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Illustration: Marion Fayolle


Infidelity Lurks in Your Genes


MAY 22, 2015

















Marion Fayolle


Infidelity Lurks in Your Genes        NYT        MAY 22, 2015















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Infidelity Lurks in Your Genes


MAY 22, 2015

The New York Times


Contributing Op-Ed Writer

Richard A. Friedman


AMERICANS disapprove of marital infidelity. Ninety-one percent of them find it morally wrong, more than the number that reject polygamy, human cloning or suicide, according to a 2013 Gallup poll.

Yet the number of Americans who actually cheat on their partners is rather substantial: Over the past two decades, the rate of infidelity has been pretty constant at around 21 percent for married men, and between 10 to 15 percent for married women, according to the General Social Survey at the University of Chicago’s independent research organization, NORC.

We are accustomed to thinking of sexual infidelity as a symptom of an unhappy relationship, a moral flaw or a sign of deteriorating social values. When I was trained as a psychiatrist we were told to look for various emotional and developmental factors — like a history of unstable relationships or a philandering parent — to explain infidelity.

But during my career, many of the questions we asked patients were found to be insufficient because for so much behavior, it turns out that genes, gene expression and hormones matter a lot.

Now that even appears to be the case for infidelity.

We have long known that men have a genetic, evolutionary impulse to cheat, because that increases the odds of having more of their offspring in the world.

But now there is intriguing new research showing that some women, too, are biologically inclined to wander, although not for clear evolutionary benefits. Women who carry certain variants of the vasopressin receptor gene are much more likely to engage in “extra pair bonding,” the scientific euphemism for sexual infidelity.

Brendan P. Zietsch, a psychologist at the University of Queensland, Australia, has tried to determine whether some people are just more inclined toward infidelity. In a study of nearly 7,400 Finnish twins and their siblings who had all been in a relationship for at least one year, Dr. Zietsch looked at the link between promiscuity and specific variants of vasopressin and oxytocin receptor genes. Vasopressin is a hormone that has powerful effects on social behaviors like trust, empathy and sexual bonding in humans and other animals. So it makes sense that mutations in the vasopressin receptor gene — which can alter its function — could affect human sexual behavior.

He found that 9.8 percent of men and 6.4 percent of women reported that they had two or more sexual partners in the previous year. His study, published last year in Evolution and Human Behavior, found a significant association between five different variants of the vasopressin gene and infidelity in women only and no relationship between the oxytocin genes and sexual behavior for either sex. That was impressive: Forty percent of the variation in promiscuous behavior in women could be attributed to genes. That is surprising since, as Dr. Zietsch points out, there are so many other factors that are necessary for promiscuous encounters, like circumstance and the availability of a willing and able partner. Although this is the largest and best study on this, it’s not clear why there was no relationship between the vasopressin gene and promiscuous behavior in men.

Other studies confirm that oxytocin and vasopressin are linked to partner bonding, which bears on the question of promiscuity since emotional bonding is, in a sense, the inverse of promiscuity. Hasse Walum at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm found that in women, but not in men, there is a significant association between one variant of the oxytocin receptor gene and marital discord and lack of affection for one’s partner. In contrast, there was a significant correlation in men between a specific variant of the vasopressin receptor gene and lower marital quality reported by their spouses.

Now, before you run out and get your prospective partner genotyped for his or her vasopressin and oxytocin receptor genes, two caveats: Correlation is not the same as causation; there are undoubtedly many unmeasured factors that contribute to infidelity. And rarely does a simple genetic variant determine behavior.

Still, there is a good reason to take these findings seriously: Data in animals confirm that these two hormones are significant players when it comes to sexual behavior. An intriguing clue came from the pioneering work of Dr. Thomas R. Insel, now the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, who studied the effects of vasopressin and oxytocin in a little rodent called the vole. It turns out that there are two closely related species of voles: montane voles, which are sexually promiscuous, and prairie voles, which are sexually monogamous and raise their extended families in burrows.

