If 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
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