September 22nd, 2008
12:54 PM ET

Your cheatin' heart will tell on you

By Val Willingham
CNN Medical Producer

I have a friend who cheats on his wife constantly. What's worse, all his buddies know about it. Even his wife knows. On the surface, he's a nice guy, charismatic, a caring father, and a hard worker. He just can't stay faithful. His loving spouse continues to forgive him even though they've gone through years of therapy. He swears he loves her. He insists he tries to stay away from other women, but still his eye keeps wandering.

I am sure psychiatrists will tell you this guy needs help, but scientists say his behavior could be caused by his genetic makeup. That's right: Some of us may or may not have what researchers call the monogamy gene, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

By looking at different versions of the common field or vole mouse, researchers injected the non-monogamous meadow vole with the monogamy gene from its close cousin the prairie vole. After receiving the gene, scientists found a noticeable change in the meadow vole's behavior. Instead of mating and immediately moving on, (the ol' love and leave 'em tactic) the meadow vole showed more of an attachment to its mate.

So the big question is, could this keep wayward folks from cheating? Would wives or husbands be able to poke a syringe into a wandering spouse’s tush and regain marital bliss? Scientists say hardly. It seems the monogamy gene is broken down into three parts: lust, romance and attraction, and in many cases they don't work together. Which is why doctors say, someone can have a strong attachment to one person and be madly in love with someone else.

That’s unfortunate, because in today's world, where recent polls show many men and women cheat on their partners, and cases of HIV and STDs continue to rise, being monogamous might be a safer, healthier and happier way to live.

What do you think? Let us know how you feel about monogamous or non-monogamous relationships? We'd like to know.

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.

soundoff (38 Responses)
  1. Caitlin

    I recently just got married and have had this debate with my husband, being that we are very open with each other. My husband's best friend happens to be the perfect example of the serial cheater. We have both sat him down and discussed his behavior in-depth, and it seems that he is lacking the monogamous gene, because he knows cheating is stressful, dangerous (in terms of STDs) and hurtful as opposed to staying committed. His nature doesn't let him settle with one woman and his constant planning and lying that goes into seeing multiple partners has become a normal and comforting thing for him. I really can't judge him for being the way he is if it is genetic, but my husband and I have strongly advised he never get married if all he'll do is cheat and that he continues safe sex practices. I'm just thankful that my husband and I have a great desire to uphold monogamy and will always have great respect for the sanctity of marriage.

    September 22, 2008 at 14:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Bec

    I think genetics is one big rationalization. We are not field mice. We are supposed to have bigger brains. This guy is a big rat, and he keeps on doing it because his wife lets him get away with it.

    September 22, 2008 at 15:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. S Callahan

    It almost seems like the article encourages and excuse for cheating.
    That's like telling an alcoholic you can have another drink, no problem.
    Even if there is a genetic component influencing the brain, or the heart, should influence one even greater to resist acting on those influences. It's called self control of the will.

    September 22, 2008 at 16:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Elizabeth

    I believe that non-monogamous relationships are overrated. I have never been in such a relationship, because I find monogamous ones far more interesting–that might have something to do with that monogamy gene you were talking about. I don't believe that though. I believe that behavior is learned during child development. If a parent were to have numerous relationships without any tie to them or the child saw how his/her mother and father gave up so easily, I feel that that person would be more inlcined to believe that relationships are not special. They would be more likely to go through more relationships/partners than any others. Also, it might be how convenient it is. There are just numerous factors that cause an individual to want to be that way, not just one. It comes down to a personal choice–life with one to grow or life with many to never know.

    September 22, 2008 at 17:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. GF, Los Angeles

    If a person can't be monogamous then that person shouldn't get married unless it was decided early in the dating relationship that it would be an open marriage for both to cheat.

    With all the diseases out there – 1 in four or five (depending on the stats found online) having genital herpes – I can't imagine not being monogamous. My partner knows that cheating will not be tolerated and it goes both ways.

    September 22, 2008 at 19:36 | Report abuse | Reply

    This is a bunch of crap. I'm sure a MAN was in charge of gathering the data for this study. If you don't want one woman, than it's simple. DON'T GET MARRIED. Life is dangerous enough, why involve your innocent wife while you play Russian Roulette. Well in your case blushing brunette. GROW UP and be a man and put your $%#@ in your pants.

    September 23, 2008 at 12:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. happy in idaho

    I think folks that cheat get alot of emotional supplies from the ability to make a "conquest". They feel they are worth something if someone else finds them attractive. So could low self-esteem, or folks hooked on the adreneline of the first stages of a relationship, be genetic?

