The reasons people cheat on their partners are manifold – it’s not always as simple as branding your partner a love-rat
So there you are, not getting along with your partner, out drinking with your friends, and before you know it you wake up in bed with a stranger, or even worse, a friend. Statistically speaking, there’s a very high chance that you have either been the offender or the victim in this scenario. One instance in your life of being a cheater, or being cheated on, may help teach you about the healthy boundaries of love and trust. Some people, however, seem physically incapable of staying true to their loved ones and become repeat offenders. What social scientists find interesting about infidelity is why we cheat rather than break up and start new relationships. Humans are the only animal species that are known to regularly cheat, whereas other animals are either completely monogamous or completely polygamous. Humans are complex and it seems there are almost as many reasons to cheat as there are people to cheat with.
The evolutionary itch
Anthropologists tend to think that infidelity is a leftover instinct from our ancestors. Monogamy hasn’t always been the norm in human family systems. Many tribal societies that still exist today continue to engage in polygamous family systems. Monogamy became more common as religions started to develop and when distinct bloodlines became more important. However, our neurochemical instincts often do not adapt as fast as cultural norms change. Some of us, especially men, may still have that instinctual urge to have a whole harem of women and pretend that we are powerful village chiefs with a collection of human skulls. And besides, when you have a harem of exotic wives, there’s a pretty good chance that at least one of your 50 sons will be man enough to carry on your legacy as chief bad boy.
Fast forward ten thousand years and monogamy has become the norm. Some governments even had the audacity to make polygamy illegal. With modern technology and understandings about the human brain, researchers have found a few more reasons why we may cheat besides wanting to revert to the stone age. Recent research even suggests that some people are genetically predisposed to cheat. Researchers discovered through a simple saliva test that some people are 50 percent more likely to cheat. The culprit is a gene variation in the neurotransmitter dopamine, specifically the number four receptor, but who’s counting? Not surprisingly, dopamine is the neurotransmitter that regulates the reward system in our brains. Irregularities in dopamine are also present in schizophrenia, gambling and substance abuse. People that have this particular gene variation may not only want sex more often, but also want it from more than just one person, which is where the cheating part comes in.
The modern brain has a few other tricks up its sleeve in trying to get us to wander astray. Recent research has found that men who suffer from performance anxiety are surprisingly more likely to cheat. The extra-marital affair may give them an opportunity to be more sexually expressive without any serious commitment. Meanwhile, the same body of research found that women who are sexually dissatisfied are three times more likely to cheat. Personality type also seems to be a factor. People who have experienced abandonment and rejection often avoid serious attachments to people. People with the avoidant-attachment personality type are significantly more likely to cheat. They do this as a physical expression to distance themselves from a relationship that may be getting too serious.
Chip off the old block
As unique as humans like to think they are, we still subconsciously learn a lot of our traits by watching our parents. So it should come as no surprise that if one or both of your parents practiced infidelity, then you are also much more likely to engage in this behaviour. We often tend to set our moral compass by noting what our parents accepted and disapproved of. If dad was a two-timing ladies man, research suggests that little Johnny will also be a tramp-about-town. When children see their parent of the opposite sex cheat, the repercussions can be just as damaging. The phenomenon may result in having little trust in the opposite sex, which may rationalise your own infidelity.
Regardless of the reasons for cheating, it can cause a lifetime of emotional trauma and is never a healthy choice. Talk to your partner if you are feeling vulnerable before it’s too late.
Boyd Bergeson has been working in mental health since 2003. He holds a Master of Science in Medical Sociology and works as a counsellor at Indigo Counselling Centre. He also contributes to daily health and mental health articles on the website Livestrong.com