Sunday, November 22, 2015

In defense of cheating

Although statistics about the prevalence of infidelity vary wildly (between 25% and 60% over the duration of a marriage), everybody seems to agree that it is on the increase on Western societies. Is this necessarily a bad thing? Or is it just one more symptom of the disintegration of the monogamous norm? Judging from what I read, it seems that many polyamorous people, while critiquing sexual exclusivity, are quite judgmental when it comes to cheating. In agreement with people of a more puritanical persuasion, they tend to view infidelity as the betrayal of a sacred oath. According to them, if a person is sexually unsatisfied in her or his current relationship, there are only three morally acceptable options: 1) continue to live sexually deprived, 2) negotiate an open relationship, 3) leave the relationship. The 4th option, of course, is cheating. I believe that sometimes it is ethically justified for the following reasons…

I believe that the basic issue underlying the ethics of sex is personal autonomy. It means that my body (and my mind) is mine and I should be able to use it as I see fit, as long as it doesn’t impinge in the personal autonomy of somebody else. This has two implications, one negative and one positive. The negative implication is that nobody should use my body (or my mind) against my desires, which makes rape, sexual abuse, psychological abuse and other forms of non-consensual sex, immoral. The positive implication is that I have a right to my own sexual satisfaction (again, as long as it doesn’t violate the personal autonomy of somebody else). This implies that sexual repression also violates personal autonomy and should be considered a form of abuse. Therefore, cheating is not a violation of consent because it does not violate the partner’s personal autonomy. What it does violate is a personal contract in which two people have agreed to mutual sexual exclusivity. However, breaking an agreement is a much less serious offense than violating personal autonomy (as in rape and sexual abuse). It is important to note that the sexual exclusivity agreement does involve relinquishing a large segment of personal autonomy: before I was able to have sex with whoever wanted to have sex with me, now I’m restricted to just one person. Because of that, any form of coercion in establishing this agreement should be considered quite seriously.

We cannot forget that we live in a society that strongly enforces monogamy. In fact, there many places in the world today where non-monogamy is punished with death. Even the more enlighten Western societies exert considerable pressure in favor of monogamy, using different forms of legal, economic, cultural and social sanctions. Very often these are unfairly directed more toward women than toward men.

Because of that, we cannot consider the agreement of sexual exclusivity involved in marriage as one freely made, but one made under the pressure of a coercive environment. In practice, this means that we are given the option between a monogamous relationship or no relationship at all. Almost nobody is given the option between an open relationship or a sexually exclusive one: it is monogamy by default. Let’s remember that an agreement made under duress is not morally binding.

Let’s now consider the three options (other than cheating) offered to a person who is sexually dissatisfied in a relationship. The first one is to just put up with the sexual deprivation. In the old, sexually-repressive culture, this went unquestioned. Sex was considered something superfluous, unnecessary for the happiness of a decent person (especially if it was a woman). The new sex-positive culture has changed that perspective, posing that it is unacceptable for a person to live sexually deprived. This not only applies to having sex in general, but also to enjoy alternative sexualities like BDSM. If I’m kinky and my partner is not, I’m entitled to do something about it. So this is no longer an acceptable option for a lot of people.

The second option is to negotiate an open relationship. This is considerably difficult, often impossible. Let’s not forget that open and polyamorous relationships are vanishingly few. Realistically, proposing an open agreement to a partner entrenched in the monogamous mentality is not only futile, it is foolish. The only thing that it would accomplish is to make us instant suspects of cheating, or wanting to cheat.

The third option is breaking the relationship. I am quite surprise at the alacrity with which so many people propose this option… like breaking-up was easy and entailed no suffering at all! Quite the opposite, most of the time it is the least desirable option, often an impossible one. This is because we live in a society that wraps a lot of power in the institution of marriage, in the form of economic power (share savings, mortgage, etc.) and restrictions of individual freedom (the house where I live, the job that I have, childcare, etc.). Then, breaking-up is not a simple matter of stopping a sexual and emotional relationship, but something that throws our life in a complete turmoil, most likely ending up by lowering significantly our standard of living. Divorce is easy when you are rich, ruinous when you are poor. And then there are the children, who probably wouldn’t suffer much if a parent occasionally cheats, but would be devastated by a divorce.

