By Amy Alkon
Q: I got in an argument with my boyfriend about the reason not to have sex outside our relationship. He said he wouldn’t do it because he wouldn’t want to hurt me. I said he shouldn’t want to be with anybody else, but he said that’s just not realistic for guys. Are men really just these unfeeling sex machines?—Dismayed
A: Male sexuality is about as sentimental as an oar.
In fact, if there’s one secret that guys try to keep from women, it’s this: A man can really love a woman and still want to spend the afternoon wrecking the bed with her BFF, her well-preserved mom and her sister.
As awful as that probably sounds, men’s evolved lust for sexual variety isn’t something you and other women should take personally. Evolutionary psychologists David Buss and David Schmitt explain that genetically speaking, it’s generally in a man’s interest to pursue a “short-term sexual strategy”—pounce and bounce, coitus and, um, avoid us—with as many women as possible.
Buss and Schmitt explain that there are times when it’s to a man’s advantage to pursue a “long-term sexual strategy”—commitment to one woman. It’s a quality-over-quantity strategy—wanting a woman with “high mate value” (one who’s physically and psychologically desirable enough to hold out for a guy who’ll commit). Other factors include seeking the emotional, social and cooperative benefits of a partnership and wanting to retire from the time-, energy- and resource-suck of working the ladies on Match.com like a second job.
In light of this, think about what your boyfriend’s really telling you by opting for, “Honey, where do I sign away my sexual freedom?” This isn’t dismaying, degrading, or any of the other bummer D-words. In fact, it’s really romantic.
Q: My boyfriend of five years has gotten super moody. He picks fights with me and even gets a little verbally abusive and condescending. I know he’s a good guy, and I want to help him sort through his stuff, but I’m finding myself flirting with other guys and fantasizing about cheating on him. I am not the kind of person who cheats, and I feel terribly guilty even having those thoughts.—Demeaned
A: Ideally, “I’ve never felt this way before!” reflects something a little more romantic than longing to tunnel out of your relationship with a sharpened spoon.
I wrote recently about a cocktail of personality traits that are associated with a susceptibility to infidelity in a person—basically those of a narcissistic, lazy con artist with all the empathy of a bent tack. That finding is from research by evolutionary psychologists Todd Shackelford and David Buss, who also studied the emotional circumstances in a relationship that might lead one of the partners to cheat or to want to.
They found that there are two personality characteristics someone can have that make a relationship particularly miserable. One is emotional instability—marked by mood swings and a gloomy obsessiveness about things beyond one’s control. As Buss explains in The Dangerous Passion, when emotional instability is paired with quarrelsomeness (and all of the ugly condescension, sniping and emotional neglect that goes with it), relationships become “cauldrons of conflict.” This, in turn, raises the odds that one’s partner will seek solace in the, um, back seat of another.
Part of being in a relationship is taking out the trash when it starts to overflow—including the psychological trash spilling out of the dumpster that has become “you.” Talk compassionately with your boyfriend about the need for him to start figuring out and fixing whatever’s causing him to act out in toxic ways.
Don’t expect change at “Poof!” speed, but look for signs that he’s taking meaningful steps to dig out of his emotional winter. Give yourself some time markers—maybe the two-week mark, a month from now and the three-month mark. This should keep you from just blindly continuing along with a partner whose interests could be advertised as: Enjoys dive bars, French cinema and long screaming arguments on the beach.