Monogamy is mandated throughout the Western world, infidelity is universal. A leading biologist explains why
Reprinted from “Out of Eden”
Infants have their infancy, and adults? Adultery. Even though monogamy is mandated throughout the Western world, infidelity is universal. Revelations of marital infidelity occur regularly, often among the most prominent individuals—most of them men—who have the most to lose: Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Jesse Jackson, Mark Sanford, Elliot Spitzer, Tiger Woods. The list is enormous and is “updated” almost daily. In this chapter, I will examine the somewhat divergent motivations of men and women when it comes to infidelity—pointing out that in both cases, the underlying causes derive from internal whisperings of fitness maximization, underpinned by the fundamental biology expressed in our polygamous heritage.
In short, when adultery happens—and it happens quite often—what’s going on is that people are behaving as polygynists (if men) or polyandrists (if women), in a culturally defined context of ostensible monogamy. Adultery, infidelity, or “cheating” are only meaningful given a relationship that is otherwise supposed to be monogamous. A polygynously married man—in any of the numerous cultures that permit such an arrangement—wasn’t an adulterer when he had sex with more than one of his wives. (As candidate Barack Obama explained in a somewhat different context, “That was the point.”) By the same token, a polyandrously married Tre-ba woman from Tibet isn’t an adulteress when she has sex with her multiple husbands. Another way of looking at this: when people of either gender act on their polygamous inclinations while living in a monogamous tradition, they are being unfaithful to their sociocultural commitment, but not to their biology.
“Variability,” wrote Christian apologist G. K. Chesterton, “is one of the virtues of a woman. It avoids the crude requirement of polygamy. So long as you have one good wife you are sure to have a spiritual harem.” The problem—for Chesterton and others—is that many (perhaps most) men want a secular one.
When describing the basic biology of male–female differences, we considered the Coolidge Effect. There is a large body of literature commenting on it, and on the tendency for men in particular to equate monogamy with monotony. Lord Byron wondered “how the devil is it that fresh features/Have such a charm for us poor human creatures?” Speaking more delicately, W. S. Gilbert, in “Trial by Jury,” alluded to the flip side of the male fondness for variety with the knowing line, “Love unchanged will cloy.” Three hundred years earlier, Shakespeare had described Cleopatra as follows: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.”
But then, Cleopatra was supposed to have been remarkable precisely because by contrast, “other women cloy the appetites they feed.”
Once more, the ultimate mechanism of all this “cloying” is likely to be found in the adaptive advantage gained by turning some proportion of male sexual energy toward new exploits and thus, more potential evolutionary success. As to its proximate mechanism, we can only guess. At the level of brain cells and neurochemicals, we do know that repeated stimulation can result in a degree of insensitivity—the flip side of attachment. It is therefore possible that something happens with respect to sexual enthusiasm analogous to the habituation that occurs with, say, the constant hum of a refrigerator motor: after a time, people habituate to the noise and only notice it when it stops! Thus, perhaps after a prolonged sexual association (perhaps weeks, months, even years) brain cells—and male brain cells in particular—might simply become habituated: that is, saturated with neurotransmitters, or refractory to them.
Here is yet another—and, I announce with regret, the last—extended quotation from the estimable and curmudgeonly Mr. Mencken, this time elaborating on the boredom that can accompany monogamy, and how it might be assuaged:
Monogamous marriage, by its very conditions . . . forces the two contracting parties into an intimacy that is too persistent and unmitigated; they are in contact at too many points, and too steadily. By and by all the mystery of the relation is gone, and they stand in the unsexed position of brother and sister.
. . . A husband begins by kissing a pretty girl, his wife; it is pleasant to have her so handy and so willing. He ends by making Machiavellian efforts to avoid kissing the every day sharer of his meals, books, bath towels, pocketbook, relatives, ambitions, secrets, malaises and business: a proceeding about as romantic as having his boots blacked. The thing is too horribly dismal for words. Not all the native sentimentalism of man can overcome the distaste and boredom that get into it. Not all the histrionic capacity of woman can attach any appearance of gusto and spontaneity to it.
[O]nce the adventurous descends to the habitual, it takes on an offensive and degrading character. The intimate approach, to give genuine joy, must be a concession, a feat of persuasion, a victory; once it loses that character it loses everything. Such a destructive conversion is effected by the average monogamous marriage. It breaks down all mystery and reserve, for how can mystery and reserve survive the use of the same hot water bag and a joint concern about butter and egg bills? What remains, at least on the husband’s side, is esteem—the feeling one has for an amiable aunt. And confidence—the emotion evoked by a lawyer, a dentist or a fortune-teller. And habit—the thing which makes it possible to eat the same breakfast every day, and to windup one’s watch regularly, and to earn a living.
[One might] prevent this stodgy dephlogistication of marriage by interrupting its course—that is, by separating the parties now and then, so that neither will become too familiar and commonplace to the other. By this means, . . . curiosity will be periodically revived, and there will be a chance for personality to expand a cappella, and so each reunion will have in it something of the surprise, the adventure and the virtuous satanry of the honeymoon. The husband will not come back to precisely the same wife that he parted from, and the wife will not welcome precisely the same husband. Even supposing them to have gone on substantially as if together, they will have gone on out of sight and hearing of each other. Thus each will find the other, to some extent at least, a stranger, and hence a bit challenging, and hence a bit charming. The scheme . . . has been tried often, and with success. It is, indeed, a familiar observation that the happiest couples are those who are occasionally separated, and the fact has been embalmed in the trite maxim that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Perhaps not actually fonder, but at any rate more tolerant, more curious, more eager. Two difficulties, however, stand in the way of the widespread adoption of the remedy. One lies in its costliness: the average couple cannot afford a double establishment, even temporarily.
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