Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Psychology of Infidelity

I've often wondered about the mindset of people who embark on extra-marital affairs.

In particular, I wonder how they feel when they get back to their spouse and see the person being loving and caring. Do they get overwrought with guilt? Probably not, if only by the anthropic principle: the ones that did either confessed, or at a minimum broke off the affair. The ones that maintain it have clearly found some way to deal with it.

One understandable reaction, particularly for those who have started recently, I think would actually be relief and gratitude. I think the threshold for this would be that you would have to feel a bit bad about it, such that you'd been privately bothered before, but not enough to break it off or confess. Then the person being nice would let you fool yourself into thinking that everything is pleasant and happy. You'd wracked yourself a bit over it, and the curse of knowledge means that you're possibly worrying that your wife or husband might know about it. But then you see them, and of course they didn't know - they're glad to see you, and everything is okay. Their happiness would mix with your relief, and my firm guess is that in the short term you'd be nicer to your spouse, partly out of guilt, partly out of misplaced gratitude for temporarily mollifying your reflections. This is worth reflecting on, because I imagine that most people's mental model of 'how would I spot if my significant other were cheating on me' would probably involve them being distant and cold, but I'm not so sure this would always be the case.

I imagine that those that do it for a long time must end up somehow making peace with the cognitive dissonance between
1. I love my wife
2. I enjoy boning my secretary
3. I am not fundamentally a bad person.

Exactly how they do this likely varies from person to person - the mind is very creative in such instances. But the day to day interactions probably become more mercenary - once you've resolved the inner conflict somehow, you'd probably focus more on the question of how to not get caught. Pragmatic precautions, clearing phone records, emails, the necessary fastidiousness of constantly covering your tracks to stave off the inevitable.

I remember once sitting on a place next to some youngish businessman, probably mid 30s. Tech guy, American, reasonably good looking. There was wi-fi on the place, and he was instant messaging someone. While I wasn't going out of my way to spy (certainly not at first, anyway) his conversation was visible to at least me, and the few seats around him. In it, he was talking to some girl, most likely from work I guess. The girl was mentioning a friend of hers, and how this friend might be up for something with the guy. After an extended period of flirting, the girl said something about how it was weird that she'd been with the guy ('been with' was how it was phrased, but 'slept with and clearly still had some feelings for' was silently screamed), and was now setting him up with her friend. The plane got close to landing, and he put away his laptop. When the plane was taxiing towards the runway, he pulled out his phone. It became quite clear from his 'Hi Honey' discussion that he was talking to his wife. He then asked to be put on to his kid, and spoke a bit to some young child.

I remember thinking what a bizarre way this was to live one's life. People are strange, alright.

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