    September 23, 2008 at 13:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Carolyn

    This article is terribly misleading. Evolutionary psychologists have known for years that genetics and evolution could shape the way our predispositions. However, they are just predispositions, they are not set in stone. These particular urges are only part of the nature/nurture puzzle. We're also predispositioned for violence, but we are the only animals that are capable of releasing theses bonds of nature and living better lives. We are only nudged by these sorts of traits, not ruled by them.
    If we are to believe the line of thinking in this article, then we should just shoot kids in the head that have the genes that are known to contribute to violent behavior because if they can't help themselves from committing crime, we might as well save ourselves the effort of trying to convert them. Obviously that's ridiculous, but no more so than those that think cheaters should be excused because they couldn't help themselves. Genes play a role in who we are, they don't define us completely.

    September 23, 2008 at 13:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Terry

    I think mongamy has to be about having respect for your partner and preserving the sanctity of marriage. If a person cannot be monogamous with their partner than I feel that the only honorable thing to do is end the marriage, A marriage should be based on trust, sneaking around and cheating only undermines it . People need to sit back and think about why they got married in the first place.

    September 23, 2008 at 16:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. A.

    Well, whether or not the study was conducted by a man, I must admit that as a woman, I felt no need for complete monogamy. I believe in loving a person, but monogamy for an entire marriage sounded awfully (sexually) boring to me. Then I met my wonderful husband. I was open with him in the beginning and proposed that we could each perhaps have a couple of (safe sex) affairs over the decades. Luckily, we discussed this before marriage, and he made it clear that a marriage with him would only be monogamous. So, my vote is that personality can overcome genetic predisposition, because while my imagination is extremely vivid and active, I understand that I would deeply hurt him by cheating and have not cheated in the six years of relationship (4.5 years of marriage)–and I intend to continue controlling myself.

    September 24, 2008 at 03:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Micki

    They've also discovered a genetic basis for addiction/alcoholism, but not every child of an alcoholic becomes one themselves. It may be more difficult for some people to avoid cheating than others, but I doubt it is ever impossible.

    However, all of us have our weaknesses. If there really is a genetic predisposition, can we judge them for it? How many of us have had lapses in self-control? Look at the high rate of obesity in the United States. How many people must have had lapses in their eating and exercise habits to become obese?

    A person who cheats isn't necessarily a horrible person, they just have different issues than you do.

    September 24, 2008 at 04:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Carlos

    The current trend of finding genetic links/predispositions to everything under the sun is really nothing more than a scientific cop-out. The thought that genes could be so heavily responsible for our choices and the developments in out lives is pretty ludicrous. After all, if you remember from high school's Introductory Biology, the only thing our genes really do is to serve as a template for proteins–peptide chains such as digestive enzymes and hair.
    How is an indistinguishable tiny difference in a fully interchangeable microscopic *physical* structure really going to "control" the *mind's* willful, rational, deliberate choices? In the end, a choice is a choice. Cheating is just like any other behavior: either (1) a poor choice by a very weak person, or (2) a deliberate wrong because one believes one can get away with it.

    Let's find the studies that show genetic links to pick-pocketing and federal tax evasion.

    September 24, 2008 at 11:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Scott

    I've been told by two very respected docotors in their field of medicine that I am likely genetically predisposed to addiction/alcoholism. Not only do I respect their medical opinion but my experience confirms it. Also, as everyone knows, some people are genetically predisposed to other maladies like hypertension, which I am also. Does my genetic predisposition cause me to say "Oh well, guess there's nothing I can do about my high blood pressure, just gotta live with it"? Not at all, I saught medical help and advice to treat it – just like I did with my alcoholism/addiction. So the question is . . . does a genetical predisposition give someone the right to continue to harm himself and others around him? I think not – and just because someone could be "genetically" predisposed to cheating it still does not give that person the right to harm his family and spouse. The question really is . . . is that person willing to do what it takes to treat his "genetic" disorder? Or is he fine with continueing to harm himself and his family? And by the way . . . I've been sober for almost 2 years and my hypertension is under control.

    September 24, 2008 at 12:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Fred

    What a nice reason to cheat."i culdnt help it honey,its genetical"

    September 24, 2008 at 13:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. karen

    I find it interesting that Caitlin and her new husband find it their responsibility to sit their close friend down and discuss his behavior and the possible consequences of his actions. Their friend is an adult and his behavior, whether by choice or genetics, is still his behavior and the consequences are his. Their choices and responsiblities are to themselves. They should determine what their relationship with the person will be. If they don't feel comfortable socializing with him in couple situations because they are aware of his dishonesty with his partner and possiblity of spreading STD's, then they can choose to limit the amount of time with this person and set their own boundaries for situations and conversations. In other words, more of a surface friendship than one that you have with people that share your personal beliefs.