In conclusion, cheating is not a black-and-white issue, but one of great complexity. If one thing is clear, is that we would all gain a lot by de-dramatizing it. Contrary to what we read in novels and see on television, it’s not worth killing anybody over it. Is not even worth leaving our loved one over it. Sex is just sex, let’s not blow it out of proportion by attaching all sorts of mystical meanings to it. Yes, in some cases cheating is a dastardly thing to do, involving breaking of trust, dishonesty and betrayal. But in other cases it is just the least bad of a set of bad options. Like the case of the woman who has become economically dependent of her husband by leaving her career to have children, and now finds that he no longer wants to have sex with her.

From the point of view of a non-monogamous, sex-positive culture, we should be able to appreciate the element of rebellion against the established order that is implicit in cheating. Yes, the person being cheated suffers, but the monogamous norm is partly to blame for that suffering. It is that culture that has convinced him that being cheated is, oh, such an awful thing to go through! And let’s not forget that that cultural norm of sexual exclusivity creates an unbalance of power, empowering the sexually repressive member of a couple to the disadvantage of the one that yearns for sexual freedom. Ideally, we should all be able to be polyamorous if we wanted, but in reality the ability to do that is reserved to a precious few. We should not be judgmental of people who have to resort to other, more unpalatable options.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The six basic emotions of Ekman

Charles Darwin was one of the first to realize that there are several emotions that are clearly expressed in the face and the body, not only of humans but also of many mammals. The fact that emotions are not unique to humans was consistent with his theory of evolution. Almost a century later, in 1972, Paul Ekman did a cross-cultural study in which he concluded that there are six basic emotions: joy, sadness, fear, anger, disgust and surprise.

Fear is the most well-studied all these six emotions because is connected to important psychological problems like anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We know that involves the activation of the amygdala region of the brain. In the body, fears triggers the production of adrenaline and the activation of the sympathetic system, which prepares the body for action: the fight-or-flight response. Paradoxically, it can also produce the opposite behavior: freezing, which consists in complete immobility of the animal, perhaps to escape detection.

Disgust makes us reject substances or environments that are potentially unhealthy because they present a danger of infection or poisoning. We can imagine that this is a very primitive emotion because even simple animals have chemical senses that stops them from eating and makes them move away from toxic substances. It is associated with the body reactions of nausea and vomiting.

Anger is associated with behaviors of aggression. Like fear, it involves adrenaline secretion and the activation of the sympathetic system, but while fear leads to either freezing or escape, anger draws us towards whatever has irritated us.

Surprise, like fear and anger, involves a general activation of the nervous system. Its role is to direct our attention towards an unexpected stimulus. It is not a negative emotion, because at the onset it draws us towards the stimulus. If the stimulus turns out to be threatening, it is quickly followed by fear.

Sadness produces the opposite reaction than fear, anger and surprise: it deactivates the nervous system, leading to a state of internal withdrawal.

Joy is the most positive emotion. It activates the nervous system to make us go out exploring or to repeat a pleasurable behavior. I think it is important not to confuse joy with happiness, which is not an emotion but a generalized state of well-being, harmony and agreement with our life. Although when we are happy we tend to experience more joy, we can be happy in the mist of other emotions. For example, the fear inspired by scary movies or dangerous sports is happy-making. Even sadness can be accompanied by happiness, like in some pleasant melancholy states.

I feel increasingly fascinated by emotions. For a long time I have wanted to write about these six basic emotions and now, to my surprise, there is a Disney movie about them! The animation film Inside Out zooms inside the mind of the characters to show us how these basic emotions interact among them to direct our behavior.

Of course, being a Disney movie, we can expect a certain lack of depth and factual errors. The first one is… Surprise! They totally left surprise out. Why? What’s wrong with surprise? Is a perfectly legit basic emotion… Who doesn’t like a surprise party? Well, actually, I do… I’m a bit of a control freak and don’t like surprises, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate this emotion when it comes barging into my mind.

The other problem is a bit more subtle: the implication that these puny five emotions are the only ones we feel, when there are so many others. What happened to love, compassion, regret, jealousy, envy, pride, shame, guilt, indignation, self-righteousness, curiosity, boredom, awe, ridicule and loyalty? And that list is far from exhaustive. Unlike the six basic emotions of Ekman, many of these other emotions appear to be exclusively human. For example, we used to think that dogs feel shame and guilt, but recent research shows that we may be anthropomorphizing what is just a display of fear. Or maybe dogs are just very good a mimicking these emotions. Regardless, many of these emotions (like love, shame, guilt, pride and loyalty) are related to regulating social behavior. Others, like curiosity, interest, boredom and awe, seems related to our cognitive interaction with the world. I hope to write an article about these uniquely human emotions very soon.

