11/18/2013 04:21 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Sex and Lies

Open any online newspaper or news magazine today and the headlines scream two things; sex and lies. Sex sells, but so does lying; the government lies, the Senate lies, the president lies. The news today is all about who lied to whom, and who is demanding an apology. When my kids were toddlers I noticed the same type of behavior: "He did it -- no she did it!" When they calmed down, the inevitable demand, "Say you're sorry" usually followed shortly thereafter.

Relationships, whether they are in Congress or at home, are fine until there is a conflict. And there is always a conflict. In government like in marriage, like in all of life, conflicts start with a power struggle. We are pathologically committed to proving that our side of the story is the "right" side, and we will go to great lengths to prove to the other that their side is the "wrong" side.

In marriage, there is no greater example of this power struggle than the battle for monogamy. Over half of all couples will struggle with infidelity at some point in their marriage. With the Internet being the open portal to cheating most of us find it challenging to stay true to our partner in ways that only several years ago didn't seem so difficult. For some reason, staying monogamous seems to confound us. And yet infidelity isn't about sex. It is about integrity.

Ninety one percent of Americans believe that cheating is wrong. In fact, most believe it is worse than polygamy or human cloning. Yet, we cheat anyway, not because we have to, or because our partner drives us to it, or because we can't control ourselves. We make a choice and we know when we cross the line to have sex with someone who is not our partner that we are breaking our monogamy agreement. If we didn't know we were doing something wrong, we would tell our partner about it, they would say "OK go have fun," and we would call it an open marriage. That's not cheating. It's only cheating when we know we hide it or lie about it. We know we are doing something we shouldn't. And in fact, that's what makes it exciting and fun.

In J Michael Lennons auto biography of Norman Mailer, A Double Life, Norris Church, his wife, asks Mailer why he insisted on sleeping around on her and his other five wives. He claimed, "Because life was getting too safe."

People don't cheat because they have been given permission to do it, they cheat for the opposite reason -- because it's wrong.

Infidelity is a crisis of personal integrity. We go against our own word and break our promises for the sake of sex. How do we create a commitment to a partner we love and yet maintain the excitement and sense of the forbidden that so turns us on?

It is not the sex that seems to be the problem, it is the lying. Up to 56 percent of men and 34 percent of women in affairs described themselves as being in happy marriages. They also say that they love their primary partner and have good sex with them. (Ben-Zeev, 2008)

Every couple's dilemma is to find a way to find their own moral code within their relationship; one that keeps them from betraying the other. Forgiveness is not the answer. Forgiveness is organic and happens over time. The need to forgive bogs couples down and leads to hopelessness. How does the partner who has been betrayed forgive their partner for betraying them? The power imbalance after an affair is so great the person who has been cheated on and lied to will have no choice but to take back their forgiveness on days or in moments when they feel they have nothing else to empower them.

One couple, Jan and Bob, put it this way. "So," Jan said, "If I forgive you, then you have everything. You got to have the affair, and now you have the forgiveness too. What do I have? I have nothing. I am taking back the forgiveness so at least I have something to hold over your head and remind you that you are not in charge. You don't hold all the cards in this relationship and just because you said you were sorry it does not mean that we are moving on like nothing happened."

Bob understood, but he didn't like it. "What am I supposed to do then? How do I ever restore the balance between us, if I always have the affair in my column?"

"You won't restore the balance, Bob," Jan said. "I will always be the cheated-upon wife. But at least I have the power to forgive or not, and I get to decide when that happens."

Interestingly, Jan told me that she had lied to Bob about forgiving him. "I think I have forgiven him for the affair, I understand why it happened, but I can't let it go. So I have to hold onto something to make me feel like I have some control."

Jan lied to Bob about her needs. "I am jealous that Bob got to have sex with someone else, not because he got to have fun, but because I want to have good sex too. I have never shared with Bob the kind of fantasies I have. I have never been honest about my desires. Now I am not sure I can be, but if I don't, this relationship can't move forward. I can't spend my life having bad sex."

If Jan and Bob are to move forward after the affair, they have to create a new integrity in their relationship. Integrity means integrating their responsibilities to themselves and to each other. Bob has a responsibility to honor his agreement with Jan. They can agree on a new monogamy agreement together, one that includes erotic recovery and a new relationship, one where they only have sex with one another, and openly talk about their feelings.

Jan has a responsibility to integrate her responsibilities to herself, to her own sexuality. If she doesn't work on learning ways to communicate with Bob, she won't be honoring the integrity of the marriage.

Monogamy is a choice. It is a decision that you make every day. Some days are easier than others. It is not a one-time vow that you make to one another. Do not expect that a vow you made years ago will be an inoculation against infidelity today. A monogamy agreement is a fluid and growing thing -- it changes over time. It grows like we grow, as our marriage develops. And it should be revisited often. Frankly, we renew our license every two years. Why don't we renew our monogamy agreement as well?

Talk often about the promises you make to one another. Update regularly. A moral code includes honesty at its forefront. Perhaps your new monogamy agreement includes sex with people outside of your marriage. Your agreement is between the two of you. As long as you agree on it, there is no one who can tell you it is "wrong." As long as you are honest with each other, agree on all aspects of your sexual relationship and share the same values, then your commitment is solid for the two of you. It is based on an honest and open agreement. Honesty is the guiding principle.

This won't be easy. The very foundation of our society seems to have grown soft when it comes to the concept of honesty. Lies, betrayal, fabrication, blame; they infiltrate the very fabric of our daily lives. Whether we hear politicians denying their crack smoking, or they lie about sleeping with prostitutes, we are in a new world where integrity and maintaining a moral code is challenged every day.

Morality is not black and white perhaps. Maybe some things are better off private, if not secret. Snowden has challenged our ideas of the parallel lives that we lead and our rights to a private and separate life. Can we and should we be differentiated or is it not safe to keep undisclosed information? Are we finding that same dilemma with our primary partners as well? What is better left unsaid and what do we need to share to maintain trust?

When couples talk about their affair as something that happened to "us" instead of something one "did" to the other, there is a tendency to resolve conflict faster and with more success. And for those couples who manage the betrayal and the trust issues, the prior injuries that occurred before the affair are easier to deal with. Healthy couples look at what came before the affair and use the infidelity as an opportunity to create a new relationship -- a new monogamy -- where they can each work toward a vision of the relationship they want going forward.

The nature of infidelity is dishonesty. The core of integrity is honesty. But honesty is more than just "not lying;" it's not withholding relevant information. Despite the factors that lead anyone to be tempted to lie, or to cheat, the temptation is directly dependant on their personal decision and their willingness to be dishonest and deceptive.

Ongoing honesty is essential to both personal recovery and to rebuilding a marriage. While this may be an intensely personal problem, it is also a greater societal problem as a whole. The society today with its general ideas of secrecy and hypocrisy affects our view of morality. The hypocrisy about what is moral and who holds the truth can only be confronted when we are all transparent -- and deal with our own relationships at work and at home with responsible honesty. It is time for all of us, government included, to come out of the closet like the grownups we are and admit we are sorry, and we have been doing it all wrong.

Tammy Nelson, PhD is a sex and relationship expert and the author of Getting the Sex You Want; Shed Your Inhibitions and Reach New Heights of Passion Together, as well as the upcoming book The New Monogamy; Erotic Recovery after Infidelity. She travels worldwide lecturing, teaching and working for global relational change.