Sunday,21 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1372, (7 - 13 December 2017)
Sunday,21 April, 2019
Issue 1372, (7 - 13 December 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Our cheating hearts

 Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky
Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky

Why do men cheat…and women too? Well, it’s complicated.

The rolling sea of outrage at men’s misconduct has caused havoc in the fields of politics, industry, media and entertainment. Outstanding talents have been forced out, careers terminated, families destroyed because of the indiscretion of “the big, bad Wolf”.

Affairs are glamourised in movies, soap-operas, romance novels, becoming almost inspiring. What compares to the sensation scandal of the Bill Clinton/ Monica Lewinsky affair?

Although “art should be beyond the scope of punishment”, the present mood has banished an artist like Kevin Spacey. The disclosure of a celebrity’s misbehaviour is titillating news, therefore, wittingly or unwittingly, a renewed and vigorous discourse on the pitfalls of marriage and infidelity is on everyone’s mind.

The history of women’s transgression has had a formidable impact in novels, mythology, films etc; rather ironic, since cheating men outnumber cheating women.  Because that is normal fare, moviemakers have had a field day exposing women’s infidelities. Movies such as Double Indemnity (1944), directed by Billy Wilder, starring Barbara Stanwyck, has been remade several times, so has The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), based on the novel by the same name. Who can forget Marilyn Monroe in Niagara Falls, or Catherine De Neuve in Belle de Jour?

How about Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, who keeps coming back to life on the screen to this day? Movies glamourising women’s infidelities are highly popular everywhere. Claude Chabrol’s La Femme Infidele (1969), or the eternal favourite, Jean Gremilon’s L’Etrange Madame X (1951), and Gustave Flaubert’s groundbreaking novel Madame Bovary, still being made and remade; we like the shock value.

Man has always had a carte blanche where infidelity is concerned. Not women. Because their infidelity is less occurring it calls for sensational viewing, or could the reason be as simple as these novels and movies are all written and produced by men.  

The condition of love with its bittersweet elements has been explored throughout history in mythology, classical drama, literature, art, poetry and philosophy. Love has always been an ambivalent feeing of blissful joy and painful torture. Studies show that men care more for the physical act of a partner’s infidelity while women feel more deeply the emotional betrayal.

The looming question is why people have extra-marital affairs.

While there is a strong belief that sex addiction is the reason, Dr Gary Neuman, in his book The Truth About Cheating, cites that only seven per cent of infidelity is caused by sex addiction and 41 per cent are emotionally unsatisfied, need someone more interested or excited about them, while 12 per cent are tired of the routine. Appearance is not the driving force. Many a beautiful wife is replaced by someone less beautiful.

Attraction, sex, companionship, power, excitement, curiosity, vanity, boredom, the thrill of the chase, a boost of the ego are all legitimate reasons, not to mention the temptation of the forbidden: “stolen sweets taste sweeter”.   

In the movie Moonstruck (1987) Rose Castorini (Olympia Dukakis) is baffled as to why men cheat, like her husband Cosmo (Vincent Gardenia). She finally thought she found the answer: his fear of his mortality. Men pass through a mid-life crisis and have to deal with their own insecurities… their fear of getting old and life’s adventures are behind them. Longing for freedom, intensity, a wish to recapture vitality, they need a woman who will make them feel young again.

However, cheating is not always a symbol of relational problems. Dr Jane Grier, author of How Can You Do This To Me? believes it is a DNA predisposition that makes our eyes wander. Genes that are associated with drinking, gambling may also be associated with infidelity. There is a propensity for some to explore independent emotional stations. Estimates of cheaters vary from 26 per cent to 75 per cent. Even a good marriage cannot inoculate us against wanderlust. Forty per cent of women and 60 per cent of men will have an extra-marital affair.

Now, here is the real reason which we are unwilling to confront… it is monogamy. In her classic work The Future of Marriage, noted scholar Jessie Bernard records that millions of words have been used to document the naturalness and unnaturalness of monogamy, with no answer. We all expect monogamy to be a normal part of marriage, but the truth is, monogamy is not “the norm”.

Society imposed both marriage and monogamy. While moving from our primitive existence to a more organised lifestyle, civilisation dictated rules and regulations and in order to enjoy the privileges of marriage, family and children, those rules must be followed. With an innate temptation to cheat, monogamy is an uphill battle, the wedding ring a noose around our necks.

Unwilling to be as cynical as Oscar Wilde: “in married life, three is company, two is none”, famous anthropologist Helen Fischer, author of Why Him? Why Her? Why We Love, believes that men search for more sex, while women seek to fill an emotional need. Happy men cheat (56 per cent), unhappy women cheat (34 per cent).

Sociologist Eric Andersen of England writes In The Monogamy Gap: “Monogamy has ostracised men from doing what they most want to do.” 

Most societies and religions have permitted a man more than one wife, and in some societies like the Eskimos and Tibetans, women too enjoy this privilege.  

As women gain more exposure and independence in our mobile society, they too can be more tempted in greater numbers to pursue “Danger and delight, which grow on one stalk”. Men be forewarned.

“Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures.”

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

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