Laurence Léveillé | Staff Writer
Julia Heiman thinks affairs are driven by the stories people tell themselves to justify their actions. Paul McHugh thinks people are confused about sex.
Heiman and McHugh individually spoke about their views on extramarital affairs before having a conversation with each other during Tuesday’s morning lecture in the Amphitheater for Week Seven, themed “The Ethics of Cheating.”
One biological theory behind extramarital affairs is that men have a greater sexual desire and have selective advantage for having many offspring, whereas women are more invested in children. But Heiman, director of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction at Indiana University, argued against that.
Humans are naturally attracted to one another sexually, but the issue is figuring out what to do about it. Heiman’s colleagues at the Kinsey Institute developed a theory that sex is a combination of inhibition and excitation, which has to do with how people deal with personal matters and behavior.
That is why Heiman said she believes there is no uncontrollable biological drive that causes people to have affairs.
“I think it’s the story about sex,” she said. “It’s the story that people tell themselves about their desire and about their arousal.”
Many people do not intend to have affairs, Heiman said. Instead, they move forward in their lives and develop relationships in which they begin to feel for and see their significant others in a certain way.
“They get busy, they get mad, they get distracted, they get ill,” Heiman said. “They stop editing their story. An opportunity comes along, and it ‘just happens.’”
The emotional exchange that happens between the two people reinforces the stories they have written for themselves. People will tell themselves they must act on their desire, that it is their last chance, or that their relationship is unhappy anyway. That story is not revised until the affair is revealed or ends.
Heiman also touched on the problems behind affairs. If two people agree to be in a non-monogamous relationship, there is a smaller problem. But there is no risk-free way to become involved in an affair, she said.
In a sense, a relationship is a contract between two people who have made an agreement about what their relations entail. Having an affair is a betrayal of that contract, which is what ultimately causes the anger and hurt that follow, Heiman said.
Once one affair has happened, it can permanently change a relationship, because “some sort of essential commitment of trust and honesty has been changed,” Heiman said.
The general dishonesty and fraud in today’s culture have also affected relationships, she said.
When surveyed about the importance of trust and honesty in their lives, 99 percent of men and women said the two were important.
Heiman approached the lecture from a social science research perspective. Contrary to popular belief, she said, extramarital and extra-relationship affairs are uncommon in the United States.
About 15 percent of women and 25 percent of men have committed acts of infidelity, she said. According to a 2012 Gallup poll in which people were asked about issues they found morally wrong, 89 percent of people felt affairs were immoral, Heiman said.
McHugh, University Distinguished Service Professor of psychiatry at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, had different perspectives on extramarital affairs.
He said psychiatrists consider marriage to be one of the three main aspects in life — birth, marriage and death.
There is a biological influence on each of those factors. But it is individuals’ attitudes about marriage that explain why and how infidelity occurs, McHugh said.
When people have weddings, their guests do not think of it as entering a sexual union. Rather, they celebrate the creation of a new home.
“It identifies the dawn of a new home with all the connotations, implications, expectations, obligations, promises and pieties tied to that tender human concept: home,” McHugh said.
McHugh’s main question during his talk was: How can anyone imagine sexual infidelity as morally conceivable?
Despite all the information about sex that surrounds society, people are still confused about sex, because it does not make sense for people to coherently make decisions about both marriage and sexual life, he said.
People are told sex is the equivalent to sleep, food and drink — like those appetites, sex can be better and more enjoyable “if we just take time to learn its recipes and appreciate the variety in spice.”
McHugh referenced Sigmund Freud’s analogy to food intake. Freud compared hunger and satisfaction of a meal to sex. People have been taught that sex is a drive that must be satisfied and enjoyed like a banquet, McHugh said.
But that is not a theme reflected in marriage vows, and that is where the food intake analogy does not fit. A couple strives to voice a “comprehensive, uniting, binding feature to their devotions,” he said.
“One spouse is not a Big Mac replaceable with another,” McHugh said. “In deciding to marry, each spouse is saying to the other, ‘You’re a unique and treasured part of my world, with whom not only do I want to live in an intimate union till our deaths, but with whom I can build a life and home.’”
