THE BLOG

Is Infidelity A Societal Problem?

09/20/2013 01:01 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2013

Anyone who has been unfaithful and then gone to couples therapy to "work on the marriage" -- assuming he or she hasn't already been given the boot -- knows that the therapist probably isn't going to take his or her side. You cheated, you're bad, end of discussion.

Yet it's clear that with infidelity rates that may be as high as 60 percent to 70 percent (although it's hard to get an exact number because it's all self-reported), there are a lot of people who are being less-than-honest in their marriage. That's a big problem.

So why is it just an individual's problem? If so many are getting some on the side, isn't infidelity a societal problem?

What if instead of being branded with a Scarlet A, those who stray are told at the therapist's office that the problem isn't really just his or hers; the problem is monogamy, which clearly isn't working for a good percentage of couples.

That's what some contributors suggest in The State of Affairs: Explorations in Infidelity and Commitment. Among the questions posed is, what do affairs tell us about the institution of marriage?

It's a good question to ask.

We get a lot of mixed messages about marriage. While it still is seen by many as something desirable, it's always sort of couched in something that borders on the negative -- whether it's how the bachelor/bachelorette party is the last night of "freedom," or the amount of "work" it takes, or how unhappy marriage makes us, or how sex becomes boring and requires new positions, gadgets, lingerie and quickies to spice up things -- if it exists at all anymore.

What if we changed the discussion? What if non-monogamy was the norm, and those who truly wanted to deviate from that -- be monogamous with a partner -- would be free to make that choice? Monogamy wouldn't be assumed, and wouldn't we all feel a lot better if people were actively and consciously choosing to be monogamous? Infidelity would be a thing of the past.

As The State of Affairs contributors write:

"Individualized adultery -- treating it as a single person's transgression instead of an instance of a wider social phenomenon -- is a way to forestall addressing the viability of marriage at a social level. ... Our psychological vocabulary describes adultery in terms of the insecurities and unresolved issues of individuals. ... These vocabularies do not invite consideration of what the pattern of transgression of norms at a social, collective level might indicate about those norms. ... The implication is that it is the transgressor, not the structure, that needs adjustment."

The infidelity "epidemic" is at least as prevalent as, say, the obesity epidemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 35.7 percent of U.S. adults are obese, which costs us billions each year. While there's a personal accountability to obesity -- just look at all the how-to-lose weight articles and books that get published each year, in addition to all the diet supplements and weight-loss programs -- it's also seen as a societal issue. The CDC funds state obesity prevention programs and in a study last year calls for even more policies at all government levels for "interventions that extend beyond individual behaviors."

"Individual-level interventions," the report says, "are resource-intensive and have limited potential for lasting success as long as environments promote unhealthy behaviors and limit access to healthy foods and safe opportunities for physical activity."

So, obesity -- which affects about as many people as infidelity does in direct ways and many more in indirect ways through higher health costs and taxpayer dollars to fund prevention programs -- is seen as something that can be fixed in ways outside just an individual's control. (Yes, in some cases, genetics is involved in a person's weight, but some studies suggest genes may play a part in some people's ability to commit, too.) Infidelity, however, is not. Why? Especially since monogamy appears to "promote unhealthy behaviors" -- aka affairs and sex avoidance. And since infidelity is among the top reasons for divorce, there's a societal cost involved, too.

The more society has put pressure on obese people, the more some have declared, "Hey, we're happy just the way we are" -- just look at the growth of the fat acceptance movement.

"Stigma may play a big role" in the health of the obese, Golda Poretsky, a fat-positive "body love coach," tells Salon. Those who cheat face a lot of stigma, too -- should there be an infidelity-acceptance movement (or, at the very least, a consensual non-monogamy movement)?

Because what's happening is monogamy, which is as hard for some people as keeping a recommended healthy weight is for others -- despite everyone's best intentions and efforts -- helps create an environment for cheating. So it seems we're happier accepting infidelity-fueled divorce and serial monogamy.

In recent years, issues that used to be considered personal matters have been pushed to the forefront of public debates and even legislation. We are collectively hand-wringing about everything, from low marriage rates to high divorce rates to delayed fertility to the growing obesity problem. Infidelity's numbers are right there with every other "epidemic" -- isn't it time we start addressing it as a societal issue?

A version of this story ran on Vicki Larson's personal blog, OMG Chronicles