As you may know, I find myself giving relationship advice to my friends and relatives (mostly friends) on a regular basis. Though not a daily occurrence, it's rare that a couple weeks goes by without someone asking me to hear out their romantic or sexual situation, and more often than not a solicitation for advice is included.
I suppose it should trouble me that my friends occasionally pose to me questions about infidelity. Not because this is something that affects their romantic or sexual lives; I'm sure that my most of my friends, the unmarried ones especially, have had to deal with cheating at some point. No, it should trouble me because my friends apparently look at me and assume that (a) I'm a cheater; or (b) I don't inspire faithfulness in my partners, and it is for one of these reasons that they think I'm an authority on the topic.
For the record, I'm not a serial philanderer. I have cheated on a partner exactly once, though I suspect that in my younger days I was cheated on much more often. I believe that, generally-speaking, if one person makes a monogamous commitment to another, one should honor it. I believe that we do ourselves a disservice by downplaying the importance of sex, especially before marriage, and while easier said than done, I believe that sexual compatibility should be assured before any commitment, monogamous or otherwise, is made. At the very least, it should be given as much forethought as, for instance, spiritual compatibility.
However, my position on infidelity should not be interpreted as a judgment on those who cheat. Unless the person engaging in extracurricular dalliances is my own partner, I have no say, and for that matter no stake, in who they fuck. It doesn't matter who the cheater is, be he or she my parent, my sibling, or my friend. And while I may feel differently if, for example, I were to catch the significant other of a sibling or a friend cavorting romantically in public with someone who is not said sibling or said friend, I maintain the same position that it's probably not my concern.
As with someone else's abortion, adoption, addiction, marriage, or virtually anything else, I consider an affair to be the concern solely of the people involved. Unless I am absolutely certain that infidelity is occurring I hesitate to say anything - even if doing so could expose a bad relationship and help someone avoid embarrassment - because I don't know the story and I prefer not to make assumptions. I believe that, were I to bring to light an apparent infidelity that turned out to be something else, the perceived victim would be grateful for my concern. But at that point I've just outed myself as a busybody with nothing better to do than stick my nose into matters wherein it may be unwelcome.
A major reason why I tend to stay out of other people's affairs, extramarital or otherwise, is because were the shoe on the other foot, I would want to be paid the same courtesy. As I said, I do not cheat. But I do have many friends who are women, and between "inappropriate conduct" on social networking websites, outings for drinks that do not include my wife, and unabashed flirting - which I try to limit when other people are around - I'm sure that to some it appears that I have no regard for my marriage and my wife's feelings. But those people are mistaken.
As I've stated elsewhere on this blog, there are those who believe I am a womanizer at best, and a cheater at worst. I don't believe that I am either, and neither does my wife, the only person other than myself whose opinion matters. But the reigning opinion on the issue seems to be that men and women can't be friends because at some point they will have sex. And while I would like to have sex with most of the women I know, I find this consensus very insulting.
I liken it to the fallacy that a woman's attire causes her to be raped. I have confidence in my ability to not rape a woman regardless of what she's wearing. Similarly, while Jill stays home with the baby I can sit in a bar and have a couple rounds with another woman and not fuck her. (Notice that I didn't say "not want to fuck her".) The notion that men and women cannot be trusted to be alone together is ridiculous.
The one thing that always comes up when discussing infidelity with friends who have experienced it, or friends whose relationships are so precarious that it looms overhead like the Sword of Damocles, is some variation of, "I don't care if he wants to sleep around. I just hope he'll have the decency to break up with me first." That's a very sound line of thinking. Having a partner cheat is for most the sort of relationship-killer for which there is no remedy. It is a tremendous blow to one's self-esteem, and in this age of social networking wherein the cheated-on partner is sometimes the last to know, it can be a form of public humiliation. On the other hand, while being dumped hurts it is the lesser of two evils. A partner with designs on someone else who cuts you loose before engaging them romantically or sexually is infinitely preferable to a partner with designs on someone else who fucks that someone else when he's supposed to be working late, and when caught, asks you for an open relationship.
But despite what my friends indignantly insist, it isn't always that simple. It isn't always as easy as just breaking up with one's partner and moving on to greener sexual pastures. If it was, no one would cheat, despite the fact that there is plenty of research to suggest that human beings simply aren't wired for monogamy. And while extramarital affairs would slow down or cease altogether, the divorce rate would skyrocket even further than it has already, because when one partner decided he or she was done having sex with the other and wanted to move on to someone new, he or she would simply say so.
Husband: This has been a lot of fun, and I enjoyed raising three kids with you. But my secretary has indicated her sexual availability, so I would like a divorce.
Wife: Sounds great!
