A few years ago, a friend pooh-poohed the idea of open relationships.
“They only work until someone better comes along, and then the new partners decide to be exclusive,” my friend said.
It was an interesting commentary from someone who had been unfaithful and eventually left the marriage (granted, it was an unhappy marriage to a not-very nice spouse) when “someone better” came along. The idea that being honest about sexual preferences — I’m not interested in being in a monogamous relationship for now — would be somehow more problematic than pretending to be monogamous is interesting, to say the least.
Still, when they went to couples therapy after the affair was discovered, my friend was vilified as pretty anyone else who has strayed is. You cheated, you’re bad, end of discussion.
That attitude certainly made sense to me even though I have been on the giving and receiving end of such deception. Then I read a few chapters in The State of Affairs: Explorations in infidelity and Commitment that made my head spin. In a good way.
Among the questions the authors pose is, What do affairs tell us about the institution of marriage?
It’s a good question to ask.
We’re evidently getting mixed messages.
Isn’t marriage always sort of couched in something that borders on the negative — whether it’s how the bachelor/bachelorette party is the last night of “freedom,” or the amount of “work” it takes, or how monotonous marriage gets, or how sex — if it exists at all anymore — becomes boring and requires new positions, gadgets, lingerie and quickies to spice up things?
Yet, if someone strays …
What if we changed the discussion, they suggest. What if instead of being branded with a Scarlet A, my straying friend was told at the therapist’s office that the problem isn’t really the individual’s; the problem is monogamy, which clearly isn’t working for a good percentage of couples so whoever is straying is not alone in his or her sexual shenanigans.
How many people are cheating? It’s hard to get an exact number because it’s all self-reported — some studies indicate it may be as high as 60 percent to 70 percent.
That’s a lot of people who are being less-than-honest in their relationships. So why is it just an individual’s problem? Isn’t infidelity a societal problem? As they write:
“Individualized adultery — treating it as a single person’s transgression instead of an instance of a wider social phenomenon — is a way to forestall addressing the viability of marriage at a social level. … Our psychological vocabulary describes adultery in terms of the insecurities and unresolved issues of individuals. … These vocabularies do not invite consideration of what the pattern of transgression of norms at a social, collective level might indicate about those norms. … The implication is that it is the transgressor, not the structure, that needs adjustment.
Them, as they say, are fighting words to anyone who has had an adulterous partner and isn’t too concerned about how many other spouses are getting some on the side. No, all we care about is that it happened to us, and it’s not supposed to happen to us!
Let’s compare the infidelity epidemic to the obesity epidemic. According to the CDC, more than one-third of U.S. adults (35.7 percent) are obese (which cost us $147 billion in 2008). While there certainly is talk that individualizes obesity — just look at all the how-to-lose weight articles — there also are societal efforts to prevent obesity. The CDC has funded state obesity prevention programs, and in a study last year calls for even more policies at all government levels for “interventions that extend beyond individual behaviors.” “Individual-level interventions,” it says, “are resource-intensive and have limited potential for lasting success as long as environments promote unhealthy behaviors and limit access to healthy foods and safe opportunities for physical activity.”
So, obesity — which affects about as many people as infidelity in a direct way, and many more in an indirect way through higher health costs — is seen as something outside an individual’s control. Infidelity is not. Why? Especially since monogamy appears to “promote unhealthy behaviors.”
Citing a survey in which a huge majority of men and women agree that companionship and affection are more important than sex in a marriage or relationship, another chapter in the book asks:
If companionship is more important than sex, is it possible that in time monogamy will cease to be a symbol of trust and non-secret non-monogamy will become more common than secret affairs?
I’m not convinced people always answer surveys honestly, just like I’m not convinced that we live by the narratives we have in our head. We’re very good at rationalizing and justifying so whatever we’re doing — cheating, marrying, divorcing, overeating — conveniently fits into the fictionalized model we have of who and what we are. I’m pretty sure sex matters a lot in a marriage — especially for the person who believes he or she isn’t getting enough.
But, getting back to infidelity, I have a few questions of my own:
- Do you believe infidelity should continue to be individualized vs. being normalized? Why?
- What does the high rate of infidelity say about marriage and monogamy?
- Where would you rank sex in comparison to companionship and affection in a marriage?