What’s so bad about infidelity?

We have loosened up tremendously in matters sexual. Just letting people pick their own partners was a huge liberalization. Now we can not only pick them, but divorce them. They can be the same sex. We can even have sex, and children, without marriage. Today, it seems, anything goes.

Except infidelity. That remains very much unacceptable. Given all the liberalization mentioned, this might seem a quaint anachronism.

I read an article recently about sex/marriage counselor Esther Perel whose book, Mating in Captivity, argues that it’s unreasonable to insist on 100% fidelity in a couple. That demands, she says, a standard of human perfection which people aren’t generally capable of. Perel doesn’t think marriages should break up over a little thing like adultery.

Many are shocked by this, insisting adultery is a Big Thing indeed — a fundamental breach of the marriage contract. And there is some biology behind this, with marriage as a pact between two people to raise children on the basis that they’re in fact their biological offspring. The female gives the male that pledge so he’ll stick around and help raise the kids. He wouldn’t necessarily make that investment without some confidence the kids really are his. And the woman doesn’t want his energies diverted to some other gal’s brats. All this is straightforward “selfish gene” biology — behavior manipulated by a set of genes to promote that set’s replication into the next generation (because children raised by two devoted parents are likelier to survive and reproduce themselves). This is why sexual jealousy is so powerful — it’s part of this system to maximize gene replication.

And all this psychology being part of our biology, we cannot simply shuck it off. But Perel has a point in suggesting, in effect, that we step back and look at matters from the standpoint of our true personal interests — which may not actually align with that genetic programming. We don’t have to want what our genes want. Moreover, especially with modern birth control, the parentage concern is really a non-issue in most adulteries.

So, does it really make sense for romantic partners to insist on perfect sexual exclusivity? Or might it make better sense to recognize that a partner may have psychological reasons for seeking a sexual experience outside the relationship that do not actually constitute a betrayal of it? Confirmation of one’s attractiveness to others is an ego boost. It may simply be nothing deeper than novelty, fun, exciting, enlivening. So is bungee jumping, and nobody thinks bungee jumping violates a marriage bond.

That might sound too coolly rational. But, again, Perel is on to something in trying to get couples to see things that way, when they’re working through the aftermath of infidelity. After all, while sex is something very important in human life, it certainly is not everything, and it normally isn’t even the chief element in a long-term romantic relationship. There is just so much else going on in how two people relate to each other and what they give each other. It does seem kind of crazy to throw out that baby with the bathwater of mere sexual infidelity.

Yet such is nevertheless still a powerful social norm, even in this age of tolerance and permissiveness. Indeed, given that reality, pragmatist that I am I’m often baffled at people risking a relationship central to their lives in order to obtain what seem to me such limited and fleeting rewards. And, we’ve lately been seeing, risking careers too for a moment’s sexual frisson.

But perhaps I come by that olympian perspective from a standpoint wherein the temptation doesn’t figure. Women have never thrown themselves at me. It was hard enough trying to seduce them while single that attempting it while married was never conceivable. (Likewise finding one as attractive as my wife.)

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2 Responses to “What’s so bad about infidelity?”

  1. Axel Kornfuehrer Says:

    Depending on one’s social class, infidelity has been quite acceptable in our Western civilization for a long time. Just look at the record of the royals and the nobility for centuries. It only had a bad name if one was of the lower classes.

  2. TheSociologicalMail Says:

    Nice perspective, I’ve added to the book to my to reads list.

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