Mark D. White asks “Are we too quick to forgive adultery?”
Like many others, I read Mark Oppenheimer’s article on Dan Savage and monogamy in The New York Times Magazine with interest. I agree with the author and Savage that monogamy is not for everybody, and that people should not feel compelled to enter monogamous relationships if this is not truly what they want. I also agree with the idea that when forming a new relationship, the future partners should talk about the boundaries of their relationship, including what counts as adultery and if and when some straying outside the relationship will be allowed. Finally, I strongly agree that partners need to be honest with each other through the relationship, even when it’s painful, and if both partners freely consent to change the nature of the relationship, that’s their business.
What I think they overlook is the symbolic nature of fidelity. The sacrifices that partners make when they choose to enter into a monogamous relationship contribute to the meaningfulness of that relationship. Though my point applies to committed relationships in general, it bears mentioning that the traditional wedding vows mention “forsaking all others”—openly recognizing that the future partners may be tempted, and at the same time allowing them to show each other how much they are willing to give up to be with the other person and how much they mean to each other.
But when one partner strays, he or she breaks that agreement, saying in essence that the relationship (and the other person) doesn’t mean enough to forsake all others anymore. The cheater has his or her reasons, good or bad, impulsive and deliberative, but that doesn’t change the fact that the other person in the relationship was counting on the fidelity of his or her partner, valued his or her strength in face of temptation and took it as a sign of devotion and love. When one partner cheats, that shows the other that he or she wasn’t worth that strength or resolve anymore—there are other things more important to his or her partner now.
This is where the authors are spot on with their call for honesty, particularly before any promises are broken. It simply shows respect for your partner to let him or her know that you have strong feelings, whether physical or emotional (or both), for another person, or that you have needs (again, whether physical, emotional, or both) that aren’t being met in the present relationship. Being upfront with these feelings gives your partner the chance to try to satisfy them within the relationship. And if that can’t be done, the relationship may be better off dissolved—maybe you aren’t cut out for monogamy—or, perhaps, you will see that you value the other person, and your relationship with him or her, more than your unmet needs. In the best case scenario, urges to stray can be useful as a sign that something needs tending to in the relationship, rather than as an excuse for playing around.
A question to end with: Why is it so hard to expect people to give up things for the people they love? Why is it that in this day and age, when we are urged to sacrifice time, money, and comfort for the sake of the environment or political causes—commitments well worth making and sacrificing for—we are not urged to make similar sacrifices to the persons we have pledged fidelity to? Why are we so hard on ourselves in some areas and not others?
This article first appeared on Mark D. White’s blog over at Psychology Today, “Maybe It’s Just Me, But…”
— Photo by tb2011 on Flickr.
I think one of the problems with Savage’s way of looking at things is that he defines some things as needs. How do you decide when it’s a need and when it’s just a desire? How much sex do you have to give your partner? How kinky do you have to be? Standards of what is normal sex have changed a great deal in the past few generations. They’re probably also different in other countries. Besides, what if your partner needs you to be faithful so that they trust you? Isn’t jealousy part of our biology too? Realistically, when it… Read more »
Very interesting, Black Iris–I agree with you completely. In fact, I wrote a pair of blog posts for Psychology Today a while ago in a similar vein:
Mark, I agree with your article wholeheartedly. I recently divorced my husband of 20 years after discovering he was cheating on me (for the 2nd time); this time with a married woman. His actions and attitude told me that he didn’t have any respect for me, our teenage daughter, or his mistress’ marriage. He was only out to experience sex with a different woman. He even admitted to me that his affair was “only about the sex”, and he was not “in love with his mistress”. If he wanted to have sex with a variety of women, he should have… Read more »
As a gay man, I’m always fascinated by what seems from the outside to be a heterosexual obsession with monogamy. Never having had or wanted a monogamous relationship, I’d feel the same way about a partner suggesting I have sex only with him as I would a friend telling me I can be friends only with him. Commitment and loyalty are what I need most in a long-term relationship, and sexual exclusivity strikes me as a piss poor substitute for either. I’ve had one long-term relationship of 14 years, another of 7 (I know, they keep dying – it sucks),… Read more »
Bryan, I am fascinated by your perspective. And your story about imagining banging a waiter in a bathroom, then laughing about it with your partner later. That makes absolutely no sense to me. But that’s the beautiful thing about relationships. They are as varied as the people who are in them. I can’t imagine seeing a waitress in a restaurant, follwing her into a bathroom stall, pounding her for ten minutes, then telling my wife all about it when I get home. I can’t imagine evenn thinking about doing that, even if I wasn’t married. Honestly, to me, that sounds… Read more »
Mark, I wholeheartedly agree with what you are saying. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that perfect world where our matrimonial promises are ironclad and nothing will ever sway us from them. I sometimes think we are too hard on ourselves when we make a mistake or lapse in good judgement. We are just human beings with all the frailties and self-doubt that go with it. Nothing will change that. Its important that we admit we did wrong, take accountability, make amends, then move on. Its unhealthy to sit on a rock and analyze and dissect why we did what we… Read more »
I agree, Terry–see this post for more on human weakness and adultery:
Mark, I like what you had to say. I think people forget that when one partner cheats, they are saying something pretty big and powerful about where they are in the relationship vs their other partner. Cheating is an action that is also a huge communication. If fidelity wasn’t important to people, then Dan’s Savage and any other articles about our lack of fidelity or our strength in it, wouldn’t garner the reactions they do. And I agree that people are less dedicated to forgoing self pleasure. Technology has changed the way we look at relationships. It comes down to… Read more »
I don’t think you can forsake all others, but you can agree not to have sex with them. There used to be a concept called “high monogamy,” where you had some close relationships with others that were still non-sexual. If my wife and I (who have very different interests in many ways) were completely forsaking of others, we’d go nuts. Tomorrow I’m off for a writers workshop by myself. She’s been to this event once and hates it. So she’s not going. In my first marriage, I hated my wife’s Scots fiddle camp, even though I play guitar. I’d go… Read more »
True–I always under the “forsaking all others” to be referring to sexual liaisons, not otherwise close relationships–though, of course, some consider emotional infidelity as much as an issue, if not more, than primarily sexual infidelity. In the end, it all depends on what you and your partner are comfortable with; for more on that, see: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/maybe-its-just-me/201005/adultery-what-counts-and-who-decides
I meant I always underSTOOD it that way–d’oh…
I think people who talk about emotional affairs are talking about something different from having friends. Often the other person is someone they are romantic with and confide everything too. It’s like having an affair without sex, sort of a way to pretend you aren’t doing anything.
Great post – and I couldn’t agree more about the importance of honesty and communication. Two points. One, I think we all change and grow throughout our lives. Sometimes we grow together, sometimes apart. Sometimes life-altering things happen to us. So – things may shift in long-term relationships. However. Just because you feel differently now than you did before (whether that is because you’re finding new desires or needs, finding temptations outside of the relationship, or are falling out of love, etc etc etc), DOES NOT negate your commitment to be honest and communicate with your partner. I can understand… Read more »
Thank you, Nikki–I couldn’t agree more!