Which kind of cheating is worse? And why?

A lot of us have seen the statistic that men, on the whole, worry more about sexual infidelity in relationships while women worry more about emotional infidelity. (I’m writing this real quick-like in the middle of studying, so I can’t be bothered to look up a citation… perhaps some commenter can oblige, or I’ll edit it in later.) This statistic is usually explained by the evo-psych theory that men’s great reproductive danger was being duped into raising another man’s genetic offspring, while a women’s great reproductive danger was losing her mate’s financial support for herself and her children.

This theory irks me for a number of reasons: the most rational being that it assumes that basically modern gendered family roles were present in the environment men and women evolved in. It assumes monogamous pair-bonding with the female dependent on the males’ support; if you’re having trouble imagining any other possibility, consider a small, close tribal community where resources are shared fairly equally among the whole tribe, as opposed to won and hoarded by a particular nuclear family unit. Consider an economy based largely on foraging, where women’s childbearing role would not hamper them from obtaining resources nearly as much as in a more labor-intensive agricultural economy. The “men evolved to be sexually jealous to ensure their hard-won resources nourished their own offspring” idea makes little sense if human brains evolved in such communities, as does “women evolved to be emotionally jealous to ensure their mates’ continued provision.”

An alternative theory is based on our culture’s intense conditioning of males and females around sexuality and emotion. Men are taught from an early age that being highly emotional is unacceptable. While women are allowed to cuddle and form intimate emotional bonds in many kinds of relationships (with family, with friends, with children), men’s sole source of both affectionate touch and emotional intimacy is in the sex act. For this reason, I think it’s often misleading to make a distinction between men’s sexual and emotional needs: very often the two are conflated, because our culture deems non-sexual emotional needs as “unmanly.”

From the women’s side, we are socialized to view male sexuality as rampant and uncontrollable: that a man will have sex every chance he gets, and with as many women as he can, is often viewed as natural and inevitable. And from that standpoint, it is likely to be much more forgivable. Men’s sexuality, in our culture, is cheap: easy to gain access to, and thus less valuable and less jealously guarded. Men’s emotional commitment and intimacy, on the other hand, is rare and difficult to obtain (see the above paragraph). Therefore for a woman’s male partner to give emotional intimacy to someone else is a much higher violation than for him to give sexual intimacy. (I use the word “give” as opposed to “share” deliberately: the idea that intimacy of either kind is a commodity is fundamental to the very idea of infidelity, so it seems logical to use that language even though it’s contrary to my own philosophy.)

In my view, our cultural constructions of gender, and particularly the severe suppression and distortion of male’s emotional selves, is entirely sufficient to explain the “women are more worried about emotional infidelity, men are more worried about sexual infidelity” statistic. Problematic and possibly counterfactual evo-psych theories are, in this case, superfluous.

Commitment

The rumors are true: I’m getting married. After the most romantic proposal ever (a text message from me to Shaun saying “Hey, can I call you my fianc√©?”) and careful analysis of best possible timing (“Spring is nice, wanna get married next spring?”) we’ve announced wedding plans to friends and family, and changed our facebook status to “engaged.” (That’s how you know it’s for real.)

Naturally, a lot of people have wanted to know if we’re still going to be polyamorous. Yes we are; this relationship has never been about “we’ll be non-monogamous until I decide if I really want to commit to you.” What really weirds me out, though, is the people who ask what the point of marriage is if it’s not going to be exclusive.

I’m not being flip here, I really am mystified. One person close to me said “What is a marriage without sexual faithfulness*?”– and then denied me the opportunity to respond, so I’m going to respond here. In marrying Shaun I am making him a partner in all my life decisions. I am committing to upholding the health of our relationship, and prioritizing it over everything except my own growth and wellbeing. I am declaring my intention to be with him through all the changes of adult life. I am trusting him to be the primary decision-maker on my behalf if I am ever incapacitated, and accepting the responsibility of doing the same for him. These things are the bedrock of my commitment to him, and though I’ve had very different ideas about the meaning of marriage throughout my life, these are always the things I have thought of as being the essence of marriage. Once upon a time I considered sexual exclusivity part of it as well, but only because I couldn’t imagine a kind of non-exclusivity other than cheating. Exclusivity was part of the marriage contract not in itself, but as a sub-category of the “upholding the health of our relationship” clause.

