Q: About six weeks ago, I started dating the nicest guy. I have some intimacy issues, and having somebody be nice to me is new and uncomfortable. I freaked out one night and had sex with somebody else. I know this guy I’m dating isn’t sleeping with other women, but we haven’t had the official talk. I don’t plan on doing this again, but I really want to confess. The guilt is terrible.—Disgusted With Myself
A: The only man with whom you should be discussing your recent sexual history is Dr. Maury Finkelbaum, your 7,000-year-old gynecologist.
You and Neighbordude have no agreement for sexual exclusivity, and you can’t violate a treaty that doesn’t exist. Still, assuming he isn’t getting it on with anyone else, it’s natural you’d feel guilty about an asymmetry in sexual grazing.
Human psychology evolved to have an inner-accounting staff monitoring the fairness level of our behavior—calculating whether we’re giving as much as we’re getting. However, evolution doesn’t care whether we’re nice people. It just wants us to survive so we can pass on our genes. Accordingly, this fairness-monitoring system safeguards our physical survival through safeguarding our social survival.
Even today, when we perceive we’re getting more than our fair share of something, our behavioral accounts-payable team pings us in the form of feelbad: the noxious, gut-churning feeling of guilt.
Research by evolutionary psychologist Daniel Sznycer and his colleagues deems guilt a “recalibrational emotion.” Translated from the Professorese, this means that our wanting to stop the feelbad from guilt motivates us to even the balance between ourselves and somebody we’ve shorted in some way.
The thing is, emotion, which rises up automatically with no effort from us, needs to be fact-checked by reason. Unfortunately, reason has to be dragged out of bed and forced to work. And that’s what you need to do with yours. Again, remember you and this guy had no exclusivity agreement that would have barred you from venturing into other men’s beds, back seats or sex dungeons.
Also, let’s get real on why you’re longing to tell. It isn’t to make the guy feel better but to make yourself feel better—to rid yourself of the psychological tension that comes from holding back information.
Next, consider the view from psychiatrist and evolutionary researcher Randolph Nesse that painful emotions are important motivational tools. Just as searing pain gets you to lift your hand pronto, you can use your guilt-induced discomfort in a positive way: as reinforcement against your stepping out on the guy once you two do have a relationship.
Other helpful insight comes from research on “attachment.” The “attachment behavioral system,” explain social scientists Mario Mikulencer and Philip Shaver, motivates human beings, from infancy on, “to seek proximity to significant others (attachment figures) in times of need.” A person’s “attachment style” indicates the degree to which a person “worries that a partner will not be responsive in times of need” (including the worry that one’s partner will flee the relationship entirely).
However, Mikulencer and Shaver note that “a growing body of research shows that attachment style can change, subtly or dramatically.” One way to change it is through asking your partner to be physically and emotionally expressive with you in loving, cuddly ways. Research by psychologist Brooke C. Feeney finds that the more an insecurely attached person sees their partner is there for them, the more independent they can be.
Finally, there’s something you can do to help yourself feel more secure, per Mikulencer and Shaver’s research: Turn on the TV in your head and run helpful programming—a mental video of warm, fuzzy “attachment figures.” The researchers explain that “thoughts of an available and supportive attachment figure” lead people with a lot of attachment insecurities “to behave more like secure people.” Or, putting this another way, your response to a man being really loving to you would be to give love in return—as opposed to giving excuses like “I was so freaked out by how nice you were to me that I tripped and fell on somebody else’s penis.”