It seems to me that adultery has become socially tolerated (the Ashley Madison hack provided a brilliant but missed opportunity to explore this phenomenon) whilst at the same time, at an individual level it remains unbearable.
Oscar Wilde wrote in his essay – The Critic as Artist – “As long as war is regarded as wicked it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular.” Could something similar be said of adultery? As long as adultery is viewed as erotic it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as betrayal, it will cease to be popular.
Currently, the social tolerance of adultery rests on two complimentary assumptions. Firstly, the view that certain groups of people are able to comfortably commit adultery; educated, middle class married people who have the ability to hop into bed with other people and feel free of guilt and free of consequences. Groups such as the London Bloomsbury set of the last century or the French for example. We are led to believe that infidelity, for certain people, can be accepted and tolerated as a recognised aspect of their relationship. These individuals, if it is to be believed, who experience painless sexual infidelity must have some kind of inoculation to protect them from the torment that I am enduring as a consequence of my husband’s adultery. I wonder, does living amongst people who are blasé about adultery soften the blow of cheating in some way? Or, and more likely I suspect, is it a case of simply downplaying the jealousy, hurt, insecurity and anger felt by the betrayed spouses in order to justify the betrayer’s behaviour? Are the betrayed spouses coerced into censoring their emotions? Made to pretend their pain does not exist?
Added to this pernicious perspective is a second common assumption, shared by Esther Perel, that adultery is everywhere, and as it has always been the case historically we need to get real and lighten up on our views about it and responses to it. Perhaps be more like the London Bloomsbury set or the French. She says her research has shown that people in happy marriages cheat so this suggests that “marriage is an imperfect arrangement”. (But maybe it’s only imperfect for one member of that marriage; the one who wants to have their cake and eat it too!) Along with Dan Savage, who believes marriages should be non-monogamous, Perel believes that there needs to be “new negotiations” around monogamy. No doubt these views will be espoused more expansively in her proposed new book ‘Affairs in the Age of Transparency’. Perel suggests that an affair is an erotic experience and not just about sex. It’s about desire, attention, reconnecting with parts of yourself. About longing and loss. She contrasts this with what she says is the American discourse which is framed around betrayal and trauma. But you see, she’s getting confused with her discourses here. What she is doing is creating a discourse of adultery from the perspective of the adulterer and choosing to juxtapose this not with an American discourse but with what in fact is the universal discourse of the betrayed spouse. This is nonsense. It is all part of the same discourse. There can be no separation. The deceived spouse is essential to the act of adultery, and their perspective is as pertinent as any. Betrayal and trauma is what the betrayed spouse gets smashed between the eyes with and this is NOT an erotic experience. Betrayal and trauma is NOT about desire, attention and reconnecting with parts of yourself long forgotten. But, without betrayal there can be no adultery! This is the symbiotic but toxic reality.
These two assumptions; that certain people are able to ‘successfully’ navigate adultery and that adultery will always be with us deny two important human aspects. One; the aching human desire for an enduring loving and trusting relationship, and two; the trauma that I believe is ALWAYS experienced by the deceived spouse as a direct consequence of the adultery. Michela Marzano in ‘Fidelity: Loving on the edge’ writes “Humans are happier when they accept boundaries, even though boundaries limit their behaviour and oblige them to give up short-term pleasures such as extra-marital sex.” Don Juan was not free. He was a slave to his drives and was unable to construct his life. Our desire for commitment is hardly discussed except as a cursory nod towards the romantic myth of the ‘one-and-only-soul-mate-for-me-on-the-planet’ which often culminates in a frothy and champagne flowing wedding ceremony where everybody celebrates the loving couple’s commitment to each other. Then waits. Statistics tell us the unsavoury news. Percentages are thrown around like late confetti, all suggesting that adultery is inevitable, divorce likely. These data are highly flawed, as any close inspection will reveal. There is no definitive research that indicates how prevalent adultery is or how often it leads to divorce. Really, would we expect otherwise?
As for a possible inoculation against the torment of being betrayed – I just don’t believe it. If you love someone dearly and that person opts to remove you from being the central person in your life, how is it humanely possible to shrug this off?
Pamela Druckerman in her book ‘Lust in Translation’ provides an interesting window into how different cultures respond to adultery. From gay communities with men who trade a few minutes of pleasure for an agonising death from AIDS to the French President François Mitterrand and his mistress and illegitimate daughter, adultery is presented as a kaleidoscope of different activities, but “there are universals, of course. Even in countries where people supposedly tolerate cheating, almost everyone is heartbroken to discover infidelity.” Married people the world over are devastated to discover their partners have been cheating. As for the French, Druckerman states “French women are startled when I tell them about their international reputation for being laissez-faire on infidelity. ‘Would you want your husband to cheat on you’ one woman relied.”
