Monogamy or Bust? Let's Reframe the Affair
As we head into another American presidential election – where transgressions and infidelities are once again playing a larger role in voter’s opinions than whether the future president can balance the budget or encourage a vibrant economy, I want to talk about cheating – not to be confused with election rigging and paranoid, pussy-groping presidential candidates. I want to talk about marital infidelities and how I’ve come to understand affairs more like a European than an American, who still view infidelity as a marriage-crushing deal breaker.
Conservative statistics show that over 60% of men and more than 40% of women have cheated on their spouses. In America, infidelity is now a moral outrage, even though we used to turn a blind eye to it. It’s well known that Marilyn Monroe did more than just sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Jack Kennedy. But somehow Americans have come to equate sexual monogamy with high moral character. And if a person can’t be trusted to remain faithful to one person for life (and these days, that’s a mighty long time) they can’t possibly be trusted to negotiate economic trade agreements.
Ever since our notions of marriage turned from practical to romantic, a lifetime commitment to one person has become fraught with enormous expectations. Whereas we used to marry to secure land, power and inheritance, now we want our spouses to be our passionate lover, our best friend, our protector, and share in the child care and laundry folding. Add to this an additional 20-30 years of life expectancy and we’re looking at a mighty big challenge and one that well over 50% of us won’t achieve.
Esther Perel, author of the groundbreaking analysis of longterm love, ‘Mating in Captivity’ believes that examining monogamy is our next frontier and with that the implicit rules we’ve set up around marriage. Marriage, after all, provides a very culturally comfortable and accepted framework within which to raise children. It also provides a lot of emotional comfort and, if we’re good at negotiating our differences, a contented partnership. But routine and contentedness are not sexy.
“…we don’t go elsewhere because we are looking for another person. We go elsewhere because we are looking for another self. It isn’t so much that we want to leave the person we are with as we want to leave the person we have become.” says Perel.
It’s common that the comforting routine of building a life with one person can eventually feel like an unforgiving rut, one that has turned you both into soul-sucking nag masters. And if you no longer have sex on the kitchen floor, or you no longer even have sex, this means the marriage is broken.
What I’ve finally learned after five decades is that it only takes a shift in perspective, a rethinking of expectations, to make the difference between a fraught marriage and a smoothly running partnership. Granted, there are many reasons people can’t live an authentic life within one particular marriage, and those people are better off divorcing. But there are so many ways to have a marriage. The kernels of discontent form when we start believing we’re not doing it right. If we are stuck in our thinking that our marriage is not what it should be, we remove ourselves from seeing what it can be. We focus too much on how it’s broken rather than in how it works – or could work. Given that over 50% of divorcing couples cite “lack of commitment” and “infidelity” as reasons for divorce, it makes sense to reframe our idea of marriage and save ourselves the stress and destruction of divorce.
There are many areas where resetting expectations can relieve marital stress, from household responsibilities to objectionable habits. But let’s stick here to sex. Is wanting to have sex with someone other than one’s spouse mean there’s something wrong with the spouse? Not likely. But once we start assuming that’s what it means, because we’ve been conditioned to think that fucking the same person for fifty years is what we should be happy to do, we start assuming we’ve failed our marriages and the whole domestic set up unravels. And for what? Because of the sex or because of what we’ve come to believe the sex to mean?
If having an affair is an indication of wanting to be someone else – the passionate, desired, alive person that many people describe how they feel in affairs, don’t ask what is wrong with wanting that. Ask how you might frame an affair to be a life affirming experience, one that injects new energy into every facet of your life, including your marriage. And accept that your spouse should not have to be your everything, especially if what’s missing is sex.
This may sound like sleezy justification for cheating. But I’m suggesting that’s because we still believe that monogamy is a line in the sand rather than a fluid experience over many years, as so many Europeans view it. However, if we shift our perspective of marriage to include another lover, we had best be clear-eyed about the importance of our marriage. Just as we have friends that provide non-sexual intimacy which doesn’t threaten our partnerships, why should the act of sex confer any greater privilege or responsibility to the other lover than to our spouse? It shouldn’t. But this is, indeed, a huge cultural shift – at least for Americans and probably Brits as well.
And though I did start this column making reference to “high moral character” there’s not enough room to go into how we might have affairs that are ethical and protect the dignity and feelings of the people we care about the most. That is for another post. And you can be sure I won’t forget to come back to that.
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