Adultery and the Future of Commitment

commitmentIf I’m honest, I don’t think that I had any strong opinions about adultery until I found myself at the receiving end of being betrayed. Why would I?  I was happily married and therefore thought it just happened to other people who were unhappy in their marriages; an exit strategy of sorts.  I didn’t think about it as a bomb being planted in a trusting place.  It seemed simple from a distance.  Plus, if you’re not told, how do you know what couples are about to implode?  As Wendy Plump (a betrayer and betrayed) says in her memoir ‘Vow’; “what does a couple with such an enormous smash showing on the horizon look like in the beginning?  Indistinguishable from all other couples”.

I was vaguely aware of a couple of people in our circle engaging in extra marital sex but it was brushed under the carpet and viewed, I’m sorry to say, as a private matter between the married couple.  A view currently espoused by Glenn Greenwald that now makes me want to spit feathers the size of an ostrich’s.

But our views are not formed in a vacuum are they; the media plays a large role in the public perception of adultery. They constantly fail to promote accurate representations of the fallout from adultery; the reality of lying and deceiving someone who trusts you, the trauma faced by the betrayed spouse, the time it takes to heal from it and the long term consequences for the children of the betraying spouse.  Instead they appear to luxuriate in the more salacious scandalous aspects, paying lip service to so called family values and traditional morals.  Equally, it could be argued that some TV shows and movies are complicit in actually helping to erode the significance of loving, long-term committed relationships.  From this perspective it looks like we may have an insidiously manipulative culture.  Anthony Giddens, the British sociologist wrote in 1992 that “a social climate has been created which endorses irresponsibility, self-indulgence and an isolationist detachment from the claims of others”  He was prescient in so many ways.  “Men are likely to drift away from women in large numbers and to regard commitment as equivalent to entrapment.” Is this happening?  What do women want?

For a while, post D-day I was too engulfed in my own personal hell to consider any of this. My private reality colonised my thinking for a time; my marriage, my husband, my pain, my betrayal, my expanse of wasteland.  But since then, I have tried to understand adultery from a wider context than just my own, and I’m afraid that some of what I’ve discovered has alarmed me.  Whilst I think that adultery is wrong and there should be more attention paid to the consequences of committing it for everybody involved, there appears to be a growing number of pop culture purveyors aggressively suggesting that adultery is inevitable (monogamy is too much to ask for)and that because of this, marriage as we know it, has become an arcane institution that we, as a progressive society, should move beyond.  Not, why might the institution of marriage be worth fighting for or how it might need to be newly designed with equal rights and democratic principles, but instead, a metaphorical sticking plaster of accepted deceit to cover the cracks of adultery whilst playing a form of Russian roulette with your marriage. Like deceit and happiness can co-exist.  Like you can just have sex with others and if you’re clever, nothing needs to change. Like it doesn’t make you a duplicitous character, not trustworthy and capable of grand deceit.   Like the Other Woman does not need to believe that she is an interloper in the intimate space and machinery of some other woman’s marriage. Sex is what you think you want until you get it and then you want all the rest.  Adultery is its own hell. How have we got to this?

Why is monogamy getting such a bad press? Why can’t we confront our achingly human desire for a relationship with one significant other and look to how it can be achieved?  Marriage may yet prove to be the most mysterious covenant in the universe and something to treasure and be proud of and YES, work at. Professor Janet Reibstein, a psychologist/psychotherapist whose research and clinical work primarily focuses on couples and families states “there is such ignorance about the insatiable, ongoing, time honoured, and even animal need to be in a happy, secure, erotic and deepening union with one other person”.  Much of her research has looked into what makes successful marriages  and her findings suggest that instead of perfect contentment couples strive for pragmatic solutions.  But this is not sexy and certainly not newsworthy.  Stories of great marriages cannot be heard above the din of reports of the failed ones.  Reibstein succinctly points out; “you can choose to go down roads that wreck relationships or down ones that keep them going”.  I believe that adultery is the royal road to marital destruction.

We can’t get confused here with open marriages. I remember the term ‘swingers’ – this described married couples swapping sexual partners.  This option has been available for years.  This is not adultery. Equally, if you willingly consent to your partner having sex with someone else, this is not adultery.  Adultery requires lying, cheating and betrayal.  It has to be a secret .  But who in their right mind would want to be betrayed?  Seriously?  Where are we going with this?  It’s OK to betray? As Zygmunt Bauman depressingly suggests in his book Liquid Love “What is hoped… is how to square the circle: to eat the cake and have it, to cream off the sweet delights of relationship while omitting its bitter and tougher bits”.  For Bauman the denizen of our modern society is someone with no bonds that are unbreakable.  No bond is guaranteed to last.  They are loosely tied so they can be easily untied with little delay when the situation changes.  We become “semi-detached” couples and are praised as relationship revolutionaries who have burst the suffocating bubble of monogamy. Lasting commitments are seen as oppression.  How does that make us feel?  Easily disposable? What happens to our “yearning  for the security of togetherness and for a helping hand to count on in a moment of trouble?”

