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Infidelity: As It Was, Is, And Always Will Be

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Infidelity and the institution it demolishes -- marriage -- are all the rage (again). This time it's thanks to Senator John Ensign, Governor Mark Sanford, and civilian Jon Gosselin. Despite these recent scandals and ever sobering divorce rates, the New York Times offers an optimistic analysis: "Marriage Stands Up for Itself." Meanwhile the cover of Time ominously states "Unfaithfully Yours: Infidelity Is Eroding Our Most Sacred Institution. How to Make Marriage Matter Again." I invite everyone to relax and take a deep breath. I have news--I'm not sure if it's good or bad: adultery has always and will always exist.

"If prostitution is the world's oldest profession, then the finer art of being a mistress must be the second oldest," opens the book Sex with Kings by Eleanor Herman. This book is a scintillating chronicle of the many mistresses had and had again by the rulers of France, England, Russia, and Poland to name a few. In France they even had a title for the king's head mistress--because the king usually had more than one--Maitresse-en-titre (official royal mistress). Little did Princess Diana know, that Charles was acting very much like every monarch before him by having a side salad.

Herman's book is a testament to the fact that adultery has been around for a very long time. [Note: she followed up with another book called Sex with the Queen, so the kings weren't the only ones misbehaving.] But we knew this already because of a much older book. When the Bible says NOT to do something (such as coveting your neighbor's wife) it's because people tend to do it--a lot. For the record: I'm not justifying infidelity. I think it's an unfortunate circumstance that negatively affects many lives. I do, however, know for a fact that it's not going to shake the moral foundation of the nation nor is it going to destroy the institution of marriage. If it were going to do that, it would have done it already.

I'm willing to argue that it's not marriage, but divorce rather, that's changed over the past sixty years. Up until roughly the 1950s, divorce was so socially unacceptable that it rarely happened. Not only was divorce a stigma, but life for a woman after divorce was a death sentence. Prior to the 1900s, children from a divorced family would automatically go to the father (no contest), along with any property the couple owned. Job options for a woman were pretty much non-existent until the early-mid twentieth century. In post World War II America, the image of the ideal housewife and her handsome working husband was projected in advertisements and on televisions shows. It was an image that people were afraid to taint. It was all about keeping up appearances--even more so than it is today. Rest assured it's not that they had better marriages way back when--void of lying and cheating--it's that they had no way out. In the home, that circumstance is no more desirable than divorce. It's only out of the home--when collective divorce rates are down--that it appears to be better.

Actor Spencer Tracey had a twenty-six year affair with Katherine Hepburn, but refused to get divorced from his wife, Louise Treadwell, because he was Catholic and divorce was highly frowned upon. The hypocrisy is astounding, isn't it? Interestingly enough, the Bible cites adultery as the only acceptable reason for getting divorced. Even with that holy clause, I don't think every couple who faces infidelity should get divorced necessarily. If they want to work it out then that's their business. The rest of us should stop talking about it and cease to be continually fascinated by affairs. They happen. Even mighty philanthropist and master marriage man Paul Newman had an affair. I'm sorry to be the one to tell you.

I do think Mark Sanford is doing right by not resigning. (I didn't think Eliot Spitzer should have resigned either.) Can you imagine if every man or woman who's had an affair had to give up his or her job? Then something besides the economy would be causing an employment crisis. We must honor the separation of home and workplace.

I would love to see a politician do as Jesus did and say to a crowd hungry for a (figurative) stoning, "He who has not sinned, cast the first stone." If the crowd were in an honest mood, then at least half of them would walk away. Subsequently, half of the viewers at home would turn off their television sets in solidarity.

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