Friday, August 13, 2010

Cheating and Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality

I've witnessed or experienced cheating from just about every perspective over the years, and those experiences are the main reason I'm a polyamorist. I saw how much pain was caused by cheating, whether when my dad cheated on my mom, my friend on her husband, my second husband on me or me on my first husband. The betrayal of trust is devastating and very difficult to repair. I learned this lesson the hard way, as do so many of us.

This is why in my workshops when this issue comes up I like to take what I call a loving "come to Jesus" approach to people who are in cheating situations, i.e. convince them of the importance of being ethical, which demands honesty, even if there is a lot to lose, i.e. the marriage, money, and child custody. I tell them that it will surely be even worse if they get caught cheating.

So many people think they can cheat and get away with it, but they are rationalizing in order to achieve an end result. In reality chances are good that the longer the secret behavior goes on, the greater the chances they will get caught. And when they do, trust, that essential ingredient for healthy relationships, is so destroyed that it takes long, hard work to repair it, if it's even feasible. Sometimes the hurt the cuckolded spouse/partner feels makes it just too tough to summon up the good will, love, and forgiveness necessary to make the needed repairs.

I think it's also worth examining the culture we live in and the role cultural influences play as to the huge percentage of people who have affairs. We are told that finding our one true love and living happily ever after is a reasonable expectation.  Little do we realize that this is not a likely end result - over the long term it's pretty much a crap shoot. And "till death do us part" is a LOT longer than it used to be. 100 years or so ago the average life expectancy was 49 years.  Today it's 78 years - that's a LONG time for one partner and one relationship to meet all our important needs, especially considering how fast needs and the world change these days. I'm not saying it can't be done or even that it isn't a valid choice - it is - but instead I'm recognizing the extent of the challenge.

There is lots of scientific evidence to support that humans evolved biologically to pair bond in order to conceive and protect children, but non-exclusively.  For prehistoric humans the desire to spread around reproductive resources meant a better chance of survival of the species, not that any of this was by conscious choice.

In the beginning of new love, brain chemistry creates limerence, that electric attraction a/k/a falling in love or NRE - new relationship energy, as we poly people call it. Early on we humans have sex like bunny rabbits, can't keep our hands off each other, and until the advent of reliable birth control, that sort of reproductive behavior was indeed successful.  But it's also known that after a few years of this, brain chemistry changes, and that hot attraction cools. Almost all of us have been there. Yet instead of being attracted to no one by that time, we find we are still attracted, but more to others who are shiny and new.

The new book Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan, Ph.D. and Cacilda Jethá, M.D., who are married to each other, is getting tons of attention for revealing the truth about why it is that we stray. Others have written about this as well (Anthropologists David Barash and Eve Lipton, as well as Helen Fisher) but have tended to say that none of it should be used to support behavior that is not monogamous, since we have free will.  I think that's a big cop out designed to dodge taking heat for being the messenger.  Ryan and Jethá resist the urge to spin the information in favor of monogamy, which is a huge step forward for we polyamorists, having had little if anything to point to to illustrate the validity of open and honest responsible non-monogamy as an alternative to traditional monogamy.

There's an old saying: "Mommy's baby, Daddy's maybe." And again, the statistics bear it out. DNA testing proves that the father of a baby isn't the one listed on the birth certificate something like an average of 30% of the time across cultures. 

I'm not excusing cheating, not at all, but I think we do have to realize that our culture puts us in a hell of a tight spot, one that demands that we resist some very real human urges.  A person who is feeling the need for variety or to get their kink on or whatever it is that is missing is told, natural urges notwithstanding, that their only ethical choice is to give up what may well be otherwise a perfectly good relationship in order to fulfill those needs.  They are told they must throw it all away and start over, with all the pain and suffering and expense that entails, or they have to make do with what they have.  Never can they have it all, both the companionship of a life partnership and pair bond plus the variety they also desire.  It's the perfect setup for cheating.  Being the natural rationalizers we are, we tell ourselves that if we're careful we won't get caught and proceed to try to have it all but on the down low.  It's a rotten deal, and organized religion has a lot of responsibility for it.

I will never again live monogamously, at least not without maintaining polyamory as a legitimate option should I desire it.  It took some grappling with fear of loss for a while, but today I see that embracing my partners' desire to have the freedom to love and/or experience intimacy with others is a gift of love that they return with love and appreciation. This secures my place in their hearts in a way that no amount of cultural imperative via monogamy ever shall.


Pagan Topologist said...

I am almost done reading this book. It is one of the best and most challenging and interesting books I have ever read, although so far I have a lot of questions I wish the authors would address.

Anita Wagner said...

You can friend Christopher Ryan on Facebook and ask him, he seems to be answering some questions there. Couldn't get Jelitha Cacinda's name to come up, though, so he probably does the updating for them both.

Polyamory Paradigm said...

I can appreciate how polyamory could be seen as a solution to, and as a type of psychological protection against, cheating. However, what I don't see addressed is that cheating can take place in polyamorous relationships as easily as it can in monogamous relationships.

Just taking a cheater out of a monogamous relationship and putting them into a poly relationship isn't a guarantee they won't cheat, right? Just as with monogamy, polyamory requires honesty. If that is missing but required then the relationship paradigm doesn't much matter, the person is cheating.

I'm not saying I disagree with the book (which I haven't read), or your article, only that I've seen more than a few folks embrace poly thinking they will avoid the disaster of cheating when in actuality it doesn't nothing to prevent cheating or the resulting damage.

Anita Wagner said...

Poly Paradigm, to be sure. I never said it was any guarantee, and I'd say you are exactly right, I've certainly heard such stories myself - it's all a matter of personal integrity. I see the removing of the societal structure that allows no room for intimacy with more than one to be a big step in the right direction but not sufficient in and of itself. If I choose partners carefully and seek people of integrity, which over the last 15 years I've done my best to do - and with good success, I might say - then the need for hiding and lieing is greatly reduced.

Inferno said...

I have never cheated, but I have never lived monogamously either except for a short three years.

It just isn't my style.

Honestly I am amazed by those who claim to be able to do just 1 partner for 50+ years.