What sounds like a BS excuse — that some men "just can't help it" when it comes to cheating — may have a basis in reality. Recent research suggests that a so-called "fidelity gene" might determine whether men are likely to get married or have marital problems.
But the wandering eye isn't as predetermined as eye color: science is also uncovering proof that men and women can fine-tune their fidelity skills, strengthen their commitments, and have happier relationships as a result.
A story in Tuesday's New York Times examines several scientific studies that challenge our preconceived notions about what it takes to be faithful. In one, scientists studied more than 500 sets of male twins and how they reacted to the bonding hormone vasopressin:
[M]en who carried a variation in the gene were less likely to be married, and those who had wed were more likely to have had serious marital problems and unhappy wives.
Of course, the research focused only on marital stability, not fidelity, so the "fidelity gene" idea isn't fully formed. Plus there's a separate raft of research that suggests that people can change. For all the proof,
Several studies conducted at McGill University hint at the idea that people in committed relationships can train themselves not to be as attracted to men and women who might threaten their relationships. In one experiment, couples in committed relationships were shown photos of members of the opposite sex and asked to rate their attractiveness. When they were told the person in the photo wanted to meet them, they automatically docked their attractiveness rating — presumably as a way to lessen the temptation.
However, men faced with the possibility of cheating didn't appear to put up the immediate defenses that women did. In another McGill study, "attractive actors or actresses" were brought into flirt with male and female subjects. Afterward, the subjects were asked how they would respond to "bad behavior" in their romantic relationships, such as their partner being late and forgetting to call:
Men who had just been flirting were less forgiving of the hypothetical bad behavior, suggesting that the attractive actress had momentarily chipped away at their commitment. But women who had been flirting were more likely to be forgiving and to make excuses for the man, suggesting that their earlier flirting had triggered a protective response when discussing their relationship.
You say "protective response," I say guilt! Either way, this sort of internal alarm could be fine-tuned. In a separate study of men, involving some virtual-reality flirting and potential hookups, men who "practiced" resisting temptation were actually better at it.
Scientists also speculate that the stronger the bond between a couple — the more they've shared victories and enhanced each others' lives — the better they are at being faithful. Couples were given relationship questionnaires before and after performing challenging tasks together; those who shared victories expressed stronger feelings of love afterward.
These exercises are mostly theoretical; some sound sort of like obstacle courses. Obviously, it's impossible to predict what will prompt someone to slip off a wedding ring and give in to temptation. But I think there is some truth to the fact that shared experiences and shared challenges can enhance your life as a couple, therefore making you more committed. Do you agree?