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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?
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?