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08/03/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Sanford case shines a spotlight on the central paradox of marriage.

South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford not only played fast and loose with the institution of marriage, but with email. However, help keeping affairs secret has arrived not only for politicians, but all of us. AshleyMadison.com just released apps for mobile phones and the Blackberry. Jeremy Caplan reports for Time that because they're "loaded up from phones' browsers, they leave no electronic trail."

For those unfamiliar with it, AshleyMadison is a matchmaking service for married individuals. That's right: It facilitates affairs. To summarize the statement of a woman Caplan quotes who consults in the online dating field, AshleyMadison is infidelity "rebranded" and made "monetizable." Though Ashley Madison has signed up over one million users since going online in 2001, she seems concerned that it harms the online dating business for singles.

As has been noted, the Sanford case is unlike other Republican sex scandals. It's devoid of sex with prostitutes (to which prominent Democrats, like Eliot Spitzer, are also prone), drooling over congressional pages, soliciting sex in a public rest room, or pursuing an aide's wife. Sanford was simply a man who fell in love with another woman who wasn't much younger than he.

As the spiritual counselor to the Sanfords and their circle, Warren Culbertson, said in a Huffington Post article:

'The only thing holding his friends' marriage together right now is "their vow to God... Because it's not feelings -- it's not emotions... For most Christians, at some point in your marriage, if you're married long enough, you do it because that's what we're called to do -- out of obedience instead of out of passion."'

You can almost hear the strains of a psaltery in the background. Apparently Sanford, despite his faith (not fundamentalist, actually, but Episcopal), was unable to adhere to a view of marriage as starkly medieval as Culbertson's.

It's not just religious principles, but romantic ideals about marriage -- however strange bedfellows -- that are stern taskmasters. Entering marriage, neither the man nor the woman typically understands each other's sexuality. (Thus strengthening the case for gay marriage.)

Male needs are cyclic, like hunger or urination. Women, on the other hand, tend to be episodic. Not only doesn't religion and romance acknowledge the problem this might pose, they make no provisions for when a partner (the aged aside) spurns sex entirely.

Causes most commonly cited include stress and fatigue. Compounding those, the partner suffering from one or both of those symptoms -- at the risk of gender-typing, usually the wife -- may resent the other for helping to cause them by not holding up his or her end of the chores or child-rearing.

Other reasons include -- today especially -- loss of self-respect if one loses job and, of course, weight gain. The husband blows up and turns off the wife or she packs on the pounds and no longer feels attractive.

Divorce may not be an alternative because resuming the solo life, especially with kids, isn't feasible for most in today's economy. Also, the person denied sex may still care deeply for his or her spouse.

Nevertheless, a life without physical intimacy is unthinkable for many. Is an affair the answer? Even if not sniffed out by the spouse, it may end the marriage. The unfaithful spouse may, a la Sanford, link up with the fabled "soul mate," which seems to make abandoning one's family understandable in the eyes of God. (Funny how those soul-mate sensations have a way of fading once the cheating spouse divorces and then marries his or her paramour.)

On the other hand, as hollow as married life becomes without intimacy, in lying and deception lay the path to true misery. Of course, like Sanford, the cheater can admit to the affair on the theory that confession is good for the soul. It's just that any benefit that might accrue to the sinner comes at the expense of the one sinned against.

We invite our readers to respond to the following questions in the comments section:

  • Is cheating a viable alternative to a sexless marriage?
  • Do "emotional affairs" (which stop short of sex) help or make the situation worse?
  • What's the best way for the partner denied sex to deal with lack of physical intimacy in a marriage?