Science, Sense and Cheating

In the past couple of days I’ve been inundated with emails from people alerting me to that recent New York Times blog post, for a while the most emailed on their website, called “The Science of a Happy Marriage.”

(Okay when I say inundated I actually mean I heard from two people, my grandmother and my best friend R, both of whom frequently send me links to things. But that is two more people than normally email me the same article in a given week. So there.)

Anyway R suggested, specifically, that I weigh in on this idea that what fosters commitment is not so much genetic but a specific dynamic in a relationship, that of “self-expansion”: “how much a partner enhances your life and broadens your horizons.”

Apparently you’re more likely to be faithful to someone who you feel challenges you and makes you a better, more interesting or more virtuous person.

Okay, I’ll buy that. I mean, I’m often drawn to men who I think are smarter and more creative than me: I want to be with someone who I can learn from.

Most people do. But isn’t that why we get involved with someone in the first place? I’m not sure how revelatory it is to say that what keeps people faithful is the same thing that makes relationships successful. It’s pretty much common sense: people don’t cheat in happy relationships. Right?


While mulling over how else I could possibly comment on that post, I came upon a This American Life episode I missed (sorry, another one–I’m on a podcast kick) called “Infidelity.” As in the one about “the one,” the stories are great but what interested me was something that Ira said in one of his little codas: in this one he brought up his mother, Shirley Glass, who apparently was an esteemed expert on the subject of infidelity.

He said that one of the things he learned from her is that, first, in half of all relationships someone will cheat. Wow.

He also said that, according to his mother’s research, it’s not true that people only cheat in unhappy relationships. People cheat even when they are in good, strong, healthy relationships–often surprising themselves with their behavior as much as their partners.

Which goes against what we generally assume: that when infidelity occurs, it’s because things were already wrong.

I’m not saying this goes against what the Times blog says: I think it can be true that people who are more committed are less likely to cheat, while it’s also the case that often people who cheat do so for reasons besides not loving their partners.

So why do they cheat? Because they’re genetically predisposed? Maybe. But here’s my question: who isn’t?

In the comments section for the Times piece someone posted a link to this video, which riffs on the fact that humans–unlike, apparently, penguins–are among the majority of mammals who are not biologically programmed to be monogamous.

But then, as another commenter wrote (p.s. I rarely read the comments section of articles and generally find them waste/crazy land, but these were good!), we’re also hard-wired to eat sugar and fat. That doesn’t mean we’re better off doing so.

Whether or not it’s what evolution intended, I believe in monogamy. I want monogamy. I don’t know if I could ever, ever forgive someone for cheating on me. (I wouldn’t say never, but I think I’d find it really, really hard.)

But I’m not sure how much we need science to weigh in on whether there is or isn’t a fidelity gene and the various reasons that people may or may not be faithful.

It seems pretty straight-forward why people don’t cheat: willpower. A good, satisfying relationship–perhaps one that makes you feel challenged and interested–probably doesn’t hurt.

And why do people cheat? Lots of reasons, I’d guess–all of them reasonable and none of them an excuse: because they’re tempted, because they’re bored, because they aren’t feeling satisfied, or challenged, or sexually fulfilled. And, also, because they’re human.

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