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Our Cheatin’ Hearts

Men and monogamy: Understanding 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 really want an answer. Do men who cheat really outnumber their female counterparts? Is infidelity in marriage more natural to men than women? And do some husbands think that “monogamy” is a board game?

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Who cheats most?

“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 over 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 the husbands were guiltier of infidelity in marriage than their wives — but also because, says Nock, “society is more tolerant of men’s misdeeds.”

Men who cheat, so the conventional wisdom went, were just being men, while a faithless wife was a true pariah. You may remember from your American literature class, it was Hester Prynne who wore the scarlet letter, not the man who did her wrong.

“Men and women cheat in different ways,” says Mark Epstein, MD, a psychiatrist in private practice in Manhattan and the 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 may consider their husbands disposable when they discover they’ve been cheating, but they still wonder why. Could it be a biological imperative, as some scientists have allowed? Cole Porter may have thought that birds who “do it” 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 we Homo sapiens have spent more evolutionary time seeking multiple partners than we have 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.”

The evolutionary argument, however, will only get you so far. One could argue that men also used to beat each other with clubs. But outside of some parts of the Bronx, this practice is generally frowned upon now. And there are no country songs about it. So the fact that many men do remain faithful seems to argue for a behavioral cure to what may be only partly a biological problem. Can counseling, for instance, get a man to stop cheating?

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