June 14, 2018
(+++) THE BIOLOGY OF UNFAITHFULNESS
Infidelity: Why Men and Women Cheat. By Kenneth Paul Rosenberg, M.D. Da Capo. $26.
Sex gives pleasure. Genetically, some people have higher pleasure needs than others. Those people are more likely to seek sex with someone other than the person to whom they are married or otherwise committed. End of book.
Well, no. More like “start of book.” Yes, Kenneth Paul Rosenberg clearly states that “affairs of the heart and journeys of sexual desire overtake the reward centers of the brain. New sex and love clouds or subverts the frontal lobes’ decision-making abilities, and these biological, evolutionarily adaptive processes are hard to surmount.” But there is more here. Rosenberg fills 266 pages with examples, discussions, research reports and analyses of the reasons people cheat, the consequences when they do, and ways (he says) to mitigate those consequences. Rosenberg certainly has the credentials to present all this: he is an addiction psychiatrist and sex-addiction counselor with more than two decades of experience. And he writes well.
Nevertheless, there is something rather unsatisfying about Infidelity. It is not the research, such as the findings about dopamine and the brain’s pleasure centers, including studies showing that some people really do have a genetic predisposition toward greater needs for pleasure and therefore may be more likely to cheat on a partner if that partner cannot provide the level of stimulation the genetically inclined person needs. Actually, a good deal of the science will be familiar to people who keep an eye on studies of human behavior, but not everyone does this, and having the research collected in one place and presented cogently is a big plus for Infidelity.
The minus comes from the fact that every book analyzing human behavior and seeking to help people change and improve it falls into two basic sections: descriptive and prescriptive. Rosenberg’s is no exception. And while it is quite strong (if sometimes rather obvious) on the descriptive side, it is much less useful on the prescriptive side – the “what to do if this happens to you” portion. The prescriptive material is not neatly gathered at the end of the book but is presented throughout, and the comparative weakness of this material pulls down the overall effectiveness of the book’s communication.
Thus, at one point Rosenberg writes that for a cheated spouse or partner who learns of an affair, “Sleep is difficult. The quiet darkness of night invites images of the affair, which you may have gleaned through texts and emails or your own imagination, replaying over and over through your mind.” This seems pretty obvious, despite Rosenberg’s attempt to present the feelings empathetically. He then goes on to tell cheaters not to “gaslight” their partners, meaning not to “deny and undermine your spouse’s sense of reality in order to gain power in the relationship or win an argument. …Not only will that approach fail, but it’s also a crappy way to treat someone – especially someone to whom you’ve pledged your love.” Um, well, yes. And Rosenberg then continues further, in a section called “What Do We Tell Other People?” Here he gets to prescriptive matters immediately: “My prescription – Chill! – involves pausing before you take steps that might cause further damage.” Again – um, well, yes.
Again and again, Rosenberg says things that sound good and sound right, that showcase his experience of dealing with infidelity and explain how people (cheaters and cheated) respond to it, that indicate he knows how infidelity can wreck some relationships while eventually strengthening others that have been repaired and have grown as a result of the trauma. And Rosenberg certainly understands that in contemporary life, attitudes toward sex – and emotional attachment – have been changing, not least because of technology: “With so many choices available at the swipe of a thumb, this app [Bumble] likely stimulates its users’ brain’s reward centers, instilling in them the hope that the next swipe will be better than the last. But what is ‘best’ anyway?”
The difficulty with Infidelity seems primarily to be that its prescriptive elements make sense and appear to have a good chance of success only within a therapeutic context. That is, Rosenberg is able to detail approaches that have worked for the patients he has seen, but trying to apply those approaches – such as that exclamatory “Chill!” – without the assistance of a trained professional is substantially more difficult than Rosenberg makes it out to be, if not out-and-out impossible. In the swirl of emotions, recriminations, anger and uncertainty likely to occur as a result of infidelity, the intercession of a neutral third party seems crucial to putting a damaged relationship back on an even keel. Not that all relationships involving infidelity are damaged: Rosenberg discusses a decades-married couple, two people in their 50s, who agreed to open their marriage, with positive results. “Through their consensual nonmonogamy they not only became closer but also began having hot sex with each other again. The long-married couple became more affectionate. …Both partners thought the experience helped the marriage.” But these two people assert that what they did was not infidelity, because each knew what the other was doing and they “had rules” and “were very thoughtful.” So this unconventional approach to sex with someone other than one’s spouse or long-term partner is a bit misleadingly included in a book called Infidelity, except insofar as readers may interpret any sex outside marriage or a committed relationship as meriting the book’s title.
Rosenberg has a great deal of scientific and interpersonal knowledge on the topic of sexual function and dysfunction, and in Infidelity he does well when explaining why cheating (however it may be defined) happens and what its results can be. But when it comes to discussing ways in which individuals, on their own, can handle those results or change them from something negative to something positive, or at least neutral, Infidelity falls short. The ultimate take-home message from the book is that coping with cheating on one’s own is extremely difficult, so it is important, if one commits or discovers infidelity, to track down and work with an experienced professional who can guide you through your options and potential responses – that is, to track down and work with Rosenberg, or someone very much like him.