, and even suicide. So, basically, it’s better to kill yourself than to have an affair? Hmmmm…
Maybe people rank cheating as one of the worst things a person can do simply because it’s so common, and because it’s an impulse that most people in committed relationships have struggled with at one point or another. Who hasn’t felt frustrated or bored with their partner and indulged in a fantasy about being with someone else? Infidelity hits a little closer to home than the possibility of human cloning or polygamy.
It’s important to keep in mind, then, that cheating doesn’t have to spell the end of a relationship. Although many people might feel that cheating is an automatic deal-breaker, plenty of couples have managed to work through infidelity, forgive each other, and rebuild trust. Look at Tori Spelling and Dean McDermott: his affair was all over the tabloids two years ago, and now they’re expecting a fifth child together. Of course, first they documented the process of working through the aftermath of the affair on reality TV; not something most couples would choose to do, even if they had the option. Still, ordinary couples can manage to recover from cheating.
Author and noted infidelity expert Peggy Vaughan, who died in 2012, wrote extensively about how she and her husband saved their marriage after he was unfaithful to her for years. Her book, Beyond Affairs, has become a classic. In 2011, she told Psychology Today there’s no 10-step process or silver bullet for recovering from an affair, but with perseverance, it can be achieved.
“Recovering often tends to be far more complex than most couples either want or expect… Even the very definition of recovery itself is complicated. For instance, staying married is no guarantee of personal recovery, and personal recovery is no guarantee of rebuilding the marriage.”
Vaughan stressed the goal shouldn’t be just to stay married, but to “end up with a marriage that is fully strong and loving…hopefully even more so than before the affair.”
That’s a pretty tall order, given how difficult it can be to maintain a healthy relationship in the first place, even when no one’s cheating.
The verdict? Even though marriage can be pretty sucky a lot of the time, and even though you might have to fight off biological and genetic impulses to cheat, love is still worth fighting for. Just ask Beyoncé, who seems to have recovered from Jay Z’s affair quite happily – and made a best-selling album from it, to boot.
Comment: Do you think some people can’t help cheating? And could you forgive a partner for cheating on you?