I guess my point is that if society viewed sex differently, i.e. not necessarily tied intrinsically to love, relationships would be more secure and long-lasting, and the world would be more harmonious in general. I'm not trying to say that in a perfect world everyone would view sex this way, but the people that don't would understand that their view isn't the only acceptable one. Granted, on some level, much of society already does view sex in this fashion. Cheating is so commonplace that some of the staunchest defenders of so-called family values have admitted to doing it.
Is cheating ever justified? I've been asked this question more than once, and while I can cite examples where an extramarrital affair may be viewed as a lesser offense - if not altogether justifiable - the fact is that most of the people who ask simply want me to say no. But I can't. While I may not be in favor of infidelity as it relates to my own marriage, I cannot under any circumstances say that no instance of cheating can ever be justified. I hereby give you the same example I usually cite in conversation, that of Carol and Henry.
Disclaimer: Carol and Henry don't exist, and by that I mean that I don't know them personally and have no first-hand knowledge of a case study like theirs. They are simply the names of two imaginary individuals pulled out of my ass for the purpose of this example. While I imagine that situations similar to theirs exist in the real world, Carol and Henry are in no way based on real individuals.
Carol is fifty-five years old. Henry is fifty-eight. They have been married for thirty years and have three children, one of whom still lives at home; and four grandchildren. Until recently, Henry was the CEO of an insurance company; Carol is the vice-president of a non-profit organization. She has a tight-knit circle of friends, some of whom she's known as far back as high school. She enjoys going to lunch with her friends every couple weeks or so, plays Bunco with them once a month, and on alternating Saturday nights or afternoons she and her best friend go to the movies.
Henry is terminally ill. He has between six months and a year to live. He no longer gets out of bed. He sleeps frequently, rarely speaks, and with the exception of the occasional can of Ensure, he doesn't eat or drink. Carol has put her entire life on hold for her husband. She has taken an extended leave of absence from her job, and no longer gets together with her friends. Carol spends almost every waking moment by Henry's side in order to preserve what little of his dignity remains, and so that once he's gone she will be able to take solace in the fact that she spent as much time with her husband as possible, and did all she could to make his final months bearable.
Of course, Carol is a wreck. Thanks to Henry's illness, her world has been thrown into upheaval. When she manages to sleep she does so in the guest room so that her crying won't keep her husband awake and make him feel guilty. She also finds it difficult, though necessary, to maintain the façade of strength for not only her children but the friends, relatives, and well-wishers who come to visit her dying husband. She plays hostess, making coffee and cookies, and smiling at their awkward attempts to be positive. In reality she wishes she could tell them all to leave.
While Carol misses the emotional connection she used to share with Henry, she misses physical contact almost as much. She's been communicating with Ralph, a widowed male colleague, via email and though their discussions have been limited to caring for a dying spouse and preparing for life alone, she finds that she is drawn to him. She may be projecting her husband's former strength onto Ralph, or she may be confusing the admiration she feels for him with something deeper, but for the first time since before her husband's illness, Carol is feeling sexual attraction. Whether or not Ralph would ever act on this, she has no idea. But as time passes and Carol feels more and more isolated, more and more exhausted, she hopes that he would.
She finds herself trying to work up the nerve to ask Ralph to meet her for coffee one evening. It's just coffee, of course, and there's no reason to feel as ashamed as she does. But she acknowledges that it may lead to further meetings, and perhaps eventually to physical intimacy, and even an instance wherein she can put down the façade and be emotionally vulnerable for a change. She acknowledges that allowing herself this indulgence would revitalize her, and enable her to be a better caregiver.
This course of action may seem heinous and inexcusable, the worst manner of betrayal imaginable. But I don't believe that a woman who has given up so much for the sake of her dying husband is inherently selfish. And even if this was all rationalization on Carol's part, I find myself ill-suited to judge her. Though I hope never to find myself in her position, and though if I do I would hope to find the strength to carry myself through it, I can't say for sure that I wouldn't eventually find myself in need of a meaningless sexual release with another human being. If you've been reading this blog for any appreciable length of time, you know that I can't go very long without it.
You may be able to say with total certainty that if you were in Carol's shoes such a thought wouldn't occur to you. Perhaps you've been through a tragic, world-shattering loss and stayed physically faithful until your partner was gone. Maybe that makes you the better person. But human beings respond to life's travails in a variety of ways, and to begrudge another individual whatever they need to be functional for their spouse - especially if you are not that spouse - does everyone a disservice.
As I said, I've cited Carol and Henry's hypothetical marriage more than once, usually when someone brings up the relative simplicity of dumping someone before embarking on a new sexual relationship. And I'm sure you won't be surprised to learn that as far as I know my example has never changed anyone's opinion. Of course, that wasn't my aim. I just like to demonstrate that there are a variety of perspectives through which to view infidelity. Until you've considered the other person's situation, you would do well not to judge.