History, culture and infidelity…

Infidelity has been around since marriage was invented. And it’s quite the norm in some cultures. In early Roman times, adultery was especially verboten for women, as they were regarded as property. Marcus Cato (2nd century A.D.) gave a speech mentioning a husband’s right to kill his wife if she was caught committing adultery. Henry the VIII had six wives and several mistresses, but it was Anne Boleyn (wife number 2) who was executed for her alleged adultery.

More recently, both men and women have been castigated for cheating. John Winthrop, Governor of Puritan Massachusetts (1641) wrote, “The woman proved very penitent, and had deep apprehension of the foulness of her sin, and at length attained to hope of pardon by the blood of Christ, and was willing to die in satisfaction to justice. The man also was very much cast down for his sins, but was loth to die, and petitioned the general court for his life, but they would not grant it, though some of the magistrates spake much for it, and questioned the letter, whether adultery was death by God’s law now.” They executed them both for their cheating ways.


On the history of marriage, Stephanie Coontz writes, “What marriage had in common was that it really was not about the relationship between the man and the woman… It was a way of getting in-laws, of making alliances and expanding the family labor force.” A strategic alliance if you like! But today, in the Western World, relationships have evolved to become a companionate partnership between two people on a supposedly equal footing. And that supposedly equal relationship is usually initiated by falling in love. And therefore infidelity is seen not just as immoral, but as a slap in the face to the love of your life. Of course, the idea of monogamous marriage built on true love is not without its own controversy, as some are of the opinion we should rethink our Western ideas on infidelity…

What is infidelity?


“That which constitutes adultery is not the hour that she accords to her lover: it is the night that she afterward passes in the arms of her husband…”

– George Sand, née Amantine Dupin

So, what do we consider cheating? Is it falling in love with a different person? Sex with a different person? Surreptitious online chats, or a mild in-person flirtation? Is monogamy synonymous with fidelity? It’s hard to know what constintutes infidelity in the 21st century.

And then there’s the question of what causes infidelity. Is infidelity the result of pyshological (emotional) stresses or is it a purely biological urge? Or is cheating a combination of both? Regardless, our happiness, stability – and even our indentities – can be affected by the act of straying; this physchological cost can be quite significant to you and to your relationship.

Beligian psychotherapist Esther Perel defines an affair according to three elements, and none of them actually require in-person nookie.

  1. A secretive relationship (the core structure of an affair)
  2. An emotional connection (to varying degrees)
  3. cheating

  4. A sexual alchemy (“the kiss that you only imagine giving can be as powerful and enchanting as hours of actual love-making”)

What does science say?

Does fidelity and love go hand-in-hand? I’m going to assume for most people (in the Western World), fidelity is an expectation when you fall in love. But what is the scientific take on the matter?

According to world renowned biological anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher, “Love isn’t so much an emotion as it is a brain system, one of three that’s evolved for mating and reproduction (relating to sex drive, romantic love and attachement to a partner).” It’s those other two systems that explain why human beings are capable of infidelity even as we so highly value love.” She goes on to argue these three brain systems are not always connected to each other; you can feel deep attachment to a long term partner while you feel intense romantic love for somebody else, all while you feeling the sex drive for people unrelated to your life partner or your affair partner. Yeah, your feelings are really good at multi-tasking!

Our closest relatives in the animal kingdom – with whom we share a whopping 99% of our DNA – are chimpanzees and bonobos. These animals use sex purely for fertilization, with females only emitting “arousing signals” on their fertile days. They seek sex exclusively on days when they are able to conceive. All animals in the animal kingdom have sex for the reason of passing on genetic information and propagating their species. On the other hand, modern day humans have sex seeking fun or emotionaly fulfilment for its own sex, not just procreation. Plenty of people have queer sex or use birth control, so getting randy isn’t necessarily about reproduction. And that means cheating might not just be about the biological urge to make lots of babies…


In his book, Why is Sex Fun? The Evolution of Human Sexuality, Jared Diamond writes, “Most of us don’t realize how unusual human sexual practices are.” He goes on to discuss throughout his book the distinct features of human sexuality (compared to other animals) and how it is a consequence of evolutionary biology, culture, speech, parent-child relations, and mastery of complex tools (PERHAPS THAT LAST FACTOR COULD EXPLAIN WHY WE FIND THOR’S HAMMER SO AROUSING?).

Research shows there is a gene which can be correlated to infidelity, and dopamine receptors play a vital role. Dopamine is the happy hormone released after exercise, some foods, and of course, following sex. It was shown that 50% of people with a particular dopamine receptor gene cheat on their partners while 22% of folks with the other form do. The people who fall into the 50% category were also most likely to be risk-takers, and have a greater risk of developing an addiction to alcohol. The levels of another hormone, vasopressin, may also affect whether a person cheats or not. A study involving over 7000 Finnish twins showed that cheating women have certain types vasopressin receptor genes.

So, from a scientific perspective, our brain systems associated with love, sex and attachment are not necessarily connected and geared towards monogamy. It would seem there is some biological and genetic evidence in support of cheating…None the less, many people do find ways to beat the temptation!

Ultimately, being faithful is a personal choice, and sometimes our chosen path takes work…

To quote Dr. Helen Fisher, “The happiness we find, we make.”

It will be interesting: What Are Your Dreams Trying To Tell You?

Leave a Reply