    September 24, 2008 at 15:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. AP

    Monogamy is not the norm in the animal kingdom. Some species may be pretty close to monogamous, but there is still mating with others. There is no biological reason humans should be held to principles of monogamy EXCEPT that we have a social system in which many couples agree to be monogamous. My spouse and I have made this agreement and will hold ourselves and each other to it.
    Having said that, I also think that using genetics as an excuse to cheat on the spouse with whom you have a monogamous agreement is garbage. When you make that agreement you also agree to override the biological need to spread your genes as wide a possible.

    September 24, 2008 at 17:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. AnaBella Bomba

    Hmmmmmmm...let me get this straight....cheating is genetic? Wow. Thank goodness this breaking news hit CNN. I feel awful. Here I am a successful, professional woman with a doctorate degree who demands gainful employment, respect, caring, a sense of humor and.....oh yeah......, complete monogamy .... from husband and, in the past, my potential suitors. Wow. Who would have thunk that cheating was an uncontrollable urge predisposed by the passing of recessive or a dominant allele. Praytell, there is no choice is there????! For an insane moment I thought that my past relationship failed because the guy (regardless of how "successful" he is in the business sense) was a low life liar who had bedded a woman he worked with after romancing her for 2 months behind my back and then having a cozy candlelit dinner, a few martinis, casual sex, and joining the mile high club all while coming (no pun intended..) on a business trip to Rome. Little did I know that it was not his fault. Ahhhh...hindsight is 20/20!

    September 24, 2008 at 20:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Debbie

    My Best friend was married to a cheater of the worst kind. While she was taking care of her Ill and Dying Mother, He moved another woman into their house. A house she bought, not him. She supported his roping and fishing habits, oh he did work once in a while as a Truck Driver, but he always had an excuse. She found out about his Cheating and the other woman living in her house. She filed for a Divorce, got he house back, and her furniture. He and she are out on the street, finally, and he had no honor, only Lame stories about being a Cowboy, being from Texas, not, he is from Berkley, California. He only wears the Hat, and boots, no more lame stories about what he did, where he has been, etc., Just lies, and now he can cheat on his new tramp. Funny, but he calls the Mechanic, the Feed Store, The Black Smith, and will ask how his Ex. is doing, who she is seeing, is She Ok, amazing. Wonder how soon his new tramp wife will keep him, as he is 68 almost 69 years old and getting older. He can go fishing and if he can afford to Rope, since the ExWife is not paying for it, wonder who he will live off of now!

    September 25, 2008 at 01:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Susan

    It's doesn't take a PhD in Psychology to tell you that enforced behaviors are more likely to be repeated that unenforced behaviors. If you want to make the argument that monogamy is contrary to our human (aka animal) instincts then fine. But using genetics to explain why a man breaks a vow that he made to his wife and knowingly puts himself and his family at serious health risk is crap. It's a shame that people put up with behaviors like these.

    September 25, 2008 at 09:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Roseanne

    The bottom line is...........
    Free will. We can make our own choices.
    Just say no.

    September 25, 2008 at 11:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Misty

    For every boyfriend that i broke up with its always the same reason; CHEATING. This leads me to come to my own conclusion that men tend to be less monogomous by nature than that of women. I have no scientific answer as to why but based on my experience i feel that its selfishness and lust. Why mislead a woman into believing that its "just her" and then spend the rest of your time trying to be with other women. I always say to all my exes who by the way are now very good friends who now comes to me for advice; havent you realized that all women want the same thing; COMMITMENT. Funny enough there answer is yes. Then why do you think its going to be any different for the woman you are cheating with. Ladies the signs are there guess what text messages is the new cheating tool now, keep your eyes and ears open.

    September 25, 2008 at 13:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. J

    I used to strongly argue for faithfulness, however, I can't say I do anymore. I believe that if you enter into a relationship in which you agree to be faithful, you should uphold that agreement. If you feel you can't, or you don't want to anymore, then you should give your significant other the option of leaving.
    Having said that, I don't see the point of being with only one person sexually for the rest of your life. I understand that religion and morals dictate that sex should be an expression of love, but let's face it...we don't get hot over love, we get hot over lust. Sex and love are two different things entirely. No one can make the arguement that the only person they've been sexually attracted to is the one they married, or even only the ones they've dated.
    I think that being forced, or feeling forced to stay with one person breeds resentment for some people. If you know that a sexual act between your partner and someone else would make them happy, and it has nothing to do with how much they care for you, why stop it?
    I think people who are hurt by infidelity are hurt either because of the fact that they were lied to, or because, again, they believe sex= love and for most people, men especially, that's not true.