As far as I can see, the dominant discourse around adultery uses ideas about longing, sexual freedom and liberation and uses these to reconstruct an alternative world with its own laws and culture that considers sexual activity with others outside the marriage a benign response to the individual wants of some poor soul  trapped in a ‘prison’ of monogamy.  Even a marriage saver!  It also applauds the idea that wives are claiming territory once occupied by their husbands and going off to commit adultery in their hoards.  But beware, as cognitive scientist Steven Pinker points out  “sex is not a binding force but a divisive one… but, conventional wisdom denies this”.  And as Anthony Giddens noted “sexual permissiveness is not at all the same as liberation.” Words such as deceit, lying and betrayal are erased from the narratives.  Adultery in its current form is maintained by directing attention away from the fearsome facts and repackaging the concept  in an acceptable form.  We find destructive illusions of excitement and glamour,  caricatures of frigid wives and sexual mistresses only too eager to please, and a total neglect of  child care.  In this cowardly new world which disregards duty, obligation and sacrifice, we spouses need to have a built in obsolescence (an artificially limited useful life).

George Orwell said “during times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act”. How does the truth that we know about adultery get out there?  We need to confront these social forces that are shaping our lives.  Society should care if we lie or cheat or harm others;  what we permit we promote.  I feel so strongly that we must not become inured toward adultery.  We all have to learn to make  the right choice against impulses, against desire and face the sacrifice that comes with it.  It is not possible to be happy all the time; life doesn’t allow it.  Why has monogamy been identified as the villain of the peace?  It may be true,  one person will never be enough,  but people are not something you use to fill a hole inside you.  They are not objects.

“Investing strong feelings in your partnership and taking an oath of allegiance means taking an important risk. It makes you dependent on your partner.  (Though let’s note that dependency, now fast becoming a derogatory term, is what the moral responsibility for the other is all about)” Zygmmunt Bauman

“I suspect the reason [that some people] don’t cheat is a subtle one. It has to do with not wanting to hurt their spouse, of course, but only partly.  It only partly has to do with their view of monogamy. In the case of those people most capable of fidelity, I think it has to do with their own honour.  A sense of self that will not let them score across their own pristine slate.  That’s a commitment to one’s self as opposed to one’s spouse… I used to think marriage was based on love and passion.  Now I see that it’s based mostly on loyalty.  Loyalty with warmth.” Wendy Plump

Image Credit: Bouquet Of Sunflowers by nattavut





10 thoughts on “Adultery and the Future of Commitment

  1. Taking Back My Life

    Powerfully written. I love that fidelity is “based on ones honor.” That really struck me. Thank you.

  2. Dr. Elisabeth

    Great post as always. I agree with “Taking back my Life”, some who do betray and who have remorse state that they humiliated themselves and that they broke their own moral values.
    Yes, media (the hatred news paper article I quoted a while ago), movies, social media…it all seems to steer in the direction to minimize the hurt and the long-term impact. Why is that? I think many people love the scandals, the drama and the false believe in “change, excitement and false and superficial happiness”. The truth, i.e. the aftermath is ugly, empty and dirty. Not the “fantastic sex” with the “forbidden stranger”.Mostly it is bad sex anyway. I just wish it was like a bad hangover, only that this one lasts for years…

  3. valkyriemad123


    I live for your posts!!!

    Only you can mash together so brilliantly authors, thinkers, cultural attitudes that all apply to intimacy-betrayal. Giddens, Plumb, Reibstein and Orwell! (And the rest). I can sit with this one for a month….Each stroke and exploration has us looking at underlying issues and social messages that come marching right into our homes, our beds and lives. You have me reaching back to the work of Judith Herman but here used for the intimacy-assault of “Domestic abuse by Stealth”

    “It’s very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator (i.e. masked Cheaters and Liars) All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander Do Nothing. They appeal to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil.

    The victim (upon discovery of this devastating-shattering-betrayal) on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering…….

    In order to escape accountability for their crimes, the perpetrator does everything in their power to promote forgetting.