Dig a bit deeper into any marriage where love still lives and if adultery has occurred then the trauma will soon become apparent. Even though Mitterrand’s affair has the French outward appearance of him appearing as a cultivated person, in reality it is far more complicated. It was a state secret for two decades. His illegitimate daughter was publicly disclosed only fourteen months before his funeral. In her autobiography ‘Mouth Sewn Shut’ she says that she was so traumatised by the need to ‘stay invisible’ she went into psychotherapy. Her father’s adulterous relationship with her mother forced her to fabricate a counterfeit life. Really, how can this be truly tolerated? What emotional tyranny was employed here in the name of love?
In the Sunday Telegraph last week it was announced that Nelson’s spurned wife took love for him to the grave. “She was humiliated by her husband in the most public of ways, endured the scandal of one of history’s best documented affairs and weathered the indignity of being estranged. But Viscountess Nelson, known as Fanny, was so devoted to Lord Nelson she wore a miniature of him until she died, a newly found work suggests.”
“Fanny has not been treated well by posterity, and suffered badly at the hands of her attention seeking usurper Emma Hamilton. She was not the icy wife as depicted but a woman of deep and highly charged emotion.”
Another sad tragedy of adultery can be found in the life of the American artist Georgia O’Keeffe. From reading her detailed biography by Roxana Robinson it is clear that she was a remarkable woman; talented and independent she would epitomise what would have been considered the bohemian lifestyle of the last century. Yet she had no inoculation against the torment of her husband Alfred’s infidelity.
Alfred Stieglitz was married to Emmy when he met Georgia. Apparently this marriage was not a happy one and had become sexless. They had one daughter. However, how their marriage was and how it was perceived by husband and wife can be speculated upon. Emmy returned one day to find her husband taking explicit photographs of Georgia in their apartment. She ordered them out and gave an ultimatum to Alfred to either stop seeing her or stop coming home. He chose to leave. Emmy broke down and repealed her ultimatum but to no avail. Alfred took his road to freedom and had the nerve to display traces of injury to friends and colleagues along the lines of he felt ‘kicked-out’!
The night he left he sent Emmy a note of apology which she kept all her life. She was enraged and humiliated and the divorce took six years. So Emmy WAS tormented by Alfred’s infidelities. This no doubt had a devastating effect on their daughter. A very difficult and distant relationship with her father and later, insanity.
However, and with a certain predictability, Alfred after marrying Georgia began a relationship with a woman who ensconced herself firstly in his studio and then in his love life. Georgia became aware of the daily letters and telephone calls that became a pattern between her husband and Dorothy Norman. She wrote “The vision ahead may seem a bit bleak but my feeling about life is a curious kind of triumphant feeling about – seeing it bleak – knowing it so and walking into it fearlessly because one has no choice.” However, Stieglitz’s public betrayal of Georgia with Dorothy was a constant unspoken sub text between Alfred and Georgia and produced difficult emotional choices. Georgia chose not to leave him but to accept his infidelity and respond to it by leading her own independent life as much as she could. Outwardly it may have appeared that the infidelity had no impact upon Georgia’s and Alfred’s marriage.
For Alfred and Dorothy, who was also married, the folie á deux developed over familiar lines. Dorothy wrote “I want to hurt or tear apart nothing”. Her self-image was one of kindness and generosity and it did not allow her to admit that her behaviour might be damaging to others. She professed bewilderment at her husband’s jealousy! “We never think of breaking up our marriages. We are nourished by and nourish them.” Equally Alfred’s skewed logic of infatuation convinced him that his involvement with Dorothy was a benefit to everyone around him, including Georgia!
Georgia’s self-confidence waned as she watched herself replaced by Dorothy Norman. I wonder if it caused her to think about Emmy, Alfred’s first wife. Georgia’s subsequent mental breakdown caused Alfred both grief and guilt and he returned her to the centre of his emotional life. His romantic involvement with Dorothy diminished from this time onwards. Although she had seemed to stoically accept her husband’s infidelity, the price she paid was high. Georgia was tormented by her husband’s infidelity. She was 46 when she acknowledged her need for reciprocated love. She wrote “If the past year or two has taught me anything it is that my plot of earth must be tended with absurd care – by myself first – and if second by someone else, it must be with absolute trust – their thinking carefully and knowing what they do – it seems it would be very difficult for me to live if it were wrecked again just now”.
After Alfred’s death Georgia unleashed her rage at Dorothy at last. She informed her that her relationship with her husband was “absolutely disgusting”.
Adultery is a travesty of marriage. If one person favours infidelity as a way of improving their selfish life whilst the other favours monogamy and the sacrifices it requires, the only consequence can be torment of one kind or another unless the differences can be reconciled. But, I consider them to be irreconcilable. I don’t think, not for me anyway, that there can be a re-working of monogamy. Social tolerance of adultery cannot be translated into individual tolerance. People’s feelings are valuable things that should not be trampled upon. I don’t know anything worse than betrayal for trampling upon people’s feelings. There is no pain free adultery.