Tuesday, April 24 , 2018, 4:38 am | Fog/Mist 52º

 
 
 

Russell Collins: Does Evolution Drive Men to Cheat?

Healing from an affair is not about changing our nature but about restoring safety and confidence for the future

Several weeks into therapy with her husband after his affair, Deanne asked the second inevitable question. Unlike the first question, this one occurs only when men have been the betrayers. It took a few weeks to percolate up through the layers of Deanne’s confusion as she sifted through the wreckage of her marriage. She longed for an explanation that would ease her pain over the affair. Even a little.

Russell Collins
Russell Collins

“Men are different about cheating, aren’t they,” she asked me. “It’s not the same for them.” Her voice was hesitant. She wasn’t sure she wanted to start down this road. Forgiving Geoff for the pain he had caused — even thinking about it — wasn’t on the horizon yet for Deanne in her healing process. But to reconcile Geoff’s declarations of love for her — even now, as they sat in my office — with his betrayal of their relationship, she wanted a little of that. A little, but not too much.

The question may be a difficult one for therapists, too, and not just because it’s loaded with implications about human nature, gender roles, power imbalances and political stances, to name just a few. While marital therapists often have a wealth of knowledge about the biological, evolutionary or cultural dynamics relating to coupling, their role in the process is not to be just an encyclopedia of facts. More often, we help our clients sort through the meanings they assign to their stories, and find those that give them the strength and flexibility to live joyful and productive lives.

Information and advice — even when they’re good — can short-circuit the process of discovery and lead to easy but unhelpful answers. To illustrate what I mean, consider the impact of these two answers on Geoff and Deanne as they try to make sense of their relationship and decide what to do:

“Yes, Deanne. It’s pretty clear that men often give a different meaning to extramarital sex than women do. They seem to be driven more by physical urges and less by emotional attachment. It’s lust not love.”

Or: “No, Deanne, there is no proof from evolutionary science that men are naturally designed to pursue extramarital affairs more than women. That’s just a myth.”

Leaving aside for a moment the consideration of how authoritative information such as this might effect the healing process, I‘d like to ponder for a moment the validity of those contradictory claims, both of which happen to be true.
 
Men have a different attitude toward affairs. Sex researcher Shirley Glass, who wrote extensively on infidelity, found that a much higher percentage of women (about 50 percent more) than men reported a strong emotional attachment to the affair partner. In addition, affairs that begin with a sexual encounter (for both men and women) often remain emotionally superficial. So when Geoff pleaded with Deanne in my office to believe that “it was just for the sex,” the statistics say he might well be telling the truth.

Glass has a related piece of data that may help Deanne in her struggle to understand how Geoff experienced the affair. The men in Glass’ study who saw their affairs as mostly sexual were largely happy in their marriages. In other words, they didn’t enter the affair out of any dissatisfaction with their partner. So, when Geoff responds to Deanne’s feelings of abandonment with what seems like an evasive explanation, she might be wrong to reject it out of hand. “I don’t know,” was Geoff’s somewhat unsatisfying explanation, offered several times in my office. “Because it was there.”

Glass’ data make evolutionary sense when you consider this fact: Most mammals who practice some form of monogamy also practice some form of cheating, but males and females are motivated by different reproductive purposes. This has been explained many times, but never more succinctly than in the 18th century when Samuel Johnson responded to his biographer James Boswell’s question about the difference between men’s and women’s affairs.

“The difference is boundless,” Johnson said. “The (unfaithful) man imposes no bastards on his wife.” Rephrasing that to sound a little more like modern genetic science: Men having affairs outside of marriage do their genes an evolutionary favor by disseminating them, while women having affairs (and getting pregnant) impose a large genetic toll on their husbands by causing them to waste precious time and resources unknowingly caring for children whose genes are not their own.

Johnson didn’t have the benefit of genetic theory. Gregor Mendel — the father of genetics — would not plant the first of his famous pea plants for more than a century. In the years since then, evolutionary scientists have formulated a complex set of theories placing gene transmission at the very center of mammalian sexual behavior. Extra-monogamous dalliance is a significant feature of this behavior, and the theoretical frame for this discussion among geneticists is called “parental investment” theory.