When I talk to someone who seems to have trouble imagining what a non-monogamous marriage could possibly mean, I begin to have rather unflattering thoughts about them. Such as (if they’re married) “has sexual exclusivity been such a monumental struggle or sacrifice for you that it’s come to define your marriage?” Or “is marriage, for you, more about ‘nobody else can have you’ than about the positive commitment you’re making to each other?” Apart from something like this, I really can’t conceive where such a question comes from.

But enough of that. My marriage is about the commitments and intentions I named above; I believe that Shaun and I both are better, stronger, and happier together than we would be apart, and in marrying him I am making public that belief and my intention to continue working to make it a reality.

*Faithfulness is the wrong word here; as I’ve said many times before, Shaun and I are faithful to each other. We each communicate our needs, emotional and physical, and faithfulness is a matter of us each considering the other’s needs before our own gratification. Exclusivity is only part of faithfulness if you make it so.

Acceptance of non-monogamy should improve monogamy

When I talk about polyamory and other forms of honest, egalitarian non-monogamy, what negative responses I get can generally be sorted into three categories. There’s “I think that’s morally/spiritually wrong,” there’s “I don’t think it can ever really work,” and there’s “I value monogamy for myself, and I think non-monogamy undermines it.” This post addresses the third category: it’s for people who are vaguely uncomfortable with the idea of non-monogamous relationships, because they themselves want a monogamous relationship and the feel like maybe their potential for relationships will be undermined if non-monogamy is widely accepted.

They have a bit of a point. If, ten or twenty years from now, polyamory, open relationships, and everything in between are socially accepted and widely understood, then people who don’t really want a monogamous relationship will be removed from the monogamous dating pool. The likelihood (for someone who wants a monogamous relationship) of meeting someone you really like, connect really well with, but who doesn’t want to get married and have a single partner for the rest of their lives goes up. And that will suck for the monos.

But there’s a flip side, and it’s this: people who don’t really want a monogamous relationship will be removed from the monogamous dating pool. Which means that people who really want to enjoy new partners occasionally, people who can’t cope with the occasional dry spells of married life, and people who can fall deeply in love with one person while remaining deeply in love with someone else, are less likely to end up married to a hard-core naturally monogamous person. Which is better for everybody concerned.

It should be obvious that the “monogamy is natural for humans” argument and the “if people are free to be non-monogamous, it’ll undermine monogamy” argument are mutually exclusive. If monogamy is natural for humans, most of them will choose it even if non-monogamy is a socially acceptable option. Trying to make both arguments at once only works if you hold some kind of “what you want is bad for you” worldview. In this area, I don’t. I’ve seen too many healthy, caring, mature people in various kinds of non-monogamous relationships — I’ve dated several of them — to do anything but scoff at the idea that non-monogamy is somehow intrinsically unhealthy, selfish, or immature.

Of course mono/poly relationships can work too, if both partners are committed to working hard and extending beyond what feels natural to them for the sake of their beloved. But accidental, unaware, unhappy mono/poly relationships are tragic to me. People who got married because they loved their partner and that’s what you do when you love someone, but who desperately want the freedom to also explore other relationships; people who have tunnel-vision when they’re in love and are heartbroken because they think their partner’s ability to look at other people means they don’t really love them; both these kinds of people would benefit from understanding non-monogamy as a valid lifestyle choice, and making an informed decision about what kind of relationship to have, and what kind of person to have it with.

Bonding, commitment, and exclusivity

Sometimes the blogging stars are aligned… you have a text message conversation with your best friend about something, then you read a blog touching on the same subject, then you read another blog where someone’s asking for advice on the exact same thing. And you think to yourself, “I guess that’s what I’m writing about today.”

When I first started dating Shaun, and was explaining polyamory to my friend, many of them had a similar reaction: “How can you be happy with someone who will never commit to you?” One friend asked if he would ever consider getting married, to which my response was, “Why not?” To their minds, the idea of a nonexclusive sexual relationship was incompatible with the idea of long-term love and commitment. Marriage, in our culture, is usually understood as a commitment to a) love and care for one another for the rest of our lives and b) not be romantically or sexually involved with anybody else.

