Infidelity, an issue that is frequently dealt with in relationship counselling, is a leading cause of divorce, and as such has been studied extensively by social scientists over the last two decades. Heartbroken, the cheated are desperate to know why their spouse did it, how they’re supposed to move on, and whether monogamy is doomed to fail. Recent research has certainly unearthed some interesting perspectives on the matter of monogamy, and although opinions on infidelity are heated and varying, the focus falls on two primary elements: the biological and the psychological.

Unpacking the Biological – What does Science have to Say about Monogamy?

Arguments vary, but a popular one (mostly amongst men, I should add) is that monogamy goes against human and animal nature. While the science doesn’t extend quite so far as to back up a statement as loaded as that, there does appear to be some evidence that suggests that our biology makes monogamy difficult.

  1. The Role of Evolution and Genetics

One of the main principles of evolution is this: the strongest survive and breed, creating offspring with similar traits that are then passed on to future generations of offspring. You’ve probably heard it in reference to Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest.’ In the distant past it was beneficial to people to have multiple sexual partners. Having more than one sexual partner increased the chances of producing many strong and healthy children, and was thus intrinsic to the basic instincts of survival and procreation. With this in mind, some scientists have theorised that, as the descendants of beings who practiced polygamy as a strategy of reproduction, we have inherited certain traits from them that push us away from monogamy. Some studies have even gone so far as to indicate that people who practice infidelity have common genetic traits, although not enough research has been done on this matter to be conclusive.

  1. Hormones

Women, in particular, are aware of how powerful hormones are. With hormones that fluctuate cyclically, a woman is able to recognise how her hormones may be influencing her moods, her decisions, and her physical needs. There can be no dispute that one’s hormones can definitely increase or decrease one’s sex drive, and this may make it harder to avoid infidelity. The hormones usually to blame are testosterone (in males) and oestrogen (in females). In the past, many people, and even scientists, argued that men were prone to infidelity because of their hormones, and that they couldn’t be held entirely accountable for their actions. It was an argument that was used considerably to excuse men’s poor behaviour and yet to punish women when they did the same thing. This argument, while still sometimes used erroneously, is a myth. In fact, if men are at the mercy of their hormones, then women are equally so, with oestrogen serving as the female equivalent to the male testosterone.

If we focus on our biology alone, there is an argument to be made that because of evolution, genetics, and our hormones, infidelity is ‘human nature’ and that monogamy is unrealistic. But this is a simplistic answer that only takes into account one part of our biology – the part that is inclined to choose more than one sexual partner – and doesn’t take into account other aspects of our being. Our biological instincts, which are primed to aid our and our future generations’ survival, have been equally developed to favour the ‘pack mentality.’ As we get older and begin to suffer the effects of ageing, there are many benefits to being tied to another person. Our ancestors understood this too, travelling in nomadic packs and then later developing villages where everyone had an essential role to play that enabled a better standard of living for the whole group. This is where monogamy comes in. While polygamy may have been a useful reproductive strategy at one point, so was the act of faithful partnerships, particularly as society developed and the desire to have ten strong male children fell

While polygamy may have been a useful reproductive strategy at one point, so was the act of faithful partnerships, particularly as society developed and the desire to have ten strong male children fell by the wayside. Thus, from a scientific and biological standpoint, at least, there can be no definitive argument either for or against monogamy. While on the one hand our bodies are inclined to be attracted to more than one person, a trait that we have likely inherited, we are equally attracted to the safety of pair bonding. Evolution favours both monogamy and polygamy in humans, and using biology as an excuse for infidelity is just that – an excuse.

Personal and Psychological Reasons for Cheating

  1. Relationship Problems

The most frequently cited reason for infidelity is problems within the relationship. For whatever reason, one or both partners in the relationship are unhappy, and solace is found in someone else. While not always the case, many people who cheat claim to still love their partners, despite their infidelity. The unfaithful party may express loneliness, neglect, lack of passion or another reason for their infidelity.

  1. Personality Types and Individual Issues

When there are relationship problems that involve both partners, the cheated may feel deeply betrayed by the infidelity, but at least, has some sense of the driving force behind it. Sometimes, a relationship can be seemingly perfect until the infidelity comes to light, and in this case, partners usually struggle to reconcile the cheating behaviour with their loving partner. Psychologists have explored the possibility that certain personality types are more prone to cheat. People who are compulsive, reckless, egotistical, attention-seeking or quick to form addictions tend to be more likely to cheat on their partners. Another possibility is that the individual who cheats is dealing with personal issues – such as unhappiness, grief, performance anxiety, past abuse or other – that they react to by acting out.

  1. Real Love?

There are few things that come as unexpected as infidelity. Oddly enough, even more heartbreaking and unexpected than the revelation of a partner’s infidelity, is the possibility that said partner has actually fallen in love with someone else. Sex is one thing, but love? No one really ever sees that one coming, and for good reason. Surveys have shown that most men who have affairs have no intention of leaving their partners, whereas women tend to get more emotionally attached, and are more likely to fall in love with what was, at first, a side fling. While lust may be a common reason for infidelity, sometimes, although less often, it appears that love is to blame. It’s not a terribly uncommon story – co-workers spending many late nights at the office and falling in love after inadvertently getting to know one another and discovering that they are actually soul mates. Sound cheesy? It is, but it happens. After infidelity, couples who choose to work on their relationship instead of dissolving it may find that this is the hardest sort to move on from – when one or even both partners are still in love with someone else.

The potential specific reasons behind infidelity are endless, although more generally they are often attributed to unhappy relationships or personal psychological issues. After a partner has cheated, couples must make the difficult decision of whether to end their relationship or move forwards together – a decision often complicated by children. Infidelity also leaves deep scars of mistrust that can make moving forwards (whether with or without the partner) difficult. The guidance of a psychologist or trained counsellor can help the couple to understand why the infidelity occurred and how to best move forwards. If you are struggling with infidelity contact Doctor Louw Alberts, psychologist, counselling in Centurion, close to Pretoria.