By Amy Alkon
Q: I’ve been happily married to the same wonderful guy for 20 years. However, the longer we’re together the harder it is to remain faithful—surely for both of us. Sex and skin are everywhere these days, and men are especially impacted by the barrage of provocative images. How does a woman realistically balance this with the desire to have a relationship that’s monogamous in body and mind?—Troubled
A: A man can love you to pieces and count his blessings every day that you two are together—and it won’t stop him from wanting to see your sister bend over.
Sure, it can sometimes happen that a man “only has eyes for you”—like if you and he are kidnapped and held hostage in a small, windowless room. Otherwise, because male sexuality is visually driven, his eyes are likely to scamper up any yummy mummy or big-booty Judy passing by. But there’s good news from neuroscience: Contrary to what most women believe, this—in and of itself—is not a sign of bad character (though a kind, considerate man will do what he can to appear fascinated by that big crow instead of those big cahuengas).
Though you can have a monogamous relationship, our minds are anything but monogamous and, in fact, pretty much have minds of their own. As neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga explains, about 98 percent of our brain’s activity happens beyond our conscious awareness—including some of the “reasoning” behind our choices and where our attention runs off to.
Key players in who and what we’re drawn to are our brain’s “reward circuitry” and the neurotransmitter dopamine, pushing us to pay attention to and go after stuff that will help us survive and pass on our genes. Dopamine is ever on the lookout for this stuff—including hotties, or, as neuroscientist Wolfram Schultz puts it, “reward-predicting visual stimuli.” In other words, dopamine-secreting neurons are the crass buddy in a man’s brain, going, “Woo-wee, wouldja look at the Pointer Sisters on that broad!”
Understanding the neuroscience behind attraction is helpful—revealing that attraction is a physiological reaction, like being tired or hungry. If your husband wants a sandwich, you don’t take that personally. And no, I’m not saying “gettin’ some” outside your marriage is the same as gettin’ some lunch (so, ladies, please put down those flaming pitchforks).
The problem is that it’s been seen as a shameful personal failing (instead of the biological predisposition it is) to merely feel an attraction to someone other than your spouse. This means that the “forsaking all others” business in the wedding vows is often the first and last time the subject gets discussed. However, the late infidelity researcher Peggy Vaughan explained that a couple are more likely to remain faithful if they admit that “attractions to others are likely (indeed inevitable) no matter how much they love each other.” This allows them to engage in “ongoing honest communication about … how to avoid the consequences of acting on those temptations.”
In other words, it’s by admitting that we have a problem that we can get cracking on how to solve it. So, no—sadly—monogamy isn’t “natural.” However, on a hopeful note, neither are $300 Nikes, zero-gravity toilets or messages that come by smartphone instead of by waving a loincloth over a fire.
Q: My boyfriend is very smart, but he curses. A lot. Even in front of my family. He says I shouldn’t try to curtail his free expression and mentioned some news report that said smarter people curse more. Am I being a tight-xxx? Or is he full of xxxx?—Upset
A: When you ask your boyfriend to talk dirty to you, you shouldn’t need to specify, “Except at my grandma’s wake.”
And no, there’s no evidence that smarter people curse more—though that’s what popped up in headlines across Clickbaitville. The actual finding—by swearing researchers Kristin and Timothy Jay—is that people who can rattle off a lot of words (those who have “verbal fluency”) can also rattle off a lot of swearwords. Quelle #&*@$ surprise.
I’m no priss about profanity. However, as I explain in (heh) Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck, “at the root of manners is empathy”—caring about the impact your behavior has on other people. Your parents are likely to see your boyfriend’s bratty insistence on talking however he effin’ pleases, no matter who’s in earshot, as a sign of disrespect. It suggests an aggressive, narcissistic lack of interest in others’ feelings—including yours. That’s not exactly a selling point in a partner, plus it could lead you to dread being around your family: “You havin’ a psychotic break, son, or you just anglin’ for more pie?”