In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Does Being True to Your Heart Imply Emotional Infidelity?

Being true to your heart often expresses genuine emotional fidelity.

"With me, nothing goes right. My psychiatrist said my wife and I should have sex every night. Now, we'll never see each other!" Rodney Dangerfield.

Following my recent article "Is Chatting Cheating?", Michael J. Formica has tried to clarify the notion of emotional infidelity; l would like to go further, and in a somewhat different manner, in elucidating this notion; I do it by comparing it to the notion of sexual infidelity. But first, let me distinguish between the related notions of casual sex, adultery and infidelity.

Ellis characterizes casual sex as "sex between partners who have no deep or substantial relationships of which sex is a component ... If sex becomes an essential part of their relationship, then they are no longer just friends (but lovers) and their sex is no longer casual sex." The most extreme example of casual sex is that between complete strangers. Adultery has an objective definition that is independent of the participants' attitude. Adultery involves extramarital sex; it is a voluntary sexual relationship with someone other than the person's spouse. Infidelity is related to the participants' attitudes and to their explicit or implicit agreements; it involves unfaithfulness, which violates the spouse's trust. There are cases of consensual adultery, such as in open marriages, where adultery is not regarded as infidelity. There are also cases in which an activity may be considered to involve infidelity although it is not adulterous-for instance, some people may consider a man attending a movie with a woman without the knowledge of his partner as a type of infidelity. It is also doubtful whether most cases of emotional infidelity can be regarded as adulterous. (see The Subtlety of Emotions)

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Emotional infidelity involves having a certain emotional attitude, such as love, toward another person other than one's partner. Sexual infidelity involves having a sexual relationship with another person who is not one's partner. An interesting claim in this regard is that for women jealousy is primarily triggered by emotional infidelity and men jealousy by sexual infidelity. It may be the case that men's sexual infidelity is perceived to be less emotionally loaded than women's sexual infidelity, hence the lesser weight women accord to sexual infidelity of their male mates. An evolutionary explanation for this may be that men were primarily concerned that their partner's offspring would be their own; women's major concern was that their partner would continue to invest resources in raising their offspring. Sexual infidelity endangers the first concern and emotional infidelity the second concern.

The most frequent event eliciting jealousy among married people is not actual sexual infidelity, but a kind of emotional infidelity-the partner paying attention, or giving time and support to, a member of the opposite sex (or to a member of the same sex in homosexual relationship). This situation tends to elicit extreme jealousy when the third party is the partner's ex-spouse.

Sexual infidelity is considered by many people as a greater moral violation than emotional infidelity, since it may also involve the latter and it is often expressed in greater intimacy. Emotional infidelity is larger in its scope and hence harder to avoid. However, the greater intensity of emotional infidelity may threaten marriage more than sexual infidelity. Nevertheless, emotional infidelity can be perceived from a different aspect as a more genuine attitude and hence may be more tolerated.


Many types of emotional infidelity are hard to avoid as our emotions are not fully controlled by us. In this regard it is been told that the actor Dustin Hoffman is an exception as he claimed that after meeting his wife, he felt no passion toward other women. There is no infidelity in the behavior and heart of such a true lover, since his romantic and sexual emotions are always directed at the proper moral direction. Most other people are less fortunate, and avoiding romantic and sexual emotions toward as people is impossible for them. Emotional infidelity may involve sexual infidelity, but does not have to, and sexual infidelity may involve emotional infidelity, but does not have to. Casual sex typically involves sexual but not emotional infidelity.

A distinction which is quite beneficial for people, who are less virtuous than Dustin Hoffman, is that between formal and genuine emotional fidelity. Formal fidelity adheres to formal and prevailing rules and standards, without taking into account specific circumstances and personal situations. Genuine fidelity takes into account such circumstances and situations and tries to adhere to reflective desires of our hearts. Thus, a married person could claim that while his relationship with his married lover flouts the formal rules of fidelity, he is certainly being true to his heart and this is the most genuine fidelity. Such an attitude casts doubt on the validity of prevailing rules and standards that require one to renounce one's genuine love.
Once people make the formal-genuine distinction, they can cope better with their own (commonly regarded infidel) behavior and may be more understanding of the whole issue of fidelity. In this case emotional infidelity does not, as Formica argues, cause some degree of emotional unavailability but rather increases emotional availability in circumstances where emotional romantic attitudes are fading away. In this case, the rub is not that in emotional infidelity you are stealing from yourself-in many cases of emotional infidelity you bring back to yourself absent emotional attitudes. However, Formica is right in assuming that emotional infidelity takes place while to a certain degree one actually absents oneself from one's primary relationship without physically (but merely emotionally) leaving that relationship.
Jealousy is likely to be more intense when genuine, rather than formal, fidelity is breached. With people who lack any formal-genuine distinction, jealousy is generally more frequent and intense. These people are more likely to consider boundaries as absolute and to acknowledge no mitigation or degree, whereas those who make the allowances required by genuine fidelity find it possible to countenance the complexity that enables them to see that fidelity might have been breached only to some degree (see In the Name of Love).

The distinction between formal and genuine emotional fidelity is not easy to formulate and it makes life, