According to a recent Gallup poll, cheating on your spouse is the most morally reprehensible thing a person can do. Americans view cheating as being worse than cloning humans, polygamy, suicide, abortion, cloning animals, taking birth control, homosexuality and divorce. THIS IS GREAT NEWS. As Hugo Schwyzer put it in a piece for The Atlantic earlier today, “The new ethical consensus that you can do whatever you like as long as you’re not hurting anyone—and as long as you’re being rigorously candid—reflects a thoroughly modern mix of tolerance and puritanical censoriousness.” Tolerance for lifestyle choices that were previously considered at best kinky and at worst evil alongside the everlasting values of telling the truth and not betraying the trust of those most vulnerable to being hurt by you.
I think this is the exact attitude we need in a free society: “you can do whatever you like as long as you’re not hurting anyone.” In a modern marriage, the maxim is, “I will love you as long as you honor me by not cheating on me.” The whole point of getting married in a post-feminist world is pledging fidelity to one another. (Unless you have an open marriage, which works presumably because no one is “cheating” as long as you’re both emotionally forthright about your external, internal affairs.) Previously, Schwyzer argues, marriages were meant to make room for infidelity. Staying together, Americans believed, was more important than being faithful. “The 91 percent disapproval rate for cheating is nearly twice what it was 40 years ago, when similar surveys showed that only half of American adults believed that having an affair was always wrong,” Schwyzer notes. He writes:
Just a few decades ago, divorce was scandalous; if your marriage came to an end you and your spouse were likely to face cruel gossip and painful social ostracism. The fear of the public humiliation that attended divorce kept people in unhappy marriages. That fear is gone, replaced by a growing anxiety about the more private humiliation of sexual betrayal. “I’d rather be left than lied to” is the prevailing sentiment that the polling reveals; it’s not a stretch to suggest that the reverse would have been true just a few decades ago.
A few decades ago, women were much more dependent on husbands than they are now. There were practical reasons for tolerating infidelity as well as social ones. But today, how many of us wouldn’t rather be left than lied to? Sure, marriages do withstand affairs, but isn’t the worst part of the affair not that your partner wanted to stray, but the he or she didn’t have the nerve to come clean about that urge prior to acting on it? If a marriage is strong enough to recover from infidelity, shouldn’t it be strong enough to accommodate the occasional need to roam? Haven’t modern couples become so savvy that they preemptively discuss how to handle what Schwayzer intimates is the “inevitable” desire to explore beyond the confines of monogamy? It seems to me that young people today understand that while monogamy may not be “natural,” it’s a sacred choice most married people make to show one another respect, as is choosing to be honest and forthcoming if the desire to break that monogamous bond appears.
Lucky for me, I’m single, so I don’t have to entertain any of these questions outside of the abstract, and I hope that when I do find a partner again someday we’re both just so happy to be together that cheating won’t become an issue. Regardless, I’m sure I’ll still discuss fidelity and monogamy with him to be sure we’re both on the same page about what constitutes acceptable behavior and what the price would be for violating those expectations. As I’ve mentioned in other posts on the topic, I’ve never cheated on anyone, which at this point in my life seems both like a brag and sort of lame. But I’ve never cheated because I agree with John Sides, who Schwyzer quotes as saying, “If you’re in an unhappy marriage, don’t cheat. Just get divorced.”
The problem with that credo is that it doesn’t acknowledge what makes cheating appealing to so many who cheat. Yes, some have extra-marital affairs without thinking and feel true remorse, but others cheat precisely for the thrill of it. They cheat because cheating is forbidden. To those who get a kick out of being bad, open relationships and honest communication have no appeal. True “cheaters” don’t want to be polyamorous; they want to cheat. They don’t like the feel of love, they love the feel of the lie. And that’s a psychological dynamic no culture of openness can mitigate.
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