After sex, prairie voles quickly develop a selective and enduring preference for their mate, while mating for montane voles is more of a one-night stand.

What Dr. Insel described is that the strikingly different sexual behavior of these two species of voles reflects the action of vasopressin in their brains. The vasopressin receptors in the montane and prairie voles are in completely different brain regions so that when these receptors are stimulated by vasopressin, there are very different behavioral effects.

When vasopressin is injected directly into the brain of the monogamous male prairie vole, it triggers pair bonding; in contrast, blocking the vasopressin receptors inhibits monogamy, but does nothing to stop sexual activity. In other words, vasopressin promotes social bonding, and blocking the activity of this hormone encourages social promiscuity.

In the monogamous prairie voles, the vasopressin receptors are close to the brain’s reward center, but in the philandering montane voles, these same receptors are mostly found in the amygdala, a brain region that is critical to processing anxiety and fear.

So mating for the prairie voles activates the pleasurable reward pathway, which reinforces mating and promotes attachment and thus monogamy. For the promiscuous montane voles, sex has little effect on attachment; any vole will do.

It is even possible experimentally to take a home-wrecking montane vole and make him behave like a family-oriented prairie vole. Using a virus as a delivery vehicle to transmit the vasopressin receptor gene, it’s easy to artificially boost the number of vasopressin receptors in the brain’s reward center, and make a male vole behave monogamously. The story for female voles is similar except that it is oxytocin, not vasopressin, that triggers monogamous behavior.

We don’t yet know from human studies whether the vasopressin receptor genes that are linked with infidelity actually make the brain less responsive to these hormones, but given the animal data, it is plausible.


EXPERIMENTS in which oxytocin and vasopressin are directly administered to humans show these hormones have effects that go beyond sex; they appear to increase trust and social bonding. In one study, for example, healthy subjects were randomly given either intranasal oxytocin or a placebo and then played a trust game. In this game, the two subjects either act as an investor or a trustee. The investor first has the chance of choosing a costly trusting action by giving money to the trustee. Then the trustee can either honor the trust by returning a portion of the money or violate it by not sharing the money. Those who play under the influence of oxytocin continue to trust and make generous monetary offers in response to betrayal, while subjects getting a placebo become less trusting and stingier after getting burned. Oxytocin appears to make us more socially trusting — even in situations where it may not be in our best interest to do so.

In one study of men, giving vasopressin enhanced the subjects’ memory for both happy and angry faces compared with a placebo, which implies that vasopressin could boost social affiliation and aggressive behavior since it increased social and emotional learning.

These findings also suggest potential therapeutic uses for oxytocin and vasopressin for people who have either a deficit or an excess of trust and social bonding. Autism is an example of a deficit, and indeed there is preliminary evidence that oxytocin may have some beneficial prosocial effects in this disorder. In contrast, Williams syndrome is a rare genetic illness in which kids are pathologically trusting and indiscriminately befriend complete strangers. The disorder is associated with baseline oxytocin levels that are on average three times above normal, so a drug that blocks oxytocin may curb their excessive trust.

If you have an Orwellian bent, you’ve probably already imagined the mischief you might do with these two hormones. You could surreptitiously make a potential investor more trusting or encourage a monogamous impulse in a partner who you suspect is cheating. All you need is aerosolized oxytocin or vasopressin, perhaps in a spiked air freshener or perfume. Kidding, of course, but you get the idea.

Sexual monogamy is distinctly unusual in nature: Humans are among the 3 to 5 percent of mammalian species that practice monogamy, along with the swift fox and beaver — but even in these species, infidelity has been commonly observed.

The evolutionary benefit of promiscuity for men is pretty straightforward: The more sexual partners you have, the greater your potential reproductive success. But women’s reproductive capacity is more limited by biology. So what’s in it for women? There may be no clear evolutionary advantage to female infidelity, but sex has never just been about procreation. Cheating can be intensely pleasurable because, among other things, it involves novelty and a degree of sensation seeking, behaviors that activate the brain’s reward circuit. Sex, money and drugs, among other things, trigger the release of dopamine from this circuit, which conveys not just a sense of pleasure but tells your brain this is an important experience worth remembering and repeating. And, of course, humans vary widely in their taste for novelty.