It doesn’t have to be that way. The first blog I read this morning, a nice overview of the biology of love, mentions that prairie voles, who bond for life, are not sexually exclusive with their mates. As I understand it, this is not rare in the animal kingdom. Many species are sexually promiscuous and non-committal. Many species are sexually exclusive and inclined to pair-bonds. Many species are sexually promiscuous and inclined to pair-bonds. Homo sapiens seems to be capable of all three, depending on cultural pressures, but we are certainly strongly inclined to pair-bond, and we do seem to have a hard time with sexual exclusivity. But so much writing on the subject of love, relationships, and mating behavior in humans seems to imply that it’s an either/or question. “Pair-bonding,” “attachment,” and “monogamy” are taken as practically synonymous.

In the second blog I read, someone writes for advice to the always-delightful Svutlana because she wants to have romance and lifelong love, but can’t stop sleeping around. These two things are viewed by her (and possibly by the always-delightful Svutlana, although it may just be that she interpreted the writer’s question differently than I did) as mutually exclusive. They’re so not.

The text conversation with my best friend was about my relationship with my beloved Shaun, and how my new crush affects that. The short answer is “not much.” The longer, more nuanced answer is: New Crush is exciting and fun to play with, and I get jazzed-up crushy feelings when I think about seeing him again. (In the poly world we call this New Relationship Energy.) Shaun is a cornerstone of my life: from the honest, clear-headed way he thinks about the world to the goofy voices he does to the way his skin feels, he’s a much-loved part of my world, and I can’t imagine parting with him or even wanting to. The depth of my love for Shaun doesn’t take away from the excitement of the NRE, though, any more than the NRE takes away from my feelings for him. I would be terribly sad if I had to choose between getting to plan my life with the man I love, and getting to experience a heady crush every now and again.

Like all rewarding things, nonmonogamy takes a proportionate amount of work. It is not for people who just want to get their love life settled and then concentrate on other things. It requires diligent self-examination, trust, and communication, and it requires a willingness to continually experience the pains of new love as well as the joys. A gentleman of my acquaintance, for whom my heart has throbbed for many a year, recently made it clear once again that nothing is ever going to happen between us. Having another lover at home did not ease the pain of that one bit (except preventing that pain from being mingled with a fear that I’ll never be loved, as it usually is when I’m single and rejected.) I guess I can understand why some people would rather just settle down with one person and turn off that part of their brain. For me, though? It’s more than worth it.

How we got here

Having now read all of Sex at Dawn, I’m going to tell you why I think it’s an important book.

It’s not important because it tells us something we didn’t already know. There’s no new research (as far as I can tell), and it doesn’t question common understandings of the way we are today. Its interest is in how we got here. One could claim that its basic message is trivial: that the confused sexual structure we currently live in (ideals of monogamy but frequent rule-breaking and temptation) is the product not of our evolutionary roots as a species, but of adaptations to the changed environment we created with agriculture. That’s it. “We are the way we are because of something that happened 10,000 years ago, not because of something that happened 200,000 years ago.” That’s the basic message, and one might be justified in asking, “So what?”

I’ll tell you so what. When an evolutionary psychologist says that strict monogamy is not natural to humans (and they pretty much all say that), someone usually responds, “Yes, but we have free will; we can choose to rise above our animal nature.” Now that’s a debatable point, largely depending on your definitions of “free will” and “animal nature,” but let’s set aside that question for now. A more pertinent reply to the “we can rise above our animal nature” argument is, “Maybe, but why should we?”

The standard evolutionary-psychology model, which I outlined ever so loosely here, frames nonmonogamy for both males and females as, quite literally, cheating. There’s a mutually beneficial arrangement (monogamy) to which both parties agree, but they can do even better in the grand genetic steeplechase by cheating on the agreement. It’s not pretty, but hey, red in tooth and claw. If this is the best account of the monogamy/nonmonogamy tension in society, then people have some justification for calling on us all to rise above it. We owe it to our partners to put aside our selfish urges toward outside gratification, and to devote ourselves to maintaining the pair-bond we’ve formed. If they really love us, they’ll do the same. That’s the narrative we’re often given.

