In 1992, when I published a book about adultery, one of the chapters asked the question: "To Tell or Not To Tell?" It contained arguments from psychiatrists, sex experts and marriage counselors on both sides of the equation. Some argued that it was essential to confess -- that it was the secret, and not the infidelity itself, that would kill the marriage-- whereas others (including women who had confronted the choice themselves) said, "No, never reveal an affair, particularly if you're a woman, since society will punish you so harshly."
Even then, the heat in the moral dilemma had already shifted from whether a man or woman should have an affair to whether or no to admit to it.
Fast-forward a decade, and we're confronting yet another public scandal with the Petraeus case. However, today's discussion is even further removed from the act of adultery itself. It's now emphatically placed on the vagaries of the confession. Put aside the fact that, in the military, an extramarital affair is a crime, and that this is really a question of national security. What's changed is that we find ourselves now most concerned with secrecy, not sex. How could Petraeus have thought he'd keep a secret on Gmail? What should he have done to be more discreet? How could such a powerful man do this and actually think he could hide it from the world?
Which brings me to my point: I'm not concerned about the future of infidelity among powerful men, or any men, or women. It's in great shape and will thrive as long as there is marriage, because it's as old and venerable and inexorable an institution as the wedlock on which it depends. What does concern me -- what is in jeopardy -- is privacy.
Privacy is currently the single most endangered -- and coveted -- commodity. Teenagers know this: They now prove their commitment in a relationship not only by declaring it on Facebook, but by sharing their phone and email passwords with each other. Here: You can look at anything I say to anyone. You can see all my pictures. That's how much I love you. Parents use parental controls and Nanny Cams to see for themselves the character of their children and their babysitters in real time. We Google everybody we meet at dinner parties, to see just what might turn up. This surrender of privacy is now equated with both validation and intimacy -- that is, with love. And what's lost in this equation is not only what we can learn about ourselves when we keep some parts hidden, but the understanding of how privacy, even secrecy, can be so crucial to the intensity of that knowledge.
Once a love affair (extramarital or otherwise) gets out, it loses its tingle -- that heart-stopping charge of knowing something the rest of the world does not. That charge is what makes it intimate, the sealed-in privacy itself protecting both parties from outside assessment, involvement and judgment. That charge also illuminates the dark lonely side of us that no one else but our lover can see -- a part as relevant to our self-understanding and development as our bright, "good" side is.
What's at stake here is not the ethics of infidelity, but simply a realistic view of what happens when love ends. And ending in the shadow of privacy is wildly different from having it come to light under the glare of public scrutiny. Whether the memories of the dalliance later serve as a life lesson (Whew! That was close!) or expose a surprising, deepened, sense of oneself (I can love; I can be loved!) or are simply a wondrous breakthrough (I'm me again. It's over, but nothing will ever be the same), these times teach us lessons we never forget. And privacy is, like darkness to planted seeds, crucial to construction of our selves.
Further, if the affair was illicit, reminders of our fallibility, of our crazy selves and our need for freedom and wildness -- these lawless departures from the way we hope and want to be and the way we imagine ourselves -- give us the compassion that allows us to look less harshly on others whose hearts lead them astray and make them crazy, too. Because society, as we know and as we see every day all around us, has no mercy in its Puritanical drive to invade, to sour, to disinfect, to take away power.
Sadly, we needn't worry about telling or not telling, or deceit vs. discretion, or honesty over honor, any longer. It's all out there: What we do and say -- on someone's camera, on your own phone or laptop or tablet, available to lovers and hackers and enemies alike.
You don't need to bother changing your passwords when they're hacked. It's too late. The world already knows.
Dalma Heyn, MSW, is the author of The Erotic Silence of the American Wife.