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Philandering and Prairie Voles

May 23, 2010
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Call me old fashioned, but I don’t believe in cheating. To me it’s as simple as being respectful and not harming your significant other. I’ve never understood how someone can claim to love someone and then do something to directly hurt them so much. And I know a lot of people who agree with me. But I also have plenty of friends, mentors, and good people I know who have been involved in an affair in one way or another. The truth is affairs are never as cut and dry as we sometimes make them out to be. And if there is anything I’ve learned from my ethical studies during my college years it’s that most moral dilemmas come in various shades of grey, and are never just black or white. We love someone and we choose to be with them, yet we constantly find ourselves tempted to be with others. Why do some of us decide to act on our impulses, and others choose to ignore them? And is one person “better” than the other? In today’s post I want to investigate cheating- why we do it, and what factors are commonly involved.

To start let us look at the main reasons why we cheat. First- people cheat because there is some sort of unhappiness or some lack of fulfillment found within the cheaters current relationship. Whether through chance or active looking they find someone outside of the relationship who fills those holes found in their current relationship. Second- there is animal desire. The cheater becomes attracted to another and decides to act upon that temptation. Many philosophers and behaviorists will tell you we’re separated from animals only by our ability to think rationally. We have logic, but our reptilian brain still exists, and will always have a significant hold on us. And being mostly animals we are at a very distinct disadvantage when it comes to monogamy. In the animal kingdom only about 3-5% of mammals mate for life. And even within those monogamous species “flings” outside the relationship still occur. Given these two reasons let us now look at them in a bit more depth.

In a previous post of mine I argued that through communication technology our search for love has gotten paradoxically much harder. With more options we’re making the selection of a mate harder for ourselves. Consider back in the day when you lived in a small farming town.  Your marriage was usually something easy to come by. You found someone of similar age, and anything else that made the relationship more appealing (attraction, chemistry, similar likes, etc…) would be an added bonus. As our cities became bigger and our social networks more complicated so did the act of dating. As the need to find a mate for breeding became non-existent our wants in a mate changed as well. Sort of like ascending through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Simply replace safety with birthing capabilities and self-actualization with partner chemistry. We’ve gone past the age of mating for reproduction, and now look for a mate to add more fulfillment to our lives. The problem with this is that we’re always craving something more even if we have found someone who makes us happy. Whether we wish our mate was more attractive, more active, or more motivated there are always foibles we discover. We then meet someone who doesn’t have those flaws and temptation arises. The cheater couples with the new person, and uses them to find fulfillment outside of their relationship.

On a side note: I think a lot of people always think of cheating as being purely physical, often overlook emotional cheating. I think it’s emotional cheating that is ten times worse than carnal infidelity. Sex can be meaningless, but making a new emotional connection outside of a relationship erodes the foundation of that bond which is much more damaging.

The other day I was talking to my friend and I asked her if she believed in soul mates. She responded, “I believe in many soul mates.” Which I do agree with. I think there are many, many partners that you can be happy and fulfilled by. Each one adding something new and different to your life. But that’s just the problem when we act on our desires, our want for something more outside of our relationship. Odds are you can find someone outside of your relationship to fulfill your needs you aren’t getting. And it’s always easier to go with a newer model than to go through the labor of fixing up the old one. But when does it stop? As my friend says, “In the pursuit of perfection happiness is never attained.” Personally I believe ‘true love’ is when you choose that one person, for all of their positives and negatives. When you choose to toil through the rough spots and work things out. When you choose to be with that one person and to fight temptation when it arises- cause it most certainly will. One of my favorite moments in a film is the very end of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. (SPOILER ALERT) In the film a girl named Clementine gets her ex-boyfriend, Joel, erased from her memory. Out of despair Joel also goes to get his memories erased. They then meet by coincidence, and immediately hit it off again. Through kismet they discover that they both had each other erased due to their tumultuous relationship, and then sit in the hallway questioning why they should try the relationship again if it’s bound to end in failure. Joel decides it is worth it, because despite the rocky outcome of their last attempt he feels so strongly for her that he is willing to try again. He chooses to gamble on a possible disaster for love. To me that’s ‘true love’. To choose one person and be willing to navigate rough waters together. But what about that reptilian brain I mentioned earlier? What happens when we do find a wonderful mate and have no reason to look elsewhere yet still feel those instincts crying out? Just how strong are our impulses?

The behavioralist argument is actually a lot stronger that you think. In a 2004 study by Dr. Young of Emory University strong evidence has shown that a “fidelity gene” plays a crucial part in the way we crave companionship. In the study scientists examined the mating habits of prairie voles and their cousins the meadow vole. Traditionally prairie voles are one of those monogamous mammals I spoke about earlier. Prairie voles mate for life with a single partner, and lovingly take care of their offspring together. Meadow voles, however, do not mate for life and often flit between mates while not caring for their offspring. The scientists discovered a strong correlation with vasopressin receptors and the way the two animals mated. They blocked the vasopressin receptors from the faithful prairie vole and the partnership bonds they had broke. Likewise, they discovered that by creating more vasopressin receptors in the meadow vole they gave up their philandering ways and were able to create strong bonds with a single mate. While humans are a bit different than voles we do have our own version of vasopressin receptors: alelle 334. A scientist named Hasse Walum actually studied this gene in Swedish twins and discovered that men who had two copies of the gene were more likely, on average, to be unsatisfied with their relationships and cheat. Just what men need right? Now they can blame their genes instead of their jeans. And given our societies penchant to medicate our problems I can see a pill for infidelity being developed. “Doctor my husband has cheated on me again, can you please write me a prescription for faithfulsil?” But as the researchers point out in their study there are many complicating factors in cheating when it comes to humans, and it’s not as simple as what genetic code we’re born with. But the point I wanted to make here is that fundamentally we are genetically predisposed to have multiple partners and cheat. And the strength of those inherit traits should not be overlooked when we discuss cheating.

With this fact in mind let me briefly get down off my moral high box and state something: fundamentally I don’t think there is anything morally wrong with sleeping outside of a relationship. As we’ve seen we’re genetically predisposed to act that way, and with more open-minded sexualities forming ever since the 70’s I don’t see a problem with it. I feel the same way about polyamorous relationships as I do about various other  moral quandaries. I don’t personally believe in it, but I don’t think it’s morally wrong either. I think if people do decide to have a polyamorous relationship communication is needed to be sure they’re both on the same wave length and know what the other is doing. I think there are far worse crimes than cheating. For me bigger sins are lying, deceiving, thoughtlessness, and selfishness. Cheating isn’t bad per-say, it’s the questionable moral character of the person that usually accompanies it that bothers me. Therein lies my biggest problem with cheating.

I was actually cheated on before, which perhaps explains my position on this topic. To her credit we were not officially “together”, but I was still very much emotionally involved. She had hooked up with a friend while we were on a break, and it shattered me. But it wasn’t the act that bugged me. Afterwards we got back together, and I had truly and honestly forgiven her for cheating. I never wanted to talk about it, and I did forget over time. But when I did discover she had hooked up with him I had caught her in a lie, and the trust that was established never fully came back. There are other factors that came into play when things ultimately ended, but I think that selfish action and the destruction of trust as a result were big players. I don’t think cheating necessarily kills love, but lying does.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Marisa permalink
    May 25, 2010 6:30 pm

    Fundamentally, I agree with you. Lying can kill relationships and is a valuable lesson learned. But silence and fear can also kill relationships just as quickly. I think to be fair to your argument, you should also consider exploring the root of lying. Is it fundamental evil that one cannot escape? Or reflective of some other personality flaw?

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