In a 2010 study of 181 young, healthy adults, Justin R. Garcia, then at Binghamton University, found that subjects who carried a variant of one dopamine receptor subtype, the D4 receptor, were 50 percent more likely to report sexual infidelity. This D4 genetic variant has reduced binding for dopamine, which implies that these individuals walk around at baseline feeling less stimulated and hungrier for novelty than those lacking this genetic variant.

So do we get a moral pass if we happen to carry one of these “infidelity” genes? Hardly. We don’t choose our genes and can’t control them (yet), but we can usually decide what we do with the emotions and impulses they help create. But it is important to acknowledge that we live our lives on a very uneven genetic playing field. A friend of mine, who is a bisexual woman in her early 50s, recently told me about her long history of sexual exploits outside of her marriage. She hadn’t had sex with her partner for many years, although she wanted to — “she just wasn’t into it anymore,” she told me. One day, she ran into a man she had known years earlier and, not long after, struck up an affair with him. “He was really into me and the sex was so exciting that I just went with it and decided not to say anything to my partner.” Here were all the usual factors that we know set the stage for extramarital sex: marital discord, sexual dissatisfaction and emotional alienation in the primary relationship. My friend was well aware of them and this was how she explained the basis of her own infidelity.

But when she told me that she’d cheated early on in her relationship with her partner, at least once when things were going well, I realized that she probably had a propensity for sexual exploration that seemed in some ways independent of the emotional status of her relationships.

For some, there is little innate temptation to cheat; for others, sexual monogamy is an uphill battle against their own biology.

A professor of clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College and a contributing opinion writer.

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up for the Opinion Today newsletter.

A version of this op-ed appears in print on May 24, 2015, on page SR1 of the National edition with the headline: Infidelity Lurks in Your Genes.

Infidelity Lurks in Your Genes,
NYT, MAY 22, 2015,






Love, Sex

and the Changing Landscape

of Infidelity


October 28, 2008
The New York Times


If you cheated on your spouse, would you admit it to a researcher?

That question is one of the biggest challenges in the scientific study of marriage, and it helps explain why different studies produce different estimates of infidelity rates in the United States.

Surveys conducted in person are likely to underestimate the real rate of adultery, because people are reluctant to admit such behavior not just to their spouses but to anyone.

In a study published last summer in The Journal of Family Psychology, for example, researchers from the University of Colorado and Texas A&M surveyed 4,884 married women, using face-to-face interviews and anonymous computer questionnaires. In the interviews, only 1 percent of women said they had been unfaithful to their husbands in the past year; on the computer questionnaire, more than 6 percent did.

At the same time, experts say that surveys appearing in sources like women’s magazines may overstate the adultery rate, because they suffer from what pollsters call selection bias: the respondents select themselves and may be more likely to report infidelity.

But a handful of new studies suggest surprising changes in the marital landscape. Infidelity appears to be on the rise, particularly among older men and young couples. Notably, women appear to be closing the adultery gap: younger women appear to be cheating on their spouses nearly as often as men.

“If you just ask whether infidelity is going up, you don’t see really impressive changes,” said David C. Atkins, research associate professor at the University of Washington Center for the Study of Health and Risk Behaviors. “But if you magnify the picture and you start looking at specific gender and age cohorts, we do start to see some pretty significant changes.”

The most consistent data on infidelity come from the General Social Survey, sponsored by the National Science Foundation and based at the University of Chicago, which has used a national representative sample to track the opinions and social behaviors of Americans since 1972. The survey data show that in any given year, about 10 percent of married people — 12 percent of men and 7 percent of women — say they have had sex outside their marriage.

But detailed analysis of the data from 1991 to 2006, to be presented next month by Dr. Atkins at the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies conference in Orlando, show some surprising shifts. University of Washington researchers have found that the lifetime rate of infidelity for men over 60 increased to 28 percent in 2006, up from 20 percent in 1991. For women over 60, the increase is more striking: to 15 percent, up from 5 percent in 1991.