    September 26, 2008 at 02:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. p

    In this day and age I find it funny that most of these comments are very sterotypical with men being the vow breaker / cheater. When will the day come when issues and problems of this nature will be viewed and shared equally between the 2 sexes ?

    September 26, 2008 at 03:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. J

    Look,a ring does not make you his "property"
    If you keep complaining, generally negative,moaning about the past, quick (as I detect in some of the comments above)he is going to find some honey who likes tolaugh,has a positive attitude and is alive down there.
    You can't expect him to wait all week for you to get over your depression.
    Is it cheating? Yes. Can you blame him ?No

    September 27, 2008 at 15:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. JI

    Are you quick to anger? Then expect him to look around.

    September 27, 2008 at 15:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Bill

    The emphasis on cheating males in this article and subsequent comments is commical. I actually run into more cheating females than males. They may be more discreet about it but, they are still doing it at least as often as males.

    In my opinion, our superficial/materialistic culture contributes to the infidelity. We have become a society that can easily put aside ethics and honesty in the pursuit of money and possesions. Why would relationships be any different to these people? Tired of your old car and want that shiney new Lexus? Lie, cheat and steal to get it. The balding husband represents the old car.

    September 29, 2008 at 10:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Dave

    Partners cheat for a reason; typically unsatisfying sex lives for one or both of them. If you are not willing to do what it takes to keep your sex life active and fullfilling for your partner, expect somebody else to do it for you. Communicate your needs, don't get lazy and be willing to expand your horizons. Sex doesn't have to be boring regardless of how long you have been together.

    October 1, 2008 at 13:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. D

    Monogamy is a good healthy lifestyle choice that usually assures a certain amount of safety and security, and it's great for many people. However, there are a lot of people for whom a monogamous lifestyle is not desired. Non-monogamy is NOT the same as cheating. Many people on this planet practice varying styles of healthy and honest non-monogamous relationships. The key is ensuring that all parties involved are happy consenting adults who are being honest with eachother and acting with integrity.

    I've been practicing polyamory for several years now. My two partners know eachother and get along, but I have completely independent and unique relationships with each one of them. The more recent relationship was built with the full disclosure and consent of the preexisting partner. It's really wonderful to have the kind of honest open relationship when I can come home and my boyfriend asks me "So how'd your date with so&so turn out tonight?" and we gush over all the details as if I were talking to my best friend. Because, I am.

    People should only commit to a monogamous lifestyle if they have the ability to sustain this effort appropriately and with integrity. My opinion is that people who find themselves unhappy with the monogamy model they should seek to be responsible about finding other relationship models that better fit their personality (which may or may not involve genetics).

    And some comments about STDs:

    The biggest cause of disease transmission is dishonesty. Consenting adults who practice safer sex and agree to get regularly tested and disclose STD test results regularly with all of their partners are at a much lower risk of catching and spreading diseases.

    Consider how many adults acquire a hidden STD before they enter a monogamous relationship. How many of them transmit it to their new monogamous partners because they didn't get tested before starting a new relationship? Or because they only tested once and assumed they were clear, since certain diseases don't show up on blood tests until 6+ months after transmission? Get tested, do it regularly, be honest with yourself, and be fully honest with anyone you're coming into sexual contact with.

    October 2, 2008 at 20:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. JoeAllenSmith

    I personally believe that there is much to be said about a genetic link to being true to your mate. My mother was a 'cheater'. She was married to a man, not my father, for 50 years before she died. During their marriage she gave birth to two of his children and two children that were fathered by two different men. She would have given birth to a 'third bastard' but, by the grace of God, it was a miscarriage.

    I believe she passed that 'cheating gene' on to me. I have been in several monogamous relationships but could never remain true. I don't believe I could 'fall in love'. Now this could just be an 'environment problem' however I do not think so because I thought I was in love with each and everyone of my girlfriends. However I now know that this was not the case.

    Great article. Please send me some of the mouse gene because I am very lonely.

    October 2, 2008 at 20:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. nicola

    I have been cheated on and I have cheated also. Then I met my husband. Just as this article says it requires lust, romance, and attraction. It is VERY hard to maintain this after so many years . . . but if you do not someone will wander (male or female) I do think its genetic. I have made every effort to maintain my weight and appearance and he has made every effort to still be romantic and keep up his appearance. After 10 years neither of us have found anything in anyone else worth straying for. Getting lazy and too comfortable is not attractive to men OR women.

    October 3, 2008 at 13:07 | Report abuse | Reply
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