Human males invest very little in the reproduction of each individual offspring, and achieve maximum genetic payoff from spreading the spermatic wealth around. Human females, by contrast, get only a very few shots at the prize of genetic transmission (i.e., babies), and are best served by nurturing and attending closely to the relatively few offspring they produce. Males benefit genetically by lots of quick sex with minimal emotional investment. Women, by contrast, benefit from a few, carefully selected matings with genetically superior males, combined with love and nurturing behavior. With very few exceptions, like the prairie vole of the Midwestern United States, even in species considered monogamous by biologists, male mammals cheat on their mates.

But wait a minute! Isn’t that just what the statement above about evolutionary science says isn’t true? That men are designed by nature for affairs?

Well, let’s look at it. In the past 100,000 years or so (an instant in evolutionary terms), the human race has come a long way. From a primate who looks a lot like us and walks upright but employs primitive stone tools, communicates with grunts and gestures, and enforces order with the swing of a club, we’ve evolved into a global society that operates on a vast, diverse and complex set of social rules and agreements.

In the animal world, males are mostly unreliable as husbands (except for the honorable prairie vole). But human marriage or partnering in the modern sense is not a mating behavior. It’s a set of agreements. In the same way that we have agreements about the care and feeding of children or respecting human life, we have spoken and unspoken agreements with each other, and with our families and communities about what it means to be a committed partner.

Imagine a mass murderer standing up in court and claiming: “But, judge, I’m evolutionarily designed for mass murder.” It’s nonsense, because our understandings about respecting and protecting human life just don’t depend on biological evolution for their validity. It’s the evolution of culture and society that enables the social contracts of marriage and partnering.

These institutions did not evolve just to reiterate our primitive instincts. They evolved (and continue to evolve) for relationship satisfaction, effective child-rearing, sexual pleasure, emotional safety, adventure — for many things. But they evolved to direct, limit or harness our basic drives in the service of a good life for all.

Here’s another fact that negates the evolution argument for extramarital affairs. Ideas about how human behavior evolved from our ancestors’ basic drives are notoriously difficult to demonstrate. However convincing they may be in retrospect (e.g., language evolved as an adaptation for hunting large animals in groups), there’s no evidence for them in the fossil record, and no chance that there ever will be.

Why, then, do people insist on inserting evolution — or even our basic animal instincts — into the discussion of infidelity. Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker makes an excellent observation about the cultural discourse on topics of human nature. He notes that people — educated people, particularly, even teachers in great institutions of higher learning — make the romantic but erroneous assumption that what is natural must be good. He traces this idea back to the flower-power philosophies of the 1960s and ‘70s.

War, poverty, oppression and other bad things, according to this belief (and I was an avid believer), were the productions of society. Love, happiness, freedom and other good things represented the full flowering of nature. This is the polar opposite, of course, of the Darwinian descriptions of cruel nature from Elizabethan times as “red in tooth and claw.” The truth, most people would agree today, is that nature produces all manner of behavior in creatures, causing every form of pleasure and pain imaginable. From savage to altruistic, it’s pretty much all there in nature.

To say that men are naturally designed to seek extramarital affairs is, then, a non sequitur. Nature has no comment about the kind of society we want or which agreements we make in marriage, any more than it cares about the requirements for becoming a notary public.

What does this mean for someone like a therapist who’s trying to help someone heal from an affair? What ideas about human nature could be helpful?

The sine qua non of getting over an affair is a feeling of safety and confidence about the future. It’s sometimes helpful and healing for a betrayed wife or partner to understand that — as counterintuitive as it may be to her — their male partner was unfaithful without being in love or even very emotionally involved with the affair partner.

That turned out to be the case with Deanne. She came to believe Geoff when he said he had no emotional investment in the affair, and it made her feel safer about the future. But the evolutionary argument for infidelity can have the opposite effect. It serves as the basis for future violations of the agreements and understandings of relationships, and leaves the betrayed partner feeling even less secure and attached to her partner.

If the second question after an affair is about how it felt, the first question is almost always: Why? Why her? Why now? Why not me? The most helpful answer to that question, I believe, is the simplest: Because I wanted to.

Human beings, and particularly modern Americans, want it all. That’s the nature part. So we make agreements to keep from hurting one another in our eagerness to get what we want. Healing from an affair is ultimately not about changing our nature (not likely to happen), but reaffirming and recovering trust in our agreements.

— Russell Collins is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.

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