By Dr. Jeremy E. Sherman
You’re in love now, and doing great–so great that you consider committing forever. But forever is a long time, and you know feelings can change. You’d love to commit, but not if your partner is going to rip your heart out and stomp on it, adultery-style.
Blind faith in your partner’s pledged faithfulness sounds virtuous, but is impractical. Instead you find yourself trying to step out of today’s romantic haze to calculate the odds: “Twenty years out, am I in for a heart-stomping?”
What factors go into a calculation like that?
Factors too numerous to mention. Of course gender, since men and women have different cheating styles; attractiveness, since the hot are more likely to be invited to cheat; power, since power is an aphrodisiac; extroversion, since those who mingle more widely may tingle more widely. And there’s your partner’s to-do list, since idle hands are the devil’s plaything.
And that doesn’t begin to factor how things might change. How will your comparative looks fade over time? Whose libido will fade faster? Will one of you get clingy and the other restless? Will your partner stay true if you fall ill? Will your partner accept what the ravages of time do to us all eventually, or bolt in search of the fling that reaffirms? How much does your partner declare absolute commitment to integrity and moral principle? And how much can you trust those declarations to be more than lip service?
So many factors, the odds are practically incalculable.
Still, there’s one factor to monitor, that’s often overlooked until it’s too late. People sometimes misdiagnose it as narcissism. It deserves more detailed understanding and appreciation than that.
Partnership is a negotiation over freedom and safety, two qualities of utmost value, all the more so when tethering to each other as tightly as marrying. Ideally, partnership yields ample quantities of both qualities, partners feeling free to be themselves, unshackled, un-oppressed, and partners also feeling safe, well held, secure, not anxious about heart stompings of any sort, including the adulterous kind.
The sad truth about humans is that, though we’re nice when we feel safe, in a pinch, feeling unsafe or threatened, we tend to release our meanest dogs.
For many of us, the story of our love lives starts with a romantic quest for someone who doesn’t release those mean dogs when threatened. And never finding an exception to that human tendency, we settle into the reality that there will be those dogs from time to time. If we’re self-aware, we discover that even we aren’t exceptions to the human tendency, that we too release our meanest dogs in a pinch.
Not all mean dogs bark yangly. Just as there are different cheating styles, there are different mean-dog styles. Some mean dogs whimper self-pityingly, some take little under/over-the-radar nips, the kiss of death by a thousand cuts (See Yintimidation). There are just so many ways to be mean and we humans have discovered and used them all in a pinch, including focusing on your partner’s style of being mean while conveniently ignoring our styles.
The biggest threat to long term-partnership is stresscalation, a tit-for-tat, arms race in mean-dog tactics, an unleashed, escalating dog fight, two people each feeling unsafe, scrambling for safety and in the process, making each other feel unsafe on purpose, inadvertently or both.
Given that in a pinch, any of us might release our meanest dogs, there’s the potential for those dogfights in any relationship., but with some partners more so than with others, and those are the partners to watch out for.
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