    Secrecy and silence are the perpetrator’s first lines of defense. If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of their victim. If they cannot silence the victim absolutely, they try to make sure that no one listens.

    To this end the perpetrator marshals an impressive array of arguments, from the most blatant denial to the most sophisticated and elegant rationalizations. After every atrocity on can expect to hear the same predictable apologies:

    It never happened;

    The Victim lies;

    The victim exaggerates;

    The Victim brought it on themselves;

    And in any case it is time to forget the past and move on.

    The more powerful the perpetrator, the greater is their prerogative to name and define reality, and the more completely their arguments prevail. (Judith Herman 1997, Trauma and Recovery)

  4. TigerLily

    MR, as always a very well written and well thought out post.

    A lot of our work has been focusing on self-validation, not relying on others to fill the empty spots within ourselves. It is such an important part of our healing. Still, I must tell you, a light bulb moment occurred to me while reading this post. Loyalty! Loyalty was and is something that is exceptionally important to me, and as your post points out probably an underlying value in those who remain faithful. When I think back to all the moments in our marriage that hurt me, affair related and non-affair related, it all boils down to lack of loyalty on MC’s part. I had never before fully made that connection, but there it is. I think this is something MC and I need to explore further.

    Thank you for this! ❤

  5. transformation

    This perfectly encapsulates my attitude toward monogamy & marriage. And my attitude toward the therapists, authors etc. trying so hard to make adultery more socially acceptable. I just can’t see how betrayal, deceit, lying & cheating should EVER become more acceptable in any area of life, and certainly not in our most intimate and vulnerable relationships.The notion of living an honorable life really resonated with me when I read Frank Pittman’s book “Private Lives.” He boiled it all down to that one idea – live an honorable life. Thank you for this lovely post.

  6. valkyriemad123


    “Like the Other Woman does not need to believe that she is an interloper in the intimate space and machinery of some other woman’s marriage. Sex is what you think you want until you get it and then you want all the rest.”

    This is the OW siren song and she believes her own lies.

    Also, the fact remains that we are unaware while the Other women – is watching us – and hating us. In her recent book “The Other Woman” Theresa Bohman ” writes:

    “I have fantasized about his wife dying. It is wrong to wish another person dead, I tell myself sternly, but still the though comes back to me. It would be enough if she left him, actually. An accident would be best. Instantaneous death, even in my darkest fantasies I don’t want her to suffer, I just want her to disappear.”

    I’ve seen a million versions of this and sex has nothing to do with it. “I don’t want anything from you, it’s just sex.” Is the word candy they use. Subconsciously/consciously they are working out their Electra or Oedipal issues and they want to kill mom and marry dad. I’ve heard it practically in every book written by a Mistress. Even the ones who pride themselves on longitudinal ‘mistress,’ existence like their good sporting ability to buy their lovers wives and children gifts or performing secretarial routines. Even creeping into the woodwork of the family and believing they wish everyone well?

    Tigerlily your comment reminded me of the beautiful letter posted here from a remorseful husband (from Reconcile 4 life). His words stunned me. And what hurt me most was not only my betrayal but that others watched, that he was not ‘loyal’ enough to keep another woman ‘who wished me harm,’ away from me and my daughters. In this remarkable letter I am referring to this husband said “I apologize for failing to protect you,” Not to “profoundly, confidently, and instinctively stand up for you.”

    This crushing lack of ‘warmth and loyalty,’ has continued to hurt me most when I look at the past and what transpired. I still can not imagine how he could let a woman like that…..into my world for so little in return.

    Transformation I adore Frank Pittman! and agree, live an honorable life!!!!!

    love to all

    1. Taking Back My Life

      The siren song and word candy. Love that. I specifically asked my husband the question ” Didn’t she want something more?” His reply ” She said she was happy with the way things were.” Jesus Mary and Joseph. Seriously he believed that? I had to tell him that NO woman in NO way has an affair for 5 months, texts you ” I love you” every morning at 6am and then an additional dozen or more times through out the day and is “happy with that.” I can guarantee you they are scheming, wishing our death and wanting to be the woman that our husbands can take out in public! I also told him ” Did you ever think what kind of woman “is happy with that” and why in hell would you want to be with her?” I think sometimes my head is going to explode!

  7. Nuthatch

    Excellent and thought provoking post.

