The Brief Wondrous Life of My Last Relationship: Are Men Genetically Coded to Cheat?

Rooting out the source of infidelity, using Junot Díaz as a guide.

by Jack Murnighan

Men cheat — we can’t help ourselves, right? We’re pretty much still just Homo erectus, following our biological imperative to chase any skirt possible. So goes the conventional logic, but to me that’s an absurd cop-out. 

Even if it’s true, as sociobiologists claim, that when men were still wearing pelts, there were no relationships and the survival of the species depended on us impregnating as many hominid females as we could, what of it? In the same way that today I choose to grill my buffalo burger rather than eat it raw — and enjoy it a hell of a lot more that way — can’t cultured man simply not give in to his prehistoric impulses? Haven’t we evolved to the point where sex can — and should — be a lot more than just the delivery of the genetic matter?

I'm aware that being monogamous is a lot more challenging than lighting a charcoal grill.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m aware that being monogamous is a lot more challenging than lighting a charcoal grill. And I confess to having the stereotypical-male, skin-level desire: my eyes see, sometimes my insides shudder, and a few times a day some part of me can’t help wonder what it would be like to sleep with this woman or that. We all know that most men are like this, but the civilized among us make themselves as immune as possible.

The tougher thing to describe is the psychology of identity behind men’s desire to seduce. In my own case, it took me a long time to realize how much attention I need as a person and that, despite all the confidence I have and successes I’ve had in various quadrants of my life, a lot of me still just wants to be reassured that I’m liked. As men we’re taught to be independent and self-sufficient, but few of us are, can, or even should be.

We need others for all kinds of reasons, and we like to be needed by them as well. Seduction — for both men and women — gives us the sense that someone wants us, that she endorses us and will let us influence her. We know that men often try to seduce women for the same reasons they try to make money — for power and prestige — but when you look deeper, you see that it’s more than just belt-notching. Sex and seduction help us believe in ourselves, to become ourselves even, and that can be a tough thing to give up.

And, sadly, though we want to become ourselves as men, we rarely realize how much it’s not other people, but a single person who can help do that. Many, perhaps most of us, dream of spending our lives with a partner, having all the comfort, intimacy, trust, and history that one can gather only by getting together with someone and staying together. But what’s not on that list of benefits is "self” — and that’s the key to it all. We think we get selfhood by influencing and seducing, doing and building and earning, but a lot of men never experience the deeper, more meaningful self that can be achieved in the sharing and communing, in all the trials and triumphs, with a lifelong partner.

This is all summed up rather nicely by the cheating but otherwise utterly delightful narrator of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao — Yunior de Las Casas, Dominican player extraordinaire and on-and-off lover of Oscar’s sister, Lola.

We need affection, we've always needed affection, and a deficit from one phase of our lives can carry over into the next.

Yunior knows he’s a cheater, knows he has an irrepressible need to seduce. Describing how he’s steadily juggling three women (plus picking up others on the side), he explains, “A heart like mine, which never got any kind of affection growing up, is terrible above all things.”

Terrible, perhaps — certainly so for the person cheated on. But Yunior’s confession also points to the pitiable element behind a lot of human straying: we need affection, we’ve always needed affection, and a deficit from one phase of our lives can carry over into the next.

The irony, of course, is that the cheater might very well have access to that affection from someone who loves him — and yet it’s not enough. That was certainly true for Yunior, who was not only loved by Lola but also loved (and esteemed) her inordinately. Late in the book when he summarizes why he and Lola didn’t end up together, he says simply, “Couldn’t keep my rabo in my pants even though she was the most beautiful fucking girl in the world.” Lola is described as being extremely intelligent, president of her sorority, and a track star with world-class legs and culo — why wasn’t she enough?

Commentarium (19 Comments)

Jan 09 12 - 9:38am

I think your premise of 'men cheating' being more ingrained than women has a light dusting if not a solid coating of sexism. Women cheat some cases as often as men. These numbers have also risen over the last twenty years in an extraordinarily fast rate whereas the percentage of men (who admit to cheating) has stayed fairly steady.
The main difference between the two sexes, despite popular myth, is the repercussions that women face. Women face a series of greater negative repercussions for their behaviour from society, religion, other women and their own families. I work as a therapist and I can tell you that many of the women who do cheat tend to block the event from their mind. It's as if it did not exist and they will be some of the biggest proponents of monogamy...fervently so. So I think we should be very careful as we lay out previously debunked myths from uncited 'sociobiologists'.

