Biological Anthropologist Changes how We Look at Love and Infidelity
The eminent biological anthropologist, Helen Fisher says that love really isn’t an emotion at all. In fact, it is an entire system in the brain responsible for mating, romance and reproduction. We in our society value love highly. And yet these very biological systems that comprise love also give us the capacity for infidelity. Recently on a Ted Talk, Fisher spoke about marital infidelity and the biological basis for love. Topics she covered included how common cheating is, why it occurs and how certain genes may fit into the equation. Across the globe, 91.8% of men and 93.1% of women marry before age 49, according to the United Nations Demographic Yearbooks, which include 97 separate societies. This data was collected between 1947 and 1992. Monogamy is not the end all, be all of mating for human race, however. Infidelity is common throughout all societies, from all continents and historical contexts. In America, 20-25% of heterosexual married women, and 20-40% of heterosexual married men engage in an extramarital affair at some point in their lives. Sadness, anger, frustration and despair often surround these. In fact, many times they break up the marriage. Usually, we think of infidelity as a psychological or moral choice. But according to Fisher, it has biological and genetic components as well.
Three brain systems in modern humans relate to what we call love: the sex drive, romantic love and pair attachment. Libido instigates sexual intercourse with a number of different partners. Romantic love however, drives us instead to focus on one particular individual. In a biological sense, this saves physical energy and time. Lastly, pair bonding motivates parents to stick together in order to raise a child from infancy and give it the best chance of survival. These three systems work together, as well as with other parts of the brain, to run the complex phenomenon we call love. The problem arises in the fact that our brains can hold these three different sections of love for three different people. For instance, you may feel intensely romantic toward one person, a strong bond with another and lustful toward yet another. All cultures have marital infidelity, and it is looked down upon in almost every one. According to researchers, there are two types of infidelity, romantic and sexual. Romantic infidelity may be what is generally called emotional cheating. This is when you exchange romantic behaviors, sentiments and gestures without physical relations. Sexual infidelity is a physical exchange, say intercourse with no emotional or romantic involvement.
Here is when things get murky. So many cultural, psychological and even economic factors are involved in the frequency of infidelity and how it is expressed. This makes studying the phenomenon a difficult process. One such instance is “Mate poaching.” This is a common phenomenon in America and 30 other cultures. Mate poaching occurs when one person tries to influence a possible mate away from a committed relationship, in order to be with them. Of single Americans, 53% of men and 60% of women admit to taking part in such a practice. Though it is often thought of as a sign that something is dreadfully wrong in the relationship, Fisher says infidelity even happens within happy marriages. In one study for instance, 56% of men and 34% of women who cheated rated their marriage as “happy” or “very happy.” This suggests that genes do play a role in marital infidelity.
A 2008 study set out to find out just how big a role. 552 couples took part in the study. They were either married or cohabitating and had been doing so for a minimum of five years. Men who had a certain gene, called a 334 vasopressin allele—located in a specific area of the vasopressin system, felt less attached to their partner, emotionally. Their scores on the Partner Bonding Scale were far lower. Men who had two of these genes had the lowest scores, compared to those who only had one. Those men who had the 334 gene had a higher likelihood of a martial crisis, including the threat of divorce. Those who had two of these genes saw their risk double. The men who had one or two of the 334 gene also scored lower on marital satisfaction. Though infidelity wasn’t directly measured in this study, factors that lead to infidelity were, and they were significantly elevated for those who had these genes.
According to Helen Fisher, marital infidelity was rampant among our prehistoric ancestors. Men who had more than one sexual partner reproduced often and their genes carried on. Women who engaged in more sexual partnerships, perhaps due to a partner’s death or disappearance, gained extra economic resources to better survive and help her children to do so. These extra martial partnerships also created more genetic variety, making early humans stronger and better able to adapt to their environment. But the advantages infidelity gave in the prehistoric age are hobbling our marriages and love lives in contemporary times. What will be interesting is to see if science finds a better way to negotiate the needs of love and marriage in modern society with the drives installed within us from our prehistoric past. For more on this fascinating topic, pick up a copy of Anatomy of Love by Helen Fisher.