Psychiatrists’ views on human sexuality and marriage come from two questions: “What is sex for?” and “What does marriage mean?”
“What is sex for?” McHugh said. “The psychological answer: Sex is nature’s way of turning a stranger into a relative.”
Sex transforms sexual behavior between two people by creating expectations and complex feelings, McHugh said.
From a psychiatrist’s perspective, marriage is a public announcement of former strangers starting a home together. Along with that comes the expectation that “they and the rest of us will sustain, support and honor their intentions with all the matters of self-control and duty that they imply,” he said.
It should not be surprising that the commandment against adultery is listed side-by-side with murder, thievery and dishonesty, McHugh said.
“They all represent potential human behavioral choices, but ones that cheat others of their human rights and suitable expectations,” he said.
Human beings can recognize their desires, but they also face a critical relation to their impulses and desires.
“By this critical relation,” McHugh said, “I mean that in consciousness, we are assessing, selecting and rejecting from amongst the impulses and desires in deciding on those we would wish to prevail.”
During their conversation, McHugh and Heiman briefly discussed the value of sex being private, because, Heiman said, people are more open with their sex lives on the Internet.
McHugh referenced a portion of Heiman’s talk about people being more comfortable answering a computer than an interviewer about having had an affair in the past year.
“There’s something about even having a wonderful, kind and nonjudgmental interviewer,” Heiman said. “I think that’s important and researchers are paying a lot of attention to it.”
McHugh also mentioned sex education. He said that due to health issues, it is justified, but he does not think it focuses enough on virtues of sympathy, fairness, self-control and duty.
“I want some education,” he said, “that is something more than the technical in an area where, ultimately, they either learn it on their own or they learn it from others that somebody else’s life is involved in these actions and decisions, and you should think about it.”
Editor’s note: This Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: I want to reflect on the fact that each of you mentioned that there are other ways of cheating in relationships and would love to hear your thoughts on what are those most dangerous to the relationship activities that might not or might involve sex.
Julia Heiman: This is very strange to say, but I think how people handle their financial arrangements can be an issue. And when I was looking at the legal side of things — obviously I didn’t do that in depth — there’s a rather good writer who published a paper at a Harvard meeting who looked at the whole contractual arrangement of relationships, and marriage and sex. And suggested that for people who had great concerns, this was very intelligent — it’s not going to sound like it when I say it — suggested that they might put it in their pre-nup as part of their contract around, “If there is digression, there will be consequences, and here they are.” The reason I thought of that was having to do with money. Very much like some people make those arrangements in their pre-nup that “If the relationship splits up, there will be these consequences.” So I really am not so keen on getting the legal profession more involved in personal arrangements. I know there’s a lot of lawyers in the audience — this is not a slam, it’s just wanting to draw some boundaries around things. I would prefer people find other ways to work it out. But I would say money— it can be huge and can be destructive if secrets are kept and things fall apart without informing the other.
Paul McHugh: I certainly, absolutely agree with Julie on that, that money is often the place where not only is there misunderstanding, but also there are forms of cheating. People do spend more or do different things with what they assume is a joint account. And that causes distress. And of course, some other kinds of behaviors can get in there and really cause damage, like gambling in particular, which is not an uncommon source of fundamentally cheating the understanding you have of each other.
Q: We had a week last week called “Digital Identity,” and we learned a new way of cheating, and that is in Second Life with avatars. The idea is that people assume a different personality online and have sex online with other people who are assuming a different identity. And this person questions whether or not more and more women are divorcing their husbands due to neglect and cheating with avatars. It’s apparently been reported in The New York Times. And when more men are dreaming, and masturbating and having relationships with online avatars — Have either of you focused on that in your practice?
