Infidelity Lives in the Silence

Recently, the New York Times published an Op-Ed piece entitled Infidelity Lurks in Your Genes which describes how the variations in people’s genetic make-up influence how inclined individuals are towards monogamy and infidelity. The social scientist in me was immediately fascinated by the article. How amazing that we live in a time where we can discover so much about the human body! However, as a couples therapist, I reached the end of the article wondering how couples would utilize the information. Would they use the information to pathologize their partners? Would they use it to justify their choices? Would they feel powerless to create the lives they desire due to their genetics?

Some of us may have a genetic predisposition to go outside our committed relationships, as the research suggests. However, what does this mean for the folks who love their partners and their families, and want to remain faithful to these relationships but may have genes that gear them towards infidelity? Are they doomed to wander outside their relationship? If the research is valid, is there any hope for them to stay committed?

It's time we break the silence on how attraction works in long-term committed relationships and how we can deal with it in a way that protects and strengthens relationships.

The hard truth

Never being attracted to another person other than your spouse does not make you a wonderful partner or a holy person, it just means you are dead. Six-feet under. And since you're reading this, you're still very much alive. There will be times when you will feel an attraction to someone other than your partner. And your partner will feel this way as well. It's sad, it's scary, and it's disappointing. However, it is also a normal part of any committed adult relationship that needs to be accepted and handled in a mature manner.

Pat Love, a Marriage and Family Therapist, writes about the biological aspect of attraction. In her book, The Truth about Love, she writes, "There is a segment of DNA called the human lymphocyte antigen (HLA), which functions as the immune system's disease detector. An individual's HLA codes for a limited number of diseases and passes on this ability to potential offspring through DNA. However, if this individual mates with a person with a different HLA code, then their offspring will have immunity to far more diseases. This discovery revealed the great evolutionary advantage of mating between a man and women with dissimilar DNA codes. Consequently, when you come into contact with a suitable DNA match, you will feel an attraction, or what we call chemistry."

Basically, we are wired to feel “chemistry” with more than one person because our bodies are designed to draw us closer to others with whom any potential children could have the most immunities. This biological process explains why couples can be head over heels for one another, and still find themselves attracted to another person. Moreover, if the compatible DNA match is also charming, it can leave folks utterly confused about what they are experiencing.  

If the predisposition for infidelity lurks in our genes, then the manifestation of infidelity lives in the silence.

We have no control over our biology or the relationships that have been modeled for us. But we are in control of how we care for our relationships and how we address these issues when they arise. Below are three very important things you need to do if you want to be the one in control of the fidelity of your relationship:

  1. Start talking about attraction to people other than your partner as a normal, albeit very inconvenient, aspect of any monogamous relationship. Share this article with your partner and tell them that you want to tackle every issue as a team, which is why you want to start this conversation.
  2. Start talking with your partner about how you'd like to deal with this when it comes up. Begin strategizing and problem-solving together, as people on the same team working towards the same goal: protecting and caring for your relationship. I would not recommend telling one another every time you see a good-looking person. You would find yourself talking about little else. However, it is wise to agree on how and when you want to confide in one another, and what boundaries you want to establish. I would recommend confiding in your partner if you'll continue to be around the person by necessity, or if that person does not seem to respect the boundaries of your commitment. Or if you simply feel scared. Few things will spook someone like being in love with their partner, and then suddenly feeling captivated by a handsome stranger.

    If you are thinking "How in the world would I ever tell my partner I am feeling an attraction to another person? They would be crushed!" It's true. It's going to hurt like hell and take a lot of guts on your part. However, this kind of pain is far less than the pain inflicted on a relationship following an affair. This pain leads to growth, intimacy, and a solid trust in your partner that regardless of how they feel, they are committed to protecting the relationship and being honest even when it is hard.
  3. Accept that regardless of your genetic predisposition or your personal history, your choices concerning fidelity are always your own. Many people have bought into the lie that simply because we feel an attraction to someone, that we must act on it. The space between feelings and choice seems almost non-existent. Long-term monogamous relationships require us to start believing that even when we do feel an attraction to someone other than our partner, we still have the capacity to choose how we want to respond.

As a couples therapist, infidelity is the catalyst for around half of the couples who end up in my office. Many of them found themselves experiencing an attraction to someone else, and believed they had to remain silent about it for fear of hurting their partner. Silence is the context that gives life to infidelity. There are many things in life we have no control over. This is not one of them. Take a deep breath, start talking, and take charge of your commitment to your partner.