One of the things that surprises me most about infidelity is that anyone is shocked to the point of awe when it happens.
I'm not talking about the wife or the husband, who may certainly be blindsided; they have every reason to assume the most abiding loyalties from the marriage. I'm talking about everyone else -- those standing on the outside looking in, full of judgements. Why are we so shocked that adultery occurs, and that marriage -- especially a long marriage -- can be haunted by a partner's attraction to someone else?
People view the "sin" of infidelity with such fury that it brings about all sorts of ruin from outside the marriage, regardless of how the couple chooses to deal with it. It is viewed with such condemnation that the couple doesn't even get to choose their own course of action; the public does it for them -- people who don't have to live with the consequences. Is this necessary, or even right?
There are about 121 million married and cohabitating Americans right now, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. If I had to guess, I would wager that infidelity has, in one way or another, affected about 120 million of them -- even if it's just through a neighbor, or a friend, or a physics professor or an actor or a movie watched on a Saturday night. If this is true for even a fraction of married America, it seems like it would be smarter to punt the scorched-earth policy towards adultery and allow, instead, for a moment of pause.
Adultery is so firmly attached to the ideas of sin and damnation that no one wants to go over there for a closer look, which is a missed opportunity. There is the larger issue of why people have affairs. It makes sense to grapple with that once in awhile, if only to flex our own marital perspectives. I have grappled with infidelity from both sides, as betrayer and as betrayed. So I know that the why deserves more scrutiny than it gets. Sadly, it is one of those issues like alcoholism or gambling or teenage pregnancy that -- wag your finger at it all you want -- happens nonetheless.
Not everyone who commits adultery is a demon. Not everyone who remains true is a saint, or even necessarily a good spouse. Monogamy is a challenge for many adults. It was a huge one for me, and for my husband. There is much to be weighed during a commitment of decades. There are the promises, the circumstances surrounding them, the beauty of the union versus a natural inclination to others, the happiness of the marriage versus the happiness you suspect is available elsewhere.
It is a rare spouse who never, for one moment, considers the tidal pull of another. That consideration is painful for both, even if nothing happens. But when it does happen, does it really need to be fatal? Having been through both ends of adultery, I think divorce is a lot worse than recovering from a spouse's affair. I do not think there should be more infidelity. I just think there should be less divorce because of it.
This is not an argument for betrayal. It is just a solicitation, if that's the word, for more understanding. And some serious reflection about why we pile so many expectations onto the fragile back of marriage. When those expectations are dashed, we react by condemning the cheater and yanking their achievements -- no matter how justifiably earned -- out from under them. General David Petraeus provides just the most recent example of our collective wrath towards cheaters. His storied career was over within hours of the revelation. That is too pre-emptive for someone like me. But it really should be too pre-emptive for everyone else, too.
I wonder if there isn't a better way of dealing with the lure of infidelity apart from the single refrain, "Don't do it!" Adultery happens anyway, often and everywhere.
There are so many reasons given for it. Boredom. Sex. Loneliness. A longing for connection. Some of them are fair reasons. But in the case of long marriage, I wonder if infidelity isn't simply a matter of wanting to feel again the way you did when you first fell in love. Sometimes it is difficult to imagine you will never feel that level of passion again, or extend it to anyone else. That is a lot to give up forever. Monogamy has to be worth it. It isn't, always.
We use the phrase "teachable moment" in reference to the lessons that arise for our children about bullying or fighting with siblings or sharing their toys. Infidelity is a big issue for married people along the same lines. The prevalence of it in our culture and in our lives could be considered a teachable moment for the adults in the room.
As for the why of infidelity, that is for every coupled adult to puzzle through. Considering the millions of marriages and couples out there, that is a lot of potential whys. And about that many answers, too, all of them useful as cautionary tales to take up and read and learn from if ever we are shocked to the point of awe by our own circumstances.
We’re basically your best friend... with better advice. Learn more