JH: No, but I have thought about it, because I actually was going to try to do something about that for the talk. So my question is — first of all, there’s not good data on this. There’s interesting little studies that people have picked up; there’s not good data. First of all, people do all sorts of things with their avatars, right? Not just that. But they become wizards, they become doctors when they’re not. They have fantasy elements to who they are that they play with. And there’s a wonderful author at Indiana University in this area of Second Life and these virtual environments who gave a talk recently. And he said, “I love being a wizard, and I love curing and making magic happen.” So I’m just taking you to that world for a second. It’s not the place where I live, or else I couldn’t get any work done. So they have avatars, and they express different parts of themselves, if you will. They may even be a different gender — trying that out. That does not mean that they then want to enact that — very much like other fantasies — in their real life. But there’s a really serious question here that I wish I knew more about, which is if you fragment off aspects of yourself and give it life and give it reality, does that take away from your core real-life relationships? Or does it add to it? Does it enhance it? By the way, do you talk about your avatar? Maybe, maybe not. Do you have to, in order to enrich your relationship? I think we don’t know, and it’s an important area to investigate. Not just because of that, but because of human imagination and how people live their lives. You have to do a lot of very boring things in your life. Does this bring in something new, and creative and good? Or is it a distraction and potentially destructive? And my guess is it’ll be six of one and six of another, or something like that. I don’t know, it’s worth exploring, because it’s very interesting, and a lot of people are doing it, particularly younger people.
PM: I have to say that as far as the avatar world is concerned, I have to turn to my grandson, who knows more about matters of this sort than I do where the Internet and the computers are concerned. I do know about the destructive aspect of Internet pornography, on the other hand. And it plays upon fantasies and it depends, mostly, upon the degradation of women and ultimately the destruction of intimate life.
Q: We are reflecting a lot about what’s happened previously in the summer, and this question gets into gender roles. In a soliloquy of The Philadelphia Story, the father tells the daughter that for men, cheating is hardly ever about their wives, rather than a reproving of youth and virility. Can you talk about how different genders justify their script affairs?
PM: What I know about people taken up in affairs, something that I want to emphasize — often in families shaken by them, as The Philadelphia Story might be suggesting — I want to make a distinction between the kind of things that could enchant one for a while and those kinds of things to which you’ve devoted your love. The enchantments may be different for men and for women. The men have more visual pleasures, apparently, or enchantments. And if I’m correct with this new bestseller on the e-books, women are reading, because they see the romantic side of this. Things may be different, but in both cases, the issue is to be understood as an enchantment that might lead to something even better, but often leads to disappointment and abandonment. The difference between enchantments and love are useful in a psychotherapeutic relationship, but it might be useful even in a shaken marriage.
Q: We actually have some questions about Fifty Shades of Grey. What the success of this book — the soft porn suggests that women, are they still very repressed? Is there something new to learn about the popularity of that book?
JH: I think there is, but I’m not exactly sure what it is. I think it’s partly the title. And then what’s really inside. I think it’s not often you have women writing this way, although there’s a couple of very classic books that have been written this way. A couple of people I’ve talked to — but this is more casual, this is women, professional women — feel like it’s just pornography, what’s the big deal? Other people feel it’s not really pornography, it’s soft pornography. Most people don’t find it all that interesting. Why does it keep selling? And who is buying this book? I’m not saying that if you bought it, there’s something weird about you — I’m sorry I haven’t read it, I’ve had a few other things to do, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t read it. I probably should, and now I feel bad that I haven’t. But I don’t think this is a phenomenon except that it’s a marketing phenomenon, I’m sorry, in part. But something caught on. What caught on here? Do you have an idea about it?
PM: I have no idea. I just hear about this book. I, like you, haven’t read it.
Q: What about the role of pornography in a marriage? Is it infidelity?
