Can my marriage beat the odds? For many spouses, that’s an anxiety-provoking question. And we often look to the media for answers. The popular press has an annoying habit of seizing on recent couples therapy research and spinning it to create sensationalistic headlines. Here are a few fascinating nuggets from recent research on infidelity from around the world that have been a bit overspun, in my opinion.
That’s the wrong question. We know that infidelity runs in families. We are still trying to learn why. There’s been a lot of press about an increasing indication of genetic markers possibly indicating a tendency for infidelity. I’ve been asked about these findings several times by clients doing affair recovery intensives.
They’re talking about a widely publicized study conducted at the prestigious University of Queensland in Australia claims that a particular vasopressin and oxytocin receptor gene was found in unfaithful spouses.
Another study in Finland also suggests such a genetic correlation (read NOT causation). Vasopressin and oxytocin are both neurochemicals which influence important social behaviors relating to empathy, trust, and intimate bonding. More research is clearly needed here, but the early research alleges that as much as 40% of unfaithful wives and over 60% of straying husbands have these particular genetic markers.
Research like this is alarming to the general public. They don’t understand that it’s not deterministic. Another concern I have with this research is that Finland and Australia, are not known for their genetic diversity. Australia began as a penal colony, and, like Finland, has some particular genetic peculiarities unto itself.
Sensational journalism will seize on little research nuggets like this, but they won’t bother to explain the complexities of the diathesis-stress model. This model tries to explain how biology and environment tend to work together on people’s minds. The bottom line is simple. Genetic variants hardly ever determine behavior in humans. But that makes for far less interesting copy.
According to the diathesis-stress model, people are born with a certain biological or genetic predisposition to a particular behavior. So, with this in mind, if you’re raised in a permissive environment (i.e. chronic infidelities modeled by one or both parents) this gene might be more readily manifested than if, say, you were raised as a devout Muslim in Mumbai, or grew up in a religious Amish community in Pennsylvania. Nature and nurture are intertwined. Where infidelity is concerned, most Involved Partners are not bad to the bone.
I write a lot about emotional affairs on this blog because it is a growing problem. A study by the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy claims that as many as 45% of husbands and 35% of wives fess up to, at one point or another in their marriage, being emotionally enthralled by an extra-marital relationship.
Over 70% of these relationships are occurring in the workplace. Emotional affairs are twice as prevalent as sexual affairs. Spouses often pick up on tell-tale clues, such as a defensive posture (“we’re just friends”), to a “throw in the towel” stance during fights (“maybe we should just get divorced”).
Emotional affairs have a cognitive, biochemical, and, of course, emotional aspect. In many cases, people in emotional affairs not only fall in love with their emotional affair partner, they also fall in love with the imagined “better self” that they feel they are becoming in the outside relationship.
What’s often not mentioned by the media, however, is that science-based couples therapy can really help couples heal in the throes of an emotional affair. Thanks to the pioneering work of Dr. Shirley Glass and others, we have a better understanding of the social mechanisms which promote these inappropriate, and often unexpected intimacies in the first place.
We handle calls on a regular basis from religious couples who want science-based couples therapy, but with respect for their faith as well as for science. They tell us that they want a couples therapist who can appreciate their faith on a personal level. Fair enough.
Research on the religious must be read with caution. The press has reported on a study which appeared in The Journal of Sex Research last year that asked study subjects to speculate on the reasons why a spouse would not betray their partner and stray outside the marriage.
This was an interesting study of 400 participants between the ages of 24 and 60. All have been married for at least a year and had at least one child.
The study showed that morality, impact on children, fear of being alone, and impact on others, were the 4 most common reasons cited. The more religious study subjects rated morality as the top reason, while secular participants were more likely to cite the fear of being alone.
I am intrigued by the questions that the study is trying to tease out, but I’m concerned about that the results perhaps being a bit too culture-bound. But this was a study conducted in Israel, which is a unique society in so many ways. Perhaps more cross-cultural research would be helpful. I will be sharing research on the issues of religion and marriage in future posts.
So if you’re asking, can my marriage beat the odds? Take what you read in the media with a grain of salt.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.
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