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Our Cheatin’ Hearts

Men and monogamy: Fighting the urge to have an extramarital affair
By Sean Elder
WebMD Feature

Why can't you just be faithful? Any man who has ever been on the receiving end of that question, whether dodging crockery or wiping away his wife's tears, knows that some women would really like an answer. Do men who cheat really outnumber their female counterparts? Does infidelity in marriage come more naturally to men than women? And do some husbands think that "monogamy" is a board game?

"There's no question that men cheat more than women," says Steven Nock, PhD, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, who has followed the marriages of more than 6,000 men since 1979. "In the bad old days, when we had to prove why we were getting divorced, that was the leading cause." This was mostly because husbands were guiltier of infidelity in marriage than their wives, but also because "society is more tolerant of men's misdeeds," says Nock. It was OK for a marriage to end because the husband had been unfaithful l- you know how men are - while a faithless wife was a true pariah. As you may remember from your American literature class, it was Hester Prynne who wore the scarlet letter, not the man with whom she had the affair.

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"Men and women cheat in different ways," says Mark Epstein, MD, a psychiatrist in private practice in Manhattan and author of Open To Desire: Embracing a Lust for Life. "It's more like an appetite thing for men, more oral in a way. Their partners are more disposable. And the experiences are more disposable."

Infidelity in men: Does the biological argument hold up?

Wives often find their husbands disposable when they discover they've cheated on them, though still they wonder why they did it. Could it be a biological imperative, as some scientists have allowed? Cole Porter may have thought that the birds and bees who "do it" were falling in love, but if love is what you're calling it, there is plenty of evidence that the animal kingdom pretty much falls in love indiscriminately. And even Homo sapiens have spent more evolutionary time seeking multiple partners than in pursuit of romantic matrimony and monogamy.

"There is a natural tendency that is pretty hardwired in us as a species that suggests putting your seed in as many places as possible. It's what got humanity to this point in history," says Louanne Cole Weston, PhD, a marriage and family therapist and board-certified sex therapist in Fair Oaks, California. "That non-monogamous urge persists in many men - though many manage serial monogamy despite that urge."

This would seem to argue for a behavioral cure to what may be only partially a biological problem. (Besides, the evolutionary argument will only get you so far. One could argue that men also used to beat each other with clubs, but this practice is generally frowned upon today - at least in most places. And there are no country songs about it.) Can counseling, for instance, get a man to stop cheating?

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