And an interesting way of classifying emotions...

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Wall of Words

Words are meant to be used to communicate and communication is essential in any relationship. However, quite often words are used as weapons to attack a partner in a relationship, as clubs to bludgeon he or she into submission. One thing I have encountered quite often in my life is what I call the “Wall of Words”, which consists in one person (whom I will call a “waller”) talking in an aggressive way for long periods of time so that the other person is forced into silence and does not have time to form an effective defense.

Here is how it works. The person will start talking and carry on for a long period of time, often giving lots of unnecessary details and repeating himself. If the other person interrupts her, he will complain vigorously about the interruption and then proceed with the speech. However, there is a double standard regarding interruptions, because when the other person finally gets a chance to talk, she will be soon interrupted by another long tirade of the “waller”, who suddenly feels the urgent need to correct something the other person has just said. In the most blatant cases of the Wall of Words that I have experienced, there was an occasional silence but when I opened my mouth to speak the “waller” immediately started talking over me, blocking anything I was trying to say. In fact, the Wall of Words may leads to two persons talking simultaneously, even screaming at each other, one trying desperately to get heard and the other blocking the speech.

The Wall of Words is harder to implement in group situations, although I have seen one person take control over an entire meeting and preventing people with dissenting opinions to speak by using her authority as the Chair to allocate most of the speaking time to herself.

The “waller”, consciously or unconsciously, is trying to block the other person from communicating. She clearly does not want to listen, she just wants to lecture the other person. The goal is to create a power imbalance in which the “waller” adopts the role of a superior lecturing a subordinate, like an adult reprimanding a child or a boss chastising an employee. Indeed, the content of the speech in the Wall of Words is quite often full of accusations and shaming. Other times the “waller” presents herself as a victim and the Wall of Words in put up with the excuse of defending herself against the supposed abuse of the other person. Of course, abuse does happen, but the way to stop it should not be preventing the abuser from communicating. In fact, the Wall of Words is in itself a form of psychological abuse in which the power imbalance created by the fact that one person gets to talk and the other doesn’t may end up undermining the self-esteem of the person silenced. Often, the “waller” will elaborate a long list of accusations and the person silenced feels powerless to even start addressing it. In the worst cases, threats are also included, adding fear to the negative emotions of guilt and shame.

What can be done when faced with a Wall of Words? Solutions are not easy because the Wall of Words itself prevents any solutions based on good communication. Here are some ideas:
  1. Ask a third person to mediate. Ideally, the mediator should be made aware of the problem so that she can arbitrate equal time to talk. However, be aware that the “waller” may try to involve the mediator in the dynamic with protest of unfairness, ultimately also blocking the mediator from communicating. 
  2. Walk away. Quite often a person will put up a Wall of Words only when he is upset or forced into a defensive position. In those cases, simply rescheduling the conversation for a time when everybody is more calm solves the problem. In other cases it may simply not be worthwhile to talk to a person who uses the Wall of Words. On the other hand, trying to continue a conversation when a Wall of Words is being used is not just a waste of time, but an affront at the dignity of the person being subjected to it and may even cause her psychological damage.
  3. Ask yourself if you are part of the problem. Granted, a Wall of Words is abusive, but perhaps the person using it does so as a mechanism of defense against something that you are doing. She obviously doesn’t want to listen to you, but is it out of fear that what you may say will hurt her? Even if you don’t use a Wall of Words, you may also be saying things that are threatening, blaming or shaming. 
  4. Use a safeword to signal to a person prone to use a Wall of Words that she is carrying on for too long and is time for her to listen. Of course, this is predicated on that person recognizing that there is a problem.
  5. Name the problem: “you are using a Wall of Words”. I think that coming up with a shorthand name like the “Wall of Words” can help a lot by raising awareness about a previously unrecognized problem. Other words like “sexist”, “homophobic”, “emotional blackmail” and “slut shaming” have work very effectively as a signposts for other abusive behaviors. 
I just came up with these possible solutions by thinking about this problem, but if you know of any others please feel free to suggest them.