The Grass is Always Greener on the Other Side*
Lila asked me if cheating is linked to our genetic makeup. It is generally believed that men wish to propagate the species and therefore their primary aim is to have sex with as many women as possible. Sperm after all is available in large quantities and has no monthly ovulation date to contend with. A woman on the other hand produces an egg, usually once a month and it is only available for fertilisation for a very short period, so her investment in a mate is more discerning. Research shows that there is a variation of the DRD4 gene which increases promiscuity and other addictive behaviours, but generally sex is linked with our emotions. We may initially be attracted to someone sexually, but a relationship is more than that and though offspring may result, the pairing is also based on mutual trust, love, respect and caring for each other. If this was not so, asexual marriages would not survive.
So when an affair happens it is often to do with betrayal, the breaking of trust and a lack of communication. I will draw upon the many cases I came across in my practice and experience to clarify the points I make.
No one can maintain the dizzy heights of the romance forever and in the end both partners are forced to take off their rose tinted glasses and accept each other, warts and all. It is perfectly possible to love someone despite their imperfections as none of us are truly perfect, but sadly a lot of people still believe in and try to create unrealistic fairy tales.
Some attempt to change their partners, but no one changes unless they want to, and resentment sets in on both sides. The worst is that they stop loving each other and become indifferent, but often one blames the other and this becomes the portal for extramarital affairs.
However, once the rose tinted glasses are off, there might be several reasons as to why an affair arises. Sometimes a relationship just peters out and when the someone doesn’t know how to communicate this to their partner, they have an affair to signal their wish to end the union. They are unable to voice their feelings and may often also harbour a fear of venturing out of the relationship without having the backup of an affair.
Sometimes an affair provides a need for relief from some pressure within the relationship. For example, a man may have an affair as the wife is caring for an elderly or sick parent and is too tired to have sex. The man may thus get the sexual attention that is lacking from the affair but has no intention of leaving the long term relationship. The same applies to a woman who feels neglected because her husband is throwing himself into work and has no time to give to her.
Another reason is revenge – where the person has been hurt by a partner’s infidelity and wants to hurt back or prove that they are still attractive to others. Often this type of affair is beset with regrets because it often goes against the grain. A former client with a grown up son, had a brief affair with a family friend after her son’s birth as her husband was too busy and she suspected he might have had an affair himself. Twenty years later she confessed her affair to me in a session and was still riddled with terrible guilt.
Other reasons may stem from the person’s past, where parents may have had affairs and therefore led the child to believe they need protect themselves from vulnerability by not committing to another. For such an adult, abandonment seems inevitable in relationships. Also, overly child centred families give the child the belief that they are the parents’ sole raison d’etre and therefore can make or break their parents marriage. This power in adult life is exercised and reinforced by wrecking other people’s relationships.
Sometimes affairs can also be a result of circumstances, like being drunk at an office party and having sex with a colleague.
This is too big a topic to answer your question in depth Lila, but whatever the reason, an affair always has emotional consequences and is not merely a question of genetics.
People having affairs will blame the other for not fulfilling their needs, some may feel guilt, others are stressed at the risk of getting caught, revenge sex can result in the jealousy of the partner being cheated on, others are caught up in the excitement of it all but whatever the reason it boils down to a lack of being able to communicate honestly.
Yes, the DRD4 gene variation might make us promiscuous, but is that set in stone? For example, the psychopathy of serial killers is often found in CEO’s too. So what makes one a CEO and the other a crazed killer? It is choice and the childhood experiences that determine the life path taken. So even if the DRD4 gene is present, good parental role models in childhood, and a value system based on respect for others and good self esteem should negate the need to cheat.
A therapist can help people to accept that there is no mileage left in their relationship and that it is time to move on or address the issues that led to the affair in the first place. It also means battling with cultural or religious norms that sometimes influence people to stay in relationships whatever the cost. In the end, an affair is like a symptom of an illness – not the primary cause, but a signal that something is emotionally amiss.
*This article was written by ‘The Common Sense Therapist’, a retired psychologist who lives overseas and wishes to remain anonymous. She has many decades of experience in dealing with various people and aspects of psychology, and is a great source of enlightenment on many things in life.