Sex at Dawn takes that narrow perspective and splits it wide open, suggesting many more possibilities for human sexual behavior that are cooperative, loving, and beneficial to everybody involved. The narrative it offers goes like this: Humans evolved in small, egalitarian, hunter-gatherer communities where men and women both benefited from frequent, free, promiscuous sexual encounters. Paternity wasn’t an issue because nobody was hoarding resources to pass on to their children, and securing male providership wasn’t an issue because women were gathering the bulk of the food anyway. When we developed agriculture, suddenly it became advantageous to accumulate land and livestock, and to pass these on to your own genetic offspring. So men became concerned with controlling women’s sexual behavior. At the same time, being the bearers and nursers of children became much more incapacitating for two reasons: farming is more labor-intensive than foraging, and with property comes theft and territory conflict. So women had a much greater need for men to provide for and defend them.

At this point the narrative converges with the conventional model. Male sexual infidelity doesn’t hurt women that much (from an evolutionary perspective) since sperm is cheap and plentiful. The woman is concerned more with making sure that he continues to provide material support and defense for herself and her children. Hence, “emotional infidelity” is more of a threat to women. Polygamy works out okay for both men and women (again, from an evolutionary perspective), so a lot of societies do that for a while. Then we become more enlightened. We start to see the harm in oppressive patriarchy, the injustice of viewing women as property, and we work to correct the situation. But by this time the ideal of female sexual fidelity has become deeply engrained in our cultural morality; sexual jealousy in men has gained a strong memetic, and possibly genetic, foothold. We know the polygamous patriarchy is unfair, but allowing women sexual freedom feels “wrong.” (We’ve also, in our efforts to control female sexuality, repressed and denied it for long enough that it’s easy to believe that women wouldn’t really want, or benefit from, sexual freedom even if we gave it to them.)

There’s a parallel line of development around the “family.” Human beings need each other, need to exist in a small, interdependent network of other human beings, where regardless of how much they like or dislike one another, each one assumes some responsibility for the well-being of the others. In small hunter-gatherer tribes, the entire tribe can function as a family in many ways. Children are mothered and fathered by many adults; resources brought into the group are shared evenly with everybody. The bond each person has with their neighbors goes far beyond emotional affinity: they bear a responsibility to care for one another despite any conflicts or personality clashes.

With the advent of agriculture, territory, and a protected paternal line, this circle of familial interdependence was reduced to the immediate blood family: parents, children, grandparents. It’s been that way for so long that we’ve come to consider that kind of devoted interdependence as a unique feature of blood family relationships, and to consider other groups that have that quality (military units, for example) as an exception to the rule.

So we as a culture have talked ourselves out of believing that women want or should have sexual freedom, and into believing that the nuclear family is somehow sacred in the kind of bonds it creates. Which means that the obvious answer to the “polygamy is unfair, women aren’t property” realization is prescribed monogamy for everyone. If women shouldn’t sleep around, then clearly sleeping around in general is wrong. If the nuclear family is the source of familial love and bondedness, then we should protect and encourage it. Hence: monogamy. Now we’re expected to fall in love with someone whose lifestyle and personality will be compatible with ours in the long run, marry them, and make that our one sexual and romantic relationship.

It’s not working all that well; anybody with eyes to see can see that. Infidelity’s one problem, but even the honorable, conscientious folks typically engage in serial monogamy, and lots of it. The age of marriage and the divorce rate have both grown tremendously. Basically, we’re really just not all that good at monogamy. Religious conservatives will tell you that it’s not working because we’re letting our fallen sinful nature get the better of us. Evolutionary psychologists in the classic vein will tell us… actually pretty much the same thing, only with a secular story behind it instead of the religious one. The writers of Sex at Dawn suggest that maybe there’s nothing specially virtuous about monogamy; maybe the fact that we suck at it doesn’t mean we’re doomed as a species. Maybe there are other ways of being, ways that still allow for love and intimacy and deep concern for the people we’re closest to.

I think that’s a damn important message.

