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Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017 12:11 am

You flooze, you lose

Amy Alkon
I’m a married lesbian in my 50s. I blew up my happy marriage by having an affair with somebody I didn’t love and wasn’t even that attracted to. Now my wife, whom I love very much, is divorcing me. Why did I cheat on her? I don’t understand my own behavior. – Lost

There are those special people you meet who end up changing your life – though ideally not from happily married person to lonely middle-aged divorcee living in a mildewy studio.

There’s a widespread assumption that “a happy marriage is insurance against infidelity,” explained the late infidelity researcher Shirley Glass. Even she used to assume that. But, her research (and that of subsequent researchers) finds that even happily married people end up cheating – for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they want better sex or even just different sex. Sometimes they want an ego shine. And sometimes they feel something’s missing within them. But soul-searching is emotionally grubby, tedious work, so they first look for that missing something in the nearest hot person’s underpants.

It seems inexplicable (and borderline crazy) that you risked everything you care about for somebody you find kind of meh – until you look at this through the lens of “bounded rationality.” And before anybody takes a lighter to hay on a pitchfork they plan to chase me with, I’m simply offering a possible explanation for such baffling behavior; I’m not excusing cheating.

“Bounded rationality” is the late Nobel Prize-winning cognitive scientist Herbert Simon’s term for the constraints on our ability to make truly reasoned, rational decisions. These decision-making constraints include having a limited time to make a choice and limited cognitive ability, which keeps us from seeing the whole picture, with its rainbow of repercussions.

We can end up engaging in what psychologists call “framing,” a sort of selecta-vision in which we make decisions based on whichever part of the picture happens to be in mental focus at the time. (Of course, we’re more likely to focus on how fun it would be to have a little strange than how strange it would be to end up exiled to a motel when the wife finds out.)

For some people, behavior from their spouse that suggests “Ha-ha … crossed my fingers during that vows thing!” is simply a deal breaker. But say your wife still loves you and is mainly leaving because she feels she can’t trust you. (A partner who inexplicably cheats is a partner there’s no stopping from inexplicably cheating again.)

If you can explain – though not excuse – your thinking (or non-thinking) at the time, maybe your wife will agree to try couples therapy, at least for a few months. Bounded rationality aside, I suspect you’re unlikely to cheat again, and especially not on what I call “The ER Model” for bad decisions: patients muttering, “This isn’t how I thought the night would end” – just before the doctor extracts the light saber-toting action figure from a place where, no, the sun does not shine but supplemental illumination is generally unnecessary.


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