The Anatomy of Infidelity: sex, love, and monogamy
Is there such a thing as “human nature?”
Beth pulled the car over so she could masturbate.
“I was driving and thought: I am so freaking horny.” Half an hour later, she set up a profile on Ashley Madison—the world’s leading dating site for cheating spouses—“and a week after that I was having sex.”
This sudden, roadside decision was a necessary solution to a soul-sucking problem: trapped under the weight of a sexless, loveless, verbally-abusive, 32-year marriage that had been deteriorating for a decade, Beth was miserable. “My husband drinks excessively, and if he isn’t drinking, he is watching TV,” she says. “God forbid if I ever try to touch him, he tells me to get to my side of the bed. I would rather go out and be held all night. So now I do.”
Ashley Madison’s 2018 findings of its report on membership statistics verified that more than 14,500 new member accounts were added on average each day, surpassing the 60-million member mark as of February 2019.
“One day, he asked me if I was having an affair.” Beth was standing in the kitchen at 8:30 in the morning, seductively dressed and on her way to meet someone. “And then he added, ‘actually, I don’t want you, who will?”’ She tells me this over the phone, laughing; she has barely stopped laughing the entire interview. The last time she saw her doctor, he told her she looked twenty years younger than the woman who was in his office begging for antidepressants.
“It’s all the sex,” she says.
Cheating, and feeling no remorse for it, makes vilifying Beth superficially simple. Her behaviour is a corruption of the institution of marriage and a foray into the messy pastures beyond the picket fence of pair-bonding. Right?
The truth is that we would be misguided to think of Beth’s desires as an aberration. In reality, lifelong monogamy and many of our gendered assumptions about sex, including that women are more monogamously-inclined, are merely a blip on the spectrum of potentially emotionally-prosperous dynamics.
Wednesday Martin, author of “UNTRUE,” cited that 50 percent of women have admitted to having intercourse with someone besides their spouse while married. Ashley Madison’s membership statistics showed that there were actually more women actively using the married-dating site in 2018 than men, with a gender ratio of 1.11 active females for every one active paid male.
“Women have been cheating since the beginning of time, even when they thought they would be burned at the stake. But you can’t burn us anymore so we’re telling the truth.”
That’s Dr. Tammy Nelson, sex and relationship therapist and author of The New Monogamy: Redefining Your Relationship After Infidelity. As part of her research, she was able to set up temporary profiles on Ashley Madison—one as a man and another as a woman—where she could receive messages but not reply.
She noticed that men were predominantly seeking an emotional connection, while women, being caretakers their whole lives and tired of the “mommy” role, just wanted to feel sexy again.
“I got emails from men who wanted to get to know me, didn’t want casual sex, and weren’t going to leave their wives,” she says. “And when I was a man, the women messaging me didn't want to hear about problems with my wife or complaints about work. They wanted a hot, 50-shades-of-grey, ‘do me after the kids get on the bus’ arrangement.”
Sometimes people risk being able to express the truth about who they are with a stranger before their spouse. “You’re not looking for someone else, you’re looking to be someone else,” says Dr. Nelson.
A woman’s sexuality became a matter of public concern and social control 10,000-20,000 years ago with the invention of private property. Hunter-gatherers began domesticating plants, which increased dependency on food they grew individually rather than food they foraged as a group. With the rise of agriculture—”a catastrophe from which we never recovered,” according to anthropologist Jared Diamond—came social and sexual imbalance.
Farmers began competing for resources, thus birthing the notion of property and who controlled it. By settling down on a certain territory, men established ownership of it. It was a short leap to see a woman’s body as something owned, as well. The world, at large, was relegated to a plot of land; and if you only had a limited number of crops and cows within those boundaries, you wanted to make sure it was being passed down to your proper offspring. The womb, an incubator for his transcendence and inheritance, became another conquest.
Infidelity is woman’s sole defence against the domestic slavery in which she is bound; and it is this economic oppression that gives rise to the social oppression to which she is subjected, Simone de Beauvoir writes in her groundbreaking 1949 book, The Second Sex.
Today, women in the Western world are increasingly emboldened by their sexuality in a push for equality and reclaiming ownership of self. Common assumptions suggest that women cheat predominantly for emotional reasons and that men cheat for sex. But the stats reveal that more than three-quarters of women (79%) say they cheat for more than only emotional reasons, and while more than half of men say they cheat for sex, 46% say that they cheat for something more.
