It used to be infidelity was considered dangerous and full of tragic consequence. Mess with another's man's wife? You might wind up dead. Sleep with a married man? You were a "home wrecker." If you were the chump, society understood that you'd be full of rage and temporarily insane with grief. We had "crimes of passion." We understood that the pain of betrayal drove ordinary people to extremes.
That's been the conventional wisdom going back through the ages -- to Shakespearean tragedies. Othello weeps and agonizes, before killing Desdemona just on the (wrongful) suspicion that she's been unfaithful. "Yet she must die, else she'll betray more men." Elizabethans understood that to cheat on someone who loved you was to destroy them.
My wife! my wife! what wife? I have no wife.
O insupportable! O heavy hour!
Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse
Of sun and moon, and that the affrighted globe
Should yawn at alteration.
Or check out the old British folk song Matty Groves. Lord Donald's wife cheats on him with Matty Groves. He finds the couple in bed and tells the naked man to have one of his swords and strike him first, before asking:
"So how do you like my feather bed? And how do you like my sheets? And how do you like my lady who lies in your arms asleep?"
Lord Donald kills Matty Groves and when his wife says she enjoyed kissing Matty better than him, he drives a knife through her heart and buries the cheaters together in the same grave. "But bury my lady at the top, for she was of noble kin."
Or the blues song Frankie and Albert (also known as Frankie and Johnny) -- where Frankie shoots her unfaithful lover.
"Boohoo, boohoo, boohoo, Frankie cried, 'Baby what have I done? I shot the only man that I loved with a Colt 41.' She shot that man, 'cause he was doing her wrong."
It is certainly a societal improvement that we don't romanticize such bloodthirstiness now. (Although people still kill each over other cheating.) But in my opinion, the pendulum has swung over to a new extreme -- nonchalance about infidelity. The emphasis of wrong-doing is placed on the chump now instead of the betrayer. Chumps didn't manage their expectations appropriately. Their inadequacies drove their partners to cheat on them. They must own their part in that! These false equivalencies -- that your faults are commensurate with acts of betrayal -- seem to be the new norm.
Today in our culture, Iago would say to Othello -- "Dude, get over it already." Lord Donald would probably commit murder suicide from the shame of being chumped. And Frankie and Albert would go to marriage counseling, where the shrink would ask Frankie why she wasn't meeting Albert's needs. What was her part in driving Albert into the arms of Nelly Bly?
As a culture, we used to understand that infidelity drove people out of their minds' with pain. Now it's a big whatever. In our narcissistic age we ask -- did you get played for a sucker? Well, that's your fault. You expected too much. What did you do to make them do that? And we don't want consequences or unseemly drama. Get over it already!
Sentimentality is for suckers. Commitment is for chumps. Only unsophisticated rubes expect people to keep their promises to them. You fell for that? Did you give too much? Well, that was your choice then, wasn't it? Surely you didn't expect reciprocity. Didn't you have a Plan B? You put all the eggs in that basket? That was sure dumb of you.
As my ex-husband said to me after I discovered his serial infidelities -- "Don't be such a Pollyanna. Everybody cheats."
The problem wasn't that he cheated. No, the problem was that I didn't manage my expectations of him properly. How dare I be upset that he didn't keep his commitments! My heartbreak was just a symptom of my naivety. Of being an unsophisticated Pollyanna.
There isn't anything wrong with chumps for assuming that their partners would be faithful. There is something terribly wrong, however, with a culture that thinks you should shrug at infidelity, and better yet -- be friends with the person who betrayed you. Have Thanksgiving dinners together! Be progressive and evolved! Do it for the kids!
Lord Donald didn't throw dinner parties with Matty Groves. He told the man who screwed his wife to put his pants on, take his best shot -- and then he killed him.
I'm not advocating chump violence. I'm advocating understanding. Chumps are entitled to their grief and anger. They are entitled to a chilly distance from people who betrayed them. The world must recognize once again that infidelity is life altering, tragic and terrifying. Betrayal is not a big shrug. It is fully human to love completely. We are wired to bond and it's not naive to do so. We are not unsophisticated to expect people to honor their commitments to us. On the contrary, chumps are a better class of people because they do honor their commitments.
And if they haven't stabbed anyone through the heart over this? I think they're doing pretty good.