The researchers also see big changes in relatively new marriages. About 20 percent of men and 15 percent of women under 35 say they have ever been unfaithful, up from about 15 and 12 percent respectively.

Theories vary about why more people appear to be cheating. Among older people, a host of newer drugs and treatments are making it easier to be sexual, and in some cases unfaithful — Viagra and other remedies for erectile dysfunction, estrogen and testosterone supplements to maintain women’s sex drive and vaginal health, even advances like better hip replacements.

“They’ve got the physical health to express their sexuality into old age,” said Helen E. Fisher, research professor of anthropology at Rutgers and the author of several books on the biological and evolutionary basis of love and sex.

In younger couples, the increasing availability of pornography on the Internet, which has been shown to affect sexual attitudes and perceptions of “normal” behavior, may be playing a role in rising infidelity.

But it is the apparent change in women’s fidelity that has sparked the most interest among relationship researchers. It is not entirely clear if the historical gap between men and women is real or if women have just been more likely to lie about it.

“Is it that men are bragging about it and women are lying to everybody including themselves?” Dr. Fisher asked. “Men want to think women don’t cheat, and women want men to think they don’t cheat, and therefore the sexes have been playing a little psychological game with each other.”

Dr. Fisher notes that infidelity is common across cultures, and that in hunting and gathering societies, there is no evidence that women are any less adulterous than men. The fidelity gap may be explained more by cultural pressures than any real difference in sex drives between men and women. Men with multiple partners typically are viewed as virile, while women are considered promiscuous. And historically, women have been isolated on farms or at home with children, giving them fewer opportunities to be unfaithful.

But today, married women are more likely to spend late hours at the office and travel on business. And even for women who stay home, cellphones, e-mail and instant messaging appear to be allowing them to form more intimate relationships, marriage therapists say. Dr. Frank Pittman, an Atlanta psychiatrist who specializes in family crisis and couples therapy, says he has noticed more women talking about affairs centered on “electronic” contact.

“I see a changing landscape in which the emphasis is less on the sex than it is on the openness and intimacy and the revelation of secrets,” said Dr. Pittman, the author of “Private Lies: Infidelity and the Betrayal of Intimacy” (Norton, 1990). “Everybody talks by cellphone and the relationship evolves because you become increasingly distant from whomever you lie to, and you become increasingly close to whomever you tell the truth to.”

While infidelity rates do appear to be rising, a vast majority of people still say adultery is wrong, and most men and women do not appear to be unfaithful. Another problem with the data is that it fails to discern when respondents cheat: in a troubled time in the marriage, or at the end of a failing relationship.

“It’s certainly plausible that women might have increased their relative rate of infidelity over time,” said Edward O. Laumann, professor of sociology at the University of Chicago. “But it isn’t going to be a huge number. The real thing to talk about is where are they in terms of their relationship and the marital bond.”

The General Social Survey data also show some encouraging trends, said John P. Robinson, professor of sociology and director of the Americans’ Use of Time project at the University of Maryland. One notable shift is that couples appear to be spending slightly more time together. And married men and women also appear to have the most active sex lives, reporting sex with their spouse 58 times a year, a little more than once a week.

“We’ve looked at that as good news,” Dr. Robinson said.

Love, Sex and the Changing Landscape of Infidelity,
NYT, 28.10.2008,












Grant Shaffer


After the End of the Affair        NYT        21 March 2008















Op-Ed Contributor

After the End of the Affair


March 21, 2008
The New York Times



AS Eliot Spitzer and his wife, Silda, rattle around their Fifth Avenue apartment, it’s a pretty safe guess that their life as a couple is hell.

They may want to get some marital advice from Mr. Spitzer’s replacement as New York governor, David A. Paterson, who said Tuesday that his own extramarital affairs ended several years ago and that his marriage was back on track. But the Spitzers are less than two weeks past D-Day. In the parlance of American couples recovering from adultery, “D-Day” is the day you discover your spouse has been cheating on you. And as with the birth of Jesus, time is reset from there.