The consensus among social scientists is that the incidence of infidelity has been rising in recent decades. This is mostly attributed to the fact that we live longer (“200 years ago, by the time we were bored in our marriage at 38, we were dead,” says Dr. Nelson), and modern technology like porn, swiping, and sliding into DMs, have threatened our clear-cut lines of what constitutes cheating (“You can be lying beside your partner in bed, flirting with someone else.”)
Even if humans are fundamentally challenged by monogamy, it is equally unnerving to release our grip on what a committed partnership is and can be. There is always the potential for pain if you open the door to allow your partner to wander. For most people, sex is bound up with an emotional need to feel that we hold the attention of our partner above all others. It is difficult to lobotomize our longing for that romantic, all-consuming love.
But the “you’re my everything” epidemic might be making us miserable too.
When we expect one person to fulfill all our needs, and then they fail to provide both sex and security, so comes the crisis. As the years grind by, to encase a lover within an identity--wife, mother, husband, father, boyfriend, girlfriend, straight, gay--is a slow burial. People evolve and sometimes want kink in ways they didn’t before, crave the rush of a new encounter, or feel inclined to explore a same-sex relationship, while still wanting to come home to love and be loved as before.
The human dilemma, really, is that we want what we have but also what we don’t. For some monogamous arrangements, the partners are able to re-meet one another within the same relationship, and can fishtail between the mundane and the erotic with ease: the same loving boyfriend doing the dishes might also want you to whip him, and the girlfriend of nine years might want you to try to pick her up at a bar later.
But other times, no amount of re-discovery can hit the reset button on longing.
According to the Ancient Greeks, there are seven types of love: erotic, platonic, playful, self, enduring, familial, and selfless.
Enduring love, or pragma, is what we exalt in married couples. It’s why we clap when they announce how long they’ve been married--40 years!--as if they’re accomplished some gruelling task. But are we in awe of what we want or what we wish we wanted? We spend so much energy trying to find love and so little time learning how to nurture it. “We have confused sex with love,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book The Art of Power. “When we love, we have something precious to offer: our heart, our mind. There is a forbidden city in us that we open only to the one we love the most. It is sacred.”
In his book, Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, research psychologist Christopher Ryan begins by dismantling centuries-old conventional wisdom regarding human sexual behaviour — that we mature, go through a period of sexual variety, then settle down with one person, forever. And when anthropologist, Helen Fisher, began to study adultery in the 1980's, she found that ''there exists no culture in which adultery is unknown, no cultural device or code that extinguishes philandering.'”
In all the articles and studies that I read about infidelity, that Helen Fisher fact was held up like a flame in the night; a flickering bit of relief that what we desire today might not be so different from what we’ve always desired: the freedom to fuck.
And then she goes on to say: ''The human animal is built to love more than one person at a time. In other words, we are capable of feeling long-term attachment while we feel attracted to someone at the office or the club or on the street.”
But attraction is different than action.
Sex columnist, Dan Savage, coined “monogamish” to describe the arrangement he has with his long-term partner, in which they're committed to each other but can have sex with others. The concept isn’t new — Lewis Henry Morgan, a peer and friend of Charles Darwin, put forth the same argument in the 19th century, coining the term “omni-monogamous” to describe the baseline setting of human sexuality.
Humans are horny, sentient beings. They want what’s at home and what’s out of reach. They love, love; they love meaningful sex and sex with strangers; they hate loneliness; they like knowing but they hate knowing; they want variety and security on the same menu; they like consistency and newness, passion and longing; they want the rush of right now but slowness on rainy days; and texting, always, with friends, partners, and lovers, in the great search of something they’re hopeful to find, for now; until it gets hard, and then harder. Some of them make it, and those are the ones we clap for.
So is monogamy a privilege or a prison?
“It’s a choice. But I don’t think it’s a choice you make once, it’s a choice you make once a day,” says Dr. Nelson.
“I’m choosing to be with you, and only you. You have to practice monogamy. It’s hard for everyone. We’re not born able to use a fork, but we learn. Some days you want to eat with a fork and some days you want to eat with your fingers. It’s my gift to you that I’m sitting at the table eating with a fork. Marriage is not something that you’re either good at or bad at. It’s something you have to train at. It’s something sacred that you share with another person.”
And as paradoxical as it sounds, some people cheat to stay in their marriage because leaving is worse than having something on the side to satisfy them, especially when kids are involved. When life feels tedious, a titillating experience seems to beckons from just beyond. The more obvious reasons for cheating might be couples who are experiencing periods of sustained stress or separation due to family needs or career obligations. Husbands and wives who are wrestling with boredom or unmet needs.
