‘Betrayal can only happen if you love.’ -John Le Carre
If ever an expression defined human behavior, it is the notion that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. Ovid, an ancient Roman philosopher and poet was perhaps the first when he said that ‘the harvest is always more fruitful in another man’s fields.’ This sense that life is better for others has perhaps its strongest and most debilitating hold on us as it affects our relationships. Infidelity, the most cutting breach of trust that we experience in our intimate relationships is rampant. It is so common that not having some form of the experience is uncommon. While the stories of infidelity are as unique as the millions of people who engage in them – our shared human biology, emotional needs and the thinking errors that allow them – are universal.
Humans are not hardwired for monogamy any more than most mammals. The work of David Barash in the Myth of Monogamy is a great primer in understanding why infidelity is more the norm than the exception. ‘We are not naturally monogamous. Anthropologists report that the overwhelming majority of human societies either are polygamous or were polygamous prior to the cultural homogenization of recent decades.’ In a recent study of committed partners, fully 95% of men and 80% of women fantasized about sex with other partners.
As if our biological programming was not enough of a challenge, we then add the complexity of human emotions to the mix. While our most basic human need is likely the need to be loved, valued and accepted it does not stand alone. Included with that is the need for power and control as well as the need for competence and accomplishment, to name just a few desires that often impact how we love each other and how we experience the love we receive. Many people report leaving their relationship over unmet emotional needs which are a stone’s throw from the physical intimacy that affairs offer. Given our general inability to understand and articulate our feelings and needs, it is not surprising that many relationships end up functioning as a revolving door.
Our struggle with the constructs of monogamous marriage we have created to build and maintain our tribe is legitimate. The truth is that choosing and committing to love someone is not that difficult in and of itself. What becomes impossible for many is that the promise demands that we not choose anyone else, ever. This is painful even in the best of relationships – when someone unexpected and attractive shows up out of nowhere. When your relationship feels disappointing and lonely, meeting a new prospect can easily turn into a point of no return.
Often the moments of intrigue that lead to indiscretion are the moments of least clarity and when we make the common thinking errors associated with affairs. In hindsight, we see how our biology leads our thinking capacity. Added to that and the decision to leave decent, workable relationships on a whim as well as staying with relationships that should have never happened to begin with start to make sense. Recognizing our inability to really compare the biological attraction of a fling with the ongoing and challenging work of finding what there is to stay for in your relationship is a place to start when faced with choices that betray not just the people we love, but what we believe about love itself.