JH: Our mission is research. Our mission is not politics. We do not have a political agenda. We stay away from any agendas, as much as we can, unless we get attacked. And then we have art collection: Chagall, and some Rembrandts and other kinds of folk art. Seeing a genital exposed like Chagall does not shock most people. It’s not an erect genital. It’s a beautiful, little genital on a form. And some people find that pornographic. And definitely, it was pornographic. And definitely, it was pornographic at one time. I think, first of all, what is it? If it’s what is on the Web, with two people or more, engaged in a variety of very repetitive activities that’s very focused on a certain part of the body, which has no basic story, except for something kind of flimsy. And then, it’s just that over and over, with different shapes and sizes. And then, by the way, what really is true, as you mentioned Paul, the degradation of women as an image, seems to be very popular in one or the other. It’s really horrendous, if you actually look at this. Who comes back and keeps looking at that? Is that in some way an affair? I don’t think it’s an affair, but if somebody keeps doing it, and wants to do that, rather than engage in sex or can only do that when they engage in sex, there probably is an issue that needs discussing. Because that’s not really sex, what those figures do. Now, on the other hand, you can see a lot of home movies, perhaps of your neighbors having sex, because people are putting up their own stuff on YouTube. This seems to me in a way interesting, but is it really important? And I don’t know the answer to that.
Q: Your definition of sexual relationships in marriage speaks volumes in favor of gay marriage. Can you comment as a psychiatrist on marriage equality? Do you have a (homosexual) patient in a loving monogamous relationship, and how would you advise them?
PM: First of all, come back to the psychiatrist: What is sex for? It turns a stranger into a relative. That applies to gay sex, as well as heterosexual sex. So it’s going to happen in the same kind of fashion, in some way or the other. As far as the social issues of monogamy and marriage and the term “marriage” and “gay marriage,” I’m of the opinion that the gay world is still working out these things for themselves — what exactly they’re thinking about, what they understand by the term that they want to employ as marriage. Marriage, after all, is a very traditional word with a very traditional set of meanings, including the term adultery, which I’ve never heard used in a gay relationship before. So, I’m of the opinion that they’re still working their way out. And what they come to, I’ll be interested in, once they’ve done it. But they’re not finished by a long shot. But then you asked the question, if I have a gay person who comes to see me — they don’t usually come to see me, because they’ve got a monogamous relationship. They come to see me because something else is going on in their lives. And they usually say to me, “Look, I have this other problem. I’m depressed. I’m discouraged. Then, there’s this thing of mine, and I don’t want you to touch it.”
JH: I’m going to say a slightly different answer than that. One of the studies we have done — we are not focused on extramarital sex, you can’t get funding — we’ve done one study that looked at couples in long-term relationships. Now, this was heterosexual couples and just long-term relationships. And this was a study of five countries, with 1,000 couples. It was not a random probability sample. These couples had been married or in a relationship for 26 years. By the way, when we sent the paper in for review, the reviewer said, “Who’s been married 26 years?” What predicted relationship satisfaction for men — it became known as the cuddling study, because the frequency of cuddling and kissing often became predictive of relationship satisfaction and sexual satisfaction for men. And actually, it was less important for men, but their partner’s sexuality and their own sexuality was important. And the duration of the marriage was a positive influence for them. What I would say is long-term monogamous relationships can be extremely fulfilling for people and in important ways. And they stay in them not just out of having to, but because they want to. And this was Japan, Brazil, U.S., Germany and Spain.
Q: Does the younger generation of your peers, say 20 to 30 years old, share your opinions, or are they more liberally analyzing the data, socially or morally?
JH: What I notice among the younger researchers is they put much more emphasis and value on these new styles of engaging — hookups, friends with benefits. And I feel that it’s pretty common. I’m resisting this. So, I’m waiting for them to get more data. I don’t know what all their opinions are. Usually, different generations have different opinions, and that’s a good thing. And I don’t need people to agree with me. I still think they need to come to the table with clear data that a large percentage of people, including young people, are hooking up, just sex, and then maybe later we’ll consider dating. Nobody’s dating — that’s the other thing. A little more data on this would be really good for a long period of time. Or is this just a flash in the pan kind of testing, like what our generation did with “casual sex?” I would say that they have a different opinion.
PM: I approach this in a similar way. Dr. Heiman looking for data, and me looking for experience. Whenever I hear this thing that the young people look at these things differently, and once they grow up, they will change the world because of their attitude. In this realm, I fall back on the Churchill quote, “If you’re not a liberal in your 20s, you’ve got no heart. If you’re not a conservative in your 40s, you’ve got no brain.” And maybe that’s going to apply here in sexual life too. Not only do you mature in your nervous system, but also you may mature in your judgments.