Rooting out the source of infidelity, using Junot Díaz as a guide.
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?
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.
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?
Because, as anyone who has ever been cheated on should know, it’s often not about you at all. The unfaithful person has needs of his own to fulfill, and even if you’re capable of fulfilling them, he might be incapable of getting it from you. (Though, yes, if you’ve been denying your partner sex for a long time or if it’s gotten so routine that both parties are just going through the motions, then infidelity is a sad but not unusual result.)
For Yunior, however, it’s as if it’s a foregone conclusion that he’s going to cheat. At a certain point he says he’s a “sucio” (a dirty guy) and at another that he loves cheating as much as the Oscar of the title loves writing.
It’s sad, really, because if you’re in a relationship and yet find yourself wanting to act on the unfaithful messages your nether regions are sending, it’s time for some heavy-duty examination — of your relationship and of yourself.
Self should come first, asking the question of what’s really going on. Is the new person just attractive and you feel the twitch? If so, remember that your fantasy might well be better than the realization would be. Or has it been a long time since you’ve been with someone new? Okay, that might be tough, but why? Maybe it means the sex in your relationship has gone stagnant. (Is that your fault? Your partner’s? Is it laziness or are there deeper problems? All this should be explored.) If that’s the case, you’re perhaps just missing the physical pleasure, and you should try to resurrect your love life with your current partner first.
But maybe your sex life is fine with your partner, but you’re missing the seduction thrill. That means you’re still using seduction to bolster your ego, and clearly your sense of self isn’t as confident and secure as it needs to be. And here, too, you have to ask if you are not doing enough or if your partner is not doing what you need — or both. Feeling the need to seduce should be a wake-up call that you’re not getting the ego satisfaction that’s necessary from the other areas of your life. You should probably try to work on those before you go and cheat on the partner you love.
Or perhaps the relationship itself is the culprit: you’re not having sex because your partner doesn’t want to or you don’t want to, and you want to cheat because he or she’s not making you feel how you need to feel.
But realize this: infidelity is a symptom, not a solution. Ultimately the impulse to cheat might help you get out of a bad relationship, but first you need to see if the relationship is worth trying to hold on to. Striving for monogamy helps you get the most out of a partnership by facing the challenges head-on — the only way it works.
It’s clear that none of these questions is about the supposed object of the cheating desire; they’re about you and your relationship and how those things are doing. (And if you’re asking yourself if the new person would be “better for you” than the person you’re with, remember that you probably barely know her or him, are thinking wishfully, and eventually that individual will have their tics and foibles and annoyances just as your current partner does.)
For a lot of us, it’s daunting to think that we might have sex with only one person for the rest of our lives, but at the same time, maybe it just requires a rethinking of what sex means. The key to long-term sexual happiness is to have sex be less about seduction, ego, and the symbolic sense of power and more about pleasure, feeling, and expression of intimacy. With that model, the best sex is sex with someone you know and love, and it should get better and better. I understand that there are only so many ways of having sex and you might sometimes feel in a rut, but, truthfully, that’s just a challenge to expand your habits, leave your comfort zones, and grow as a person with your partner. Every challenge to having a fuller sex life with someone you love makes you a better person — more creative, expressive, and self-aware. 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.
Yunior wasn’t ready to go there and instead continued his tomcat ways until Lola finally dumped him for good and married someone else. It’s clear that he always loved her best but wasn’t able to do the hard work to fix himself. As he puts it: “I should have checked myself into Bootie-rehab. But if you thought I was going to do that, you don’t know Dominican men.”
The rest of us should learn from his example. Most impulses toward infidelity are ultimately either passing physical blips or signs that something else is wrong. If you go after the problems themselves, then the Band-Aid solution of cheating stops being worth it. So instead of letting a wandering eye turn into an elicit romp, fix the problem at its source. You’ll have the reward of that much richer a relationship, a self, or both.
Excerpted from Much Ado About Loving by Jack Murnighan and Maura Kelly. Copyright 2012 by Jack Murnighan and Maura Kelly. Excerpted by permission of Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.