State laws across the country now impose a "no fault" rule on divorces -- which means that financial and property disputes are resolved without regard to the allegations of fault between the spouses. While legislators and lawyers strongly support this approach, many divorcing couples have a great deal of trouble reaching this plateau of enlightened rationality. For some it is simply a desire to punish a partner that he or she perceives as the cause of the divorce; for others there appears to be a direct connection between the partner's precipitating behavior and the very real costs of the break-up.
While historically the notions of fault included a wide range of bad behavior (abuse, neglect, or excessive drinking, for example), most spouses these days focus on infidelity as the ultimate "fault" leading to a divorce. A recent study of the sexual lives of gay male couples, however, suggests that gay couples have found new ways of reducing the damaging consequences of an extra-marital affair. The study showed that nearly half the male couples they interviewed had found a way to "negotiate" an open relationship, with clear guidelines and open communication between the partners. The researchers concluded that open negotiation over issues of monogamy can reduce the negative consequences of an affair -- in many instances, allowing the couple to maintain their long-term relationship.
This is not to say that outside affairs are always harmless. Indeed, for many couples they represent a kind of "checking out" of the relationship -- where the affair is not the cause of the break-up, but rather, is the precipitating event that uncovers a much deeper degree of distance. And, where there has been a commitment to monogamy, a lack of honesty in the conduct of the affair is a kind of betrayal that creates its own bow-wave of destruction. Then, for others, the affair provides the impetus for a break-up that one partner was already planning for some time.
But not every extra-marital experience needs to lead to a divorce -- and that is a lesson that many gay couples could teach to straights. It's not that straight couples don't experience infidelity, nor are all gay marriages open ones. Rather, it is the marriage culture overall that demonizes the behavior and imposes an idealized notion of marriage that suggests that every breach of marital vows should result in a divorce.
The challenge is to face the truth of sexual exploration openly, and try to work out the underlying emotional issues that frame the behavior -- and not just declare it a "fault" and proceed with a blame-ridden divorce. And, even where a dissolution does ensue, take it from a divorce mediator who has seen it all: make every effort to move past the emotions of fault, and accept that the affair has a broader and deeper background and is rarely just one party's fault.
This is not easy work, but the benefits to your relationship -- whether it lasts or not -- are well worth the effort.