Negotiated fidelity

I finished reading Sex at Dawn, and I’ll have plenty more to say about it. The last chapter was mostly about application to modern life, and this post is taken partly from that and partly from my own thoughts and observations.

As a culture, we need to get rid of the idea that sexual exclusivity should come easily and naturally if a person “truly loves” their partner. Sometimes, for some people, deep love comes with a lack of any interest in other potential partners, but this is more likely to be true in the short term than in the long term, and should never be taken as a litmus test.

Whether a given couple should attempt sexual exclusivity is for them to decide, and ideally it should be decided after long, exhaustively honest conversations, and should be periodically revisited. Men and women both experience hormonal changes as they age, and are likely to find themselves feeling differently about ideal sexual behavior at different times in their lives.

In short, what I’m advocating for every committed couple is negotiated fidelity: a relationship where both partners can present their wants, needs, feelings, and fears on an ongoing basis, without either one feeling that the bedrock of their relationship is threatened if one of those feelings is something like, “I really like the idea of having sex with that barista.” It requires a lot of trust and security, a lot of willingness to delve into one’s own feelings and struggles, a lot of uncritical openness with oneself and one’s partner. If either party is feeling like they have to continually repress certain feelings to make the relationship work, then it is a bad relationship.

Repression is not the same as self-control. There is a huge difference between, “My partner wants me to be sexually exclusive, so I will refrain from having sex with others,” and saying, “My partner wants me to be sexually exclusive, so I will hide from myself and from my partner any inkling of a thought that I might be interested in having sex with others.” And, to be even-handed, there’s a difference between saying, “My partner wants an open relationship, so I will work to get more comfortable with their interest in other people,” and, “My partner wants an open relationship, so I will deny and suppress any feelings of jealousy and insecurity I experience.” In both cases, the former statement is an expression of self-control exercised to accommodate a partner’s needs; the latter is a repression that will only cause damage, both to the individual and to the relationship.

Negotiated fidelity. Give it a try.

monogamy vs. fidelity

I was going to title this post “monogamy vs. commitment,” but “commitment” is kind of a cold word, and what I’m talking about is warm and vital. Fidelity, faithfulness… there’s a fire under those words. Commitment allows for a certain doggedness, a certain “because I have to” quality. You can be committed to a job or a diet. You can only be faithful to a cause, a passion, a love.

You can be faithful without being monogamous.

It’s so evident to me that this is so, that there’s no necessary connection between the concepts, that I almost don’t know what else to write. But let me try to spin it out further.

“My lover and I are faithful to each other.” What does that mean?

It means that your lover’s needs and wishes affect your behavior even when your lover is nowhere near. You think about how an action will impact them, whether it will enhance or impede your ability to love them. You give the whole question “will this strengthen or damage our relationship?” far more weight and prevalence in your life than you would give the same question asked of your close friends, or parents, or siblings.

I hope it need not be said that the question whether a certain action will strengthen or damage a relationship may have very different answers for different relationships. To take a non-sexual example: religious faith. For some couples, their shared religious faith (or lack thereof) is one of the pillars of their relationship, and a move away from that shared ground threatens the relationship. For others, it’s not that important; difference in their beliefs may fuel some interesting debates from time to time, but it doesn’t have much more impact than, say, one person loving musicals while the other hates them.

Similarly, for one couple sexual exclusivity might be a cornerstone of their relationship, while for another it’s not even expected. Definitions of fidelity vary widely from couple to couple. Some people feel cheated on if their partner masturbates or looks at porn (way over on the “unreasonable” end of the spectrum, in my opinion.) In the greyer areas, you have things like going to strip clubs… flirting with other people… getting cyber-married in Second Life. And the all the way over on the “laying no claim to monogamy” side of the spectrum you have swinging, relationships open to outside flings, and polyamory.

You can be faithful anywhere along this spectrum, as long as you and your lover have a sound understanding of what you each need from the other, and how your romantic and sexual activities will affect them. Your place on the spectrum is not likely to be static — I don’t think it should be. People grow, relationships grow, life circumstances change. It’s healthy to continually evaluate your wants and needs and the reasons behind them. Regardless of what boundaries you mutually agree on, it’s not exclusivity that makes a relationship secure — it’s fidelity.