Jan 09 12 - 10:46am

He is not using the premise of "men cheating" being more ingrained than in women as sexist. It's simply evolution and this is the accepted understanding in evolution. The main difference between the sexes which, evolutionarily, led to all of the other differences, is that females necessarily invest more in offspring and therefore seek mates that will also invest resources in their offspring (hence looking for a male that's faithful and won't be splitting his resources). Males have relatively little strict investment and therefore evolved (as in other species) looking to have offspring with as many females as possible.
However, humans have since evolved a monogamous social system in most groups because it not only ensures that males are invested in the females, but that females will not be mating with other men and a man is not "wasting" his resources on another man's child. Therefore, it's a win-win. However, of course, other impulses are there and that's what this author is pointing out and he is not being sexist in doing so.

Jan 09 12 - 11:45am

Not at all. Be very, very careful before stating that something is an "accepted understanding in evolution"; there is a lot of evidence that female monogamy was also non-existent in pre-agricultural days; it was in a woman's best interest to pass on her genetic material as well, and that men trying to sleep with as many guys as possible so that the cream could, a-hem, rise to the top. And yes, using uncited works to back up a 50's view of sexual relationships -- 'men are dogs, women are monogamous' -- is either sexist or stupid; I won't fight you on which one you pick. Of course, I'm not going to argue that what I posit here is "accepted" either. There is a lot less universally accepted scientific knowledge than some people would like to believe, and someone defending their ideas as firm scientific fact is almost always wrong.

Jan 09 12 - 11:46am

*and that meant trying to

Jan 09 12 - 12:01pm

You should have more caution before you make blanket statements such as "this is the accepted understanding in evolution". There really is no such thing when it comes to socialised behaviours that are linked to possible evolutionary theories.

There are many researchers who are now theorising that women have been just as primed by evolution to cheat, as it gives them the greater possibility of getting the best and strongest genetic material for their children. Consider, for example, that sperm stays viable in the woman for 48 hours and that stronger sperm inserted later can still beat out inferior sperm inserted earlier--in other words, a woman who sleeps with an alpha male a day after sleeping with a beta male can have an alpha baby. The more seed a woman collects, the better the chances that she has a stronger, healthier baby. Some have speculated that the ridge on the penis head is actually there to act as an emergency "scoop" to try to drag out competitor's sperm from the woman's vagina. Ain't evolutionary psychology cool?

Then consider as well just the way our bodies are set up. Women are able to have multiple orgasms--why? Indeed, why orgasms at all? Unlike with the male, there is no need for a female to have an orgasm to have a baby. There are many in the academic world who have postulated that this speaks to a biological and evolutionary tendency towards far more sexual activity and pleasure for women than is considered 'normal' in modern society. It certainly speaks to the possibility of a higher sexual need in women than is generally considered and speaks to why so many women sneak around on their partners even though women are "supposed" to be content with monogamy.

On the flip-side, men are actually quite invested in having a monogamous, steady relationship. They are just as interested in passing on their genetic material as the woman, but unlike the woman--who knows that the baby she has is her own--he can only insure that the baby she births is his if he stays close to her throughout the period of conception to ensure that no other man gets the chance to plant his seed.

In short, you really ought to consider reading a wider range of theories and academic papers, rather than just sticking to the ones which support and backup the notions that favour modern society's insistence on woman's moral fortitude and male privilege. Indeed, it is good practice that when presented with a theory in evolutionary psychology which seems too perfect in explaining modern society, rather than the whole scope of human behaviour, to critique those theories on the biases of the researchers who do the work.

Jan 09 12 - 2:43pm

so fascinating!!! go women.

Jan 10 12 - 9:39am

What Jess said....oh and @mm you should also take into consideration that in the West we have a monogamous model for our relationships (as a whole) but not in our sexuality. Saying and doing are two separate things.

Jan 09 12 - 2:04pm

I think we can all agree the evolution argument is dumb. I'd rather discuss the rest of the article.

Want to keep your partner loyal? Don't ever stop making them feel sexy, desired, and special. If you don't I guarantee someone else will. Nothing is more intoxicating than knowing someone wants you. Your partner should cherish you. I know a relationship is genuine when I feel like my partner and I are a team and no matter what the world throws at us we can face it together. When I feel this way with someone I have zero desire to cheat.

If you want to cheat then cowboy up and leave your partner. You will destroy them with your betrayal and the guilt never goes away. When you discover you have been cheated on the pain is exquisite - you're overwhelmed with shame, humiliation, rage, and profound sadness. Everything about the relationship becomes tainted. We really do hurt the ones we love the most. Don't ever do this to someone - leave before you have the opportunity to cheat and the world will be a better place because of it.

