“And lead us not into temptation …”
A recent article in the New York Times entitled “The Science of a Happy Marriage” describes recent scientific studies on the dynamics on faithfulness and fidelity in marriage. Beginning with the question as to why some men and women cheat on their partners while others resist the temptation, the article discussed a growing body of research that is focusing on the science of commitment. “Scientists are studying everything from the biological factors that seem to influence marital stability to a person’s psychological response after flirting with a stranger. Their findings suggest that while some people may be naturally more resistant to temptation, men and women can also train themselves to protect their relation-ships and raise their feelings of commitment.” One study out of Sweden has raised questions about whether genetic factors may influence commitment and marital stability. It seems that among the many chemicals in the brain there is one called “vasopressin” or the so-called “bonding hormone.” This hormone may encourage behavior towards bonding with or relationships with others. It appears that men who carry a gene variation that limits the production of vasopressin are less likely to be married and when they do wed, they often have serious marital problems and unhappy wives as opposed to men who have normal levels of vasopressin present in their brains. (No study has been carried out on women yet.) While some call this gene the “fidelity gene” studies on it are limited at this time and its use as a predictor of future marital happiness unknown. So, wives, no need to rush out to your local genetic screening company with a swab of your husband’s DNA to check for the gene.
Yet “while there may be genetic differences that influence commitment, other studies suggest that the brain can be trained to resist temptation.” Studies conducted by the psychologist John Lydon of McGill University in Montreal offer some interesting insights into how people in a committed relationship react in the face of temptation.
“In one study, highly committed married men and women were asked to rate the attractiveness of people of the opposite sex in a series of photos. Not surprisingly, they gave the highest ratings to people who would typically be viewed as attractive. Later, they were shown similar pictures and told that the person was interested in meeting them. In that situation, participants consistently gave those pictures lower scores than they had the first time around.
When they were attracted to someone who might threaten the relationship, they seemed to instinctively tell themselves, ‘He’s not so great.’ ‘The more committed you are,’ Dr. Lydon said, ‘the less attractive you find other people who threaten your relationship.’”
Shakespeare once wrote in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “Tis one thing to be tempted, another thing to fall.” Apart from questions about how some of us may or may not be more biologically inclined toward fidelity or infidelity, the fact remains that we all know right from wrong. When a man and woman marry, the understanding is that their relationship will be an exclusive one and that the days of “playing the field” are over. The same applies to myself as someone who has taken on the vow of celibacy. Nevertheless, we are all human beings and we are always going to be tested by temptation. Like those men and women in faithful relationships in the above study who responded to temptation by downgrading the attractiveness of the tempters, we seek to develop good habits when tempted at all so as to not fall into sin. This applies not only to matters of fidelity to ones vows or spouse but in all things of the moral life. One may be tempted to engage in gossip, but instead one turns the conversation to something else. One may be tempted to fall into rash judgment but instead considers that there may be another side to a matter or situation that one may not know about.
One strategy that may be find helpful with this is to not fall into the “what if” game. When tempted, one seeks to avoid the kind of self-deceptive thought that goes like this: for a married man – “Well, what if I just go out for lunch with her. Even if she is married and I do find her attractive what’s a little lunch? or a married woman – “What if I just send these flirtatious emails?” or “So what if I talk to him two or three times a day? He’s just a friend.” Do you see where I am going with this? If you give into temptation a little bit, what we used to call “entertain” temptation, the next time it just gets easier and easier to take it a little bit further and further until you get to a place where vows are broken, people are hurt, and sin is part of your life.
I don’t think it is any accident that when the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, the words of the “Our Father” which followed contained the phrase “and lead us not into temptation.” Notice, Jesus did not say “and lead us not into sin.” He well knew that the first step towards sinfulness is the encounter with temptation to sin. Avoid sin, avoid temptation. Seems easy enough. Yet, while we can lessen the temptations in our life by avoiding those situations that are ripe with temptation – like going to singles bars if you’re married say or singles chat rooms on the internet – developing good habits that include prayer and the frequent use of the sacrament of reconciliation to deal with temptation is also a good idea as well.