But before thinking that only people who are falling asleep at the wheel of their own relationship swerve off the road and fall pelvis-first into another bed, Esther Perel has repeatedly said: “happy people cheat.”
In fact, when Ashley Madison respondents were asked if they cheat because they are in an unhappy marriage, 61% of respondents said “no.”
Frank and Monica call me on speaker-phone and spend the interview taking turns leaning in to answer. They were both previously in “unhappy and sexless” marriages, had an affair on Ashley Madison with each other, got married, and after many years have both decided to go back on the site while happily staying together.
“People assume you have an affair when a relationship isn’t going well, and yes, that can be the case,” says Frank. “This open marriage that we have would not fix an unhappy relationship. It’s something that adds spice to an already amazing relationship. This trust and transparency could not exist within an unhappy relationship.”
For this particular couple, cheating is an emotional connection and not physical, they tell me.
Read that again: cheating is only cheating when there are emotions involved, and not based purely on sex with someone else.
In their previous marriages, they weren't able to talk about any of their desires. “It’s not because we’re not having sex, we just didn’t want to be in the position with each other that we would cheat,” says Monica. “He will always be this person in my world but I might want to try someone who is taller, shorter, or a different race.”
“Mmhmm,” I hear Frank agreeing beside her.
For 60% of AM respondents, lack of communication with their spouse was part of the issue. Ultimately, their partner was not open to addressing their needs even after they tried sharing them. Nearly two-thirds of women (63%) say they like having an affair because they feel desired. Further 58% of women say it made them feel more alive, and 39% said they regained their confidence.
“Throughout my first marriage,I was led to believe that I didn’t have much to give and I wasn’t sexy or satisfying,” says Monica. “Going on Ashley Madison and having my first affair got me back on the proverbial horse and I realized my husband was just a jerk. My advice for women is to understand your sexuality and know what turns you on. A good, healthy sex life keeps the doctor away, forget those apples!”
Today, although our sexually-charged animalistic instincts and our deep desire for emotional attachment occasionally intersect, they are not necessarily symbiotic.
If we accept the kind of animal we are, where does that leave love?
And if we love, does that cage the animal?
“Love for me is somebody who I want to spend the rest of my life with, and who I see myself growing old with, and who I think about during the day and snuggle with on the couch at night,” says Frank. “Those are things I wouldn’t think of with a sexual partner, only with my life partner.”
I hear Monica laugh in the background and whisper, “that’s really cute.”
“My definition of love isn’t physical at all,” she says into the phone. “It’s more deep and meaningful. It’s someone you share the highs and lows with, who you share the long drives in a car with, the kind of stuff you couldn’t do with someone you’re just physical with.”
We say our goodbyes and hang up. I’m sitting in a coffee shop in downtown Toronto watching the people go by, wondering if we’ve evolved to be more different than the same? How do we behave if we can behave however we want?
The Himba are the last remaining nomadic people in the ancestral lands in the far north of Namibia. Relatively isolated, they have preserved many long-standing cultural practices, including infidelity or “extra pair partnerships.” It is not uncommon for a Himba man to take one of his many wives with him to cattle station or for a Himba wife to take a lover while he is away. There is a well-known exchange between the Himba women and a visiting anthropologist, Brooke Scelza. They asked her: “why do you sleep alone all night in your tent?” When she replied that it was because she was married, they laughed and shrugged. “That doesn’t mean you can’t have a lover. Aren’t you lonely?”
“I’m stuck,” says Beth, near the end of our call. “I’m stuck in a marriage that isn’t one. Freedom to me would be getting up in the morning and not having to worry about anyone else, messaging a friend-with-benefits and saying, ‘wanna go for a walk and then fuck?’”
We can look for answers in the practices of ancient tribes as much as we can in the teachings of modern experts, but no amount of data deters from the fact that it hurts like hell when someone cheats. Standing in the room, air sucked out like a vacuum, admitting to infidelity. No, it’s not fucking fun to feel rejected. And if you’re bold and decide that you’re in an “open relationship,” there is always the underlying risk that one partner might develop stronger feelings outside of the core bond. But, isn’t that always the case? In one scenario it’s simply discussed ahead of time, and in another, it’s admitted to after the fact.
Emotions are messy. Love doesn’t come with blinders. Temptation isn’t always obvious from the onset, but can drip in like a leaky faucet; a text here, a glance there. Now you’re making out in the office elevator. Damn. Back at home, it’s “how was your day?” and the room moves in slow motion.
Honesty is the antidote to the human drama of infidelity, which is rooted in secrecy and deception, lust and possessiveness. Rules have been replaced by choices. What do you do?