Jan 10 12 - 9:47am

@sm so no one is destroyed when you leave them to sleep with someone else without cheating? Are you saying the act of serial monogamy, going from one partner to the next has no repercussions on their partners? There is no humiliation, rage and profound sadness when someone leaves you for another but refrains from cheating on you?
I know many couples who are together today after an affair (some for 15 years or more now) and are incredibly happy that they stayed together. I guess my point is that it is easy to be self righteous about this topic but human beings are messy and inconsistent and almost all of these issues have huge swathes of grey when you get a bit deeper.

Jan 09 12 - 2:10pm

Short answer? No.

Jan 09 12 - 2:38pm

I don't get it. he starts off by claiming that when men wore pelts, there were no relationships. That sex was no "more than just the delivery of the genetic matter". And yet, what are our "primitive" motivations for desiring someone else? Well, he describes them as a need to be wanted and desired and for the self to be fulfilled. Well, that doesn't sound much like simply delivering genetic matter. Could it be that our ancestors, and therefor us, were more complex than that? Perhaps we've always needed that affirmation, even back when we wore pelts. And while monogamy has been heralded as a great virtue, the reality is that our history is replete with adultery; it is ubiquitous. I'm not saying that we should all cheat. I am saying that it is mere conjecture to think that monogamy is the best way to realize the self. Surely there are great men and women who have achieved their most personal and greatest successes despite or perhaps because they have cheated. Or perhaps they didn't cheat. Perhaps they achieved their heights by having an open and honest relationship with whomever they were with. It is merely wishful thinking that only through dedication to one partner and one partner only can one achieve their highest heights.

Jan 09 12 - 8:04pm

Where are all the responsible nonmonogamists on this thread? Yes cheating is absolutely bad. But why is this whole thread posed in terms like "If you want to cheat then cowboy up and leave your partner. You will destroy them with your betrayal and the guilt never goes away." Brrr. Or talk about it with them and see if nonmonogamy is a possibility?

Seriously, if your attitude is monogamy or divorce (looking at you, @sm), you may be reading articles on the wrong website.

Jan 10 12 - 3:56pm

So full of shit. You sound like a total douche.

Jan 10 12 - 4:35pm

I thought I remembered Murnighan from the old Nerve as a good, thoughtful writer. But man, this article sucks. Did we really need platitudes like this?

"Sex with only one person is the hard way, but it’s the way that makes us grow and develop to be the fullest people we can be."

Nerve, kindly spare us from this sort of monogamist triumphalism.

I mean, did anyone tell Murnighan that sex can be, y'know, fun? That it's not all about power and seduction and ego, but also about sensation and difference and the unexpected? That novelty is powerfully erotic, and that people respond in incredibly different ways, so that it can be literally impossible to have the same kind of sex with Person A as with Person B -- but both of them are great, just different?

No, it can't be about that. It's about the fragile male ego -- or no, then it's the male unwillingness to make a commitment -- or anything else to obscure the fact that compulsory monogamy is a fucking drag (pun intended), and that most of us would rather not have to do it. It's great if you WANT to, but most of us aren't really given a choice: it's monogamy or nothing. And sorry, but having your spouse wear a funny hat is no substitute for sex with another person.

Jan 10 12 - 9:21pm

Wow the first 5 paragraphs were really dry and self-congratulatory. Is it worth reading the rest?

Jan 11 12 - 9:59pm

" So instead of letting a wandering eye turn into an elicit romp..."

An "elicit" romp!? I do hope the book's copy editors aren't finished.

Jan 12 12 - 8:13pm

As Freud says " the greatest tragedy of modern life is one sexual standard for everyone."

Jan 17 12 - 11:44am

Time to read Sex at Dawn, guys. While the desire for multiple partners may be inherent in both men and women, the way we deal with that desire is cultural. Consensual multiple sexual relationships are the most sane way I know to deal with the desire for multiple sexual partners in a satisfying and ethical way. Specifically I mean polyamory and/or swinging. The other ways desire for multiple sexual partners is dealt with in our society is serial monogamy or dating, rape, slavery, and patriarchal polygamy. Or we repress it and hope for the best with celibacy or monogamy. Like it or not, there are millions of us practicing polyamory and/or swinging, and we are getting along at least as well as monogamists.

Jan 18 12 - 11:29pm

Humans (men and women alike) cheat at all aspects of life. Any one aspect of human life can be looked at like a microcosm for the rest of it. We are naturally deceptive and self-serving. It simply is what it is. But this is not locked into being, there is always the option of choice. A human is free to make a choice and depending on their cultural mores and their "lot in life" these mores can change are are subjective. It is easy to paint things in black or white but the narrative is much more stratified than a singular one accepted path. What is more obvious than all of this is that boys rule and girls drool...Clearly.