Adultery. What shall we do with it? Most just wish it would go away, and others — like myself — wonder what the high percentages of infidelity say about the institution of marriage.
So I was intrigued by two interesting articles that appeared in the Philosopher’s Mail. Part one talks about the pleasures of adultery:
The adulterer is meant to feel ashamed; the betrayed party is encouraged to be furious — with every right to an apology. And yet, from another perspective, shouldn’t the latter sometimes be the one to apologise to the former? Adultery may be the lightning conductor of modern indignation, but are there not other, subtler ways of betraying a person than by sleeping with someone outside the couple; by omitting to listen, by forgetting to evolve and enchant, or more generally and blamelessly, by simply being one’s own limited self? Rather than forcing their ‘betrayers’ to say they were so sorry, the ‘betrayed’ might begin by apologising themselves, apologise for forcing their partners to lie by setting the bar of truthfulness so forbiddingly high — out of no higher creed than a jealous insecurity masquerading as a moral standard.
I am intrigued by the idea that there are many other ways to betray a loved one (a concept we address in The New I Do) — denying sex, indifference, emotional neglect, contempt, lack of respect, years of refusal of intimacy, as Mating in Captivity author Ester Perel points out. True, we can’t get an STD or pregnant from those sorts of betrayal, but don’t they destroy love, too?
Part two addresses the “stupidity and folly” of the same infidelity previously praised:
What is ultimately ‘wrong’ with adultery is its sheer dangerous optimism. While it may look at first sight like a cynical activity to engage in, adultery in fact betrays an absurdly hopeful conviction that one can somehow magically rearrange the difficulties and shortcomings of marriage through a lie. This is to misunderstand the facts of life. It is impossible to sleep with someone outside of marriage and not violently destroy the things one still cares about inside it — and yet, in case we get carried away with the charms of fidelity, it is equally impossible to remain utterly faithful in a marriage and yet not miss out on some of life’s greatest and most significant pleasures that lie outside the couple.
In other words, it is the “marriage problem” — we want so much out of the institution that all it can do is fail us. It’s not designed to give us what we want without huge sacrifices; should we be more honest about those sacrifices? Beautifully, the article acknowledges that sexual fidelity is a sacrifice that should be recognized and honored:
Too many people start off in relationships by putting the moral emphasis in the wrong place, smugly mocking the urge to stray as if it were something disgusting and unthinkable. But in truth, it is the ability to stay that is both wondrous and worthy of honour; it is not the norm. Fidelity is a heroic achievement. That a couple should be willing to watch their lives go by from within the cosy cage of marriage, without acting on extra-mural sexual impulses, is a miracle of civilisation and kindness for which daily gratitude is in order. … Spouses who remain faithful to each other should recognise the scale of the sacrifice they are making. There is nothing biologically ‘normal’ or cost-free about sexual renunciation.
Finally, it’s suggested that we address the “marriage problem” and infidelity — and unrealistic expectations — by changing our vows:
The only cure for infidelity is pessimism. We need new sadder vows to exchange with partners in order to stand a sincere chance of mutual fidelity over a lifetime. Certainly something far more cautionary and downbeat than the usual platitudes would be in order — for example: ‘I promise to be disappointed by you and you alone. I promise to make you the sole repository of my regrets, rather than to distribute them widely through multiple affairs and a life of sexual Don Juanism. I have surveyed the different options for unhappiness, and it is you I have chosen to commit myself to.’
I’m not sure that pessimistic vows will prevent infidelity or make for a happier marriage, but I do think we need to be very aware of what we’re vowing to — which, of course, is the whole purpose of The New I Do. What about you?
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