    Perversely, I wonder whether adultery is seemingly no longer seen as a an instantaneous reason for divorce because the betrayed spouses are demonstrating their commitment to the marriage by quietly and painfully working away to try to gain some understanding and a different reworked marriage. The media continue to propound adultery as a bit of a blip – bit of pain but hey, get over it. Consider the Anaesthetist who imported a prostitute into the hospital to alleviate his stress. The Press was quick to state that he is a good Doctor, his patients were not put at risk and it would do no good to strike him off and very little mention of his GP wife who has had this plastered all over the Press other than she understood he had been under stress!!!

    I’m going to be a devils advocate now. Are our quiet endeavours (as those who have been betrayed) seen as an acceptance that yes ‘accidents can happen (said with something akin to irony) but’ button your lips, keep it quiet, give it long enough and very few people are any the wiser. Are we in a contorted way condoning it? We know we are not. We also know that years down the line as evidenced by the responses on this astonishingly perceptive blog we are still suffering, still chewing over the pain and wondering whether the right decision was made to stay in the face of silent flawed spouses who in many cases want to just sweep it aside and move on. Bah, humbug!

    When did adultery become an accessory to a marriage? In the UK with years of top down nannying by the State did we shed our responsibilities and moral code? From littering, to anti-social behaviour to kids answering back to a culture of fear and the self and an absence of empathy and altruism we’ve become a society divided.

    I’m reading a novel by Tony Parsons – man and boy. How one 30yr old man called Harry throws away his marriage for a meaningless f***. (I loathe that word). I thought it would be an eyeopener to read this from a male perspective. I’m not at the end yet however there are a fews phrases/sentences that bear noting. The man refers to his father in his 70’s who is struggling with his sons marital collapse (interestingly the son has not admitted his one night stand as the reason why his wife left him). Harry pondered of his father that “…..his generation had faced up to its responsibilities in a way that my lot never could”. He continues, “my generation had grown up with our own individual little pile of happiness at the top of our shopping list. That’s why we fucked around, fucked off and fucked up with such alarming regularity.” ……..”My dad had learned early on that nobody gets away with a perfect life.”

    It’s wearisome isn’t it.


    1. Iris

      Our responsibilities and moral code were never that great, at least for the entitled. I think we just don’t know how prevalent this behaviour was, so many women kept silent. I can think of several cases from the 30s, 40s and 50s in my extended family where the men wandered or wandered off.

      The difference is, perhaps, that the betrayed spouse is blamed more: it’s not that boys will be boys, have low character or ‘an eye for the ladies’, it’s the failure of a spouse or the marriage (which somehow becomes an entity separate from the betrayer) to maintain his or her personal happiness. We are all responsible until we are NOT and we are not responsible at the point of betrayal because it is YOUR fault. The OW is no longer a tart or a bohemian or the Prince’s mistress featured in The Times on the Med, she is rarely frowned upon by the bourgeoisie because nowadays no one likes to ‘judge’. Judging is so detested I’m surprised the legal system hasn’t collapsed.

      ‘She owes you nothing’. It was not that she ever did, although private sympathy remained with the wife, but she owed society something. She was part of a system in which women took a vastly subordinate role, we don’t mourn the loss of the ‘fallen woman’ BUT what we need instead is an ethics of personal responsibility. I owe you something because you are a fellow human being and can be hurt as I can. Because women like me, and you, are important, we are fully human (not an object belonging to a man). Taking part knowingly in the betrayal of another woman, in acts which attack her in the most private and vulnerable aspects of her life, is a form of misogyny.

      We are all libertarians, champions of individual freedom. There are libertarians on the Right and libertarians on the Left, we are maximising autonomy or ‘finding’ ourselves. The result of deception seems to be nihilism, palliated (or facilitated) by alcohol. Or yoga.

  8. Dr. Elisabeth

    Swinging or the newer and better (?) upgraded version toward “polyamory” is not cheating…It is all open and honest (as far as humans can be honest).
    I promised you an update on my experiment. I ventilated my interest and it was not well perceived by my partner, varying from “you got to be kidding me”, to “are you out of your mind” toward.. “what do you think to gain from this experience?”
    I just wanted a response. Polyamory is not for me as I fail to detect and identify and appreciate the fine nuances that makes this such a positive experience for a group with a big “heart”.

    It reminds me of the discussion I had with my mum when I was a kid. My parents were into “nudistery” (nudists) and I called it “bloot lopen” (Dutch) for walking naked. My mum got very upset as I missed the fine nuances and the philosophy behind the experience.

    Many years later, I still miss that… me it remain walking naked and being happy with it , i.e. fully confident to let it swing!
    Let them swing it….I rather stick to my way including the cover of 60+ sunscreen and the boring existence of someone who prefers to have sexual intimacy with one person.

    Sunny days…yet to come…:)


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