The reason why everything from the puffiness of Mrs. Spitzer’s eyes to the number of inches between her and her husband at press conferences have been scrutinized is that we treat D-Days like natural disasters. The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy has warned, “The reactions of the betrayed spouse resemble the post-traumatic stress symptoms of the victims of traumatic events.”

No comparison seems big enough. “9/11 always reminds me of how it felt — one floor collapsing into another,” said a woman in her 40s who lives near Seattle. Another woman, writing in an Internet chat room, compared her husband’s affair to the Asian tsunami of 2004, which killed a quarter of a million people. The jargon of people recovering from adultery sounds like wartime code: X.O.W. is the “ex-other woman,” O.N.S. is a “one-night stand,” and N.P.D. is the often diagnosed “narcissistic personality disorder.” A “cake man” is a husband who wants to have his wife and his mistress, too.

Married people the world over are devastated to discover that their partners have been, as the Dutch say, pinching the cat in the dark. French wives were shocked when I suggested that it was their custom to look the other way. (Even French first ladies don’t do this anymore.) Wives from sub-Saharan Africa, a part of the world with the highest levels of male infidelity, told me how they went running down the street after their husbands, begging them to sleep at home.

But American D-Days are even worse because we have such improbably high standards for marriage. If your spouse cheats, you’ve been living a lie. Americans describing their D-Day experiences say that they weren’t just shocked, jealous and profoundly upset, but that their whole view of the world had collapsed. “It robs you of your past,” one husband said. “What is real? What is fake?”

We Americans are particularly preoccupied with honesty. We’re the only country that peddles the idea that “It’s not the sex, it’s the lying.” (In France, it’s not the lying, it’s the sex.) America is also the only place I found that has a one-strike rule on fidelity: if someone cheats, the marriage is kaput.

We might not strictly hold ourselves to this script, but we expect our politicians to follow it. That’s why people doubted that Bill and Hillary Clinton could have a “real” marriage if she stayed with him after the Lewinsky affair. It’s why a reporter felt free to shout, “Silda, are you leaving him?” at the Spitzers last week. And it’s why David Paterson took pains to say that he and his wife were still very much in love and that he’s now faithful, despite the fact that he had had “a number of women” (and his wife had cheated, too).

Political spouses have some of the worst D-Days, because they have them in public. Dina Matos McGreevey, the estranged wife of New Jersey’s former governor, says she found out her husband was gay just hours before he told the world. Mrs. Spitzer discovered her husband’s apparent penchant for call girls only the night before he announced his “private matter” to the press.

Mr. Paterson said he and his wife had gone into counseling, another stalwart of America’s adultery culture. Our marriage-industrial complex offers tens of thousands of couples therapists, as well as support groups for wounded spouses and sexual addicts, “accountability partners” for straying church members, and countless seminars and healing weekends, many led by “reformed” cheaters and their spouses.

Because lying is the problem, truth-telling has become our national cure. On the frenetically active SurvivingInfidelity.com, “Erica” says she spent 20 months interrogating her husband about his affair, and then “with the aid of my master calendar and 1000+ emails, the photo albums, Visa receipts and his old expense reports, he and I set out to put all of those two and a half years of infidelity on a timeline.”

Not surprisingly, all this makes recovery a long and often unhealthy process. A woman in Tennessee told me that she had gained 60 pounds since her husband found out she had been sleeping with a co-worker, in part because the couple now spends most of their free time on the couch rehashing the affair. “Neither of us cries as much as we used to, because of the antidepressants,” her husband said.

The fact is that many couples, like this one, end up staying together. The Patersons did. The Spitzers might, too, if we give them a chance. Whatever Eliot Spitzer’s and David Paterson’s sins, just surviving infidelity in America may be punishment enough.

Pamela Druckerman is the author of

“Lust in Translation: Infidelity From Tokyo to Tennessee.”

After the End of the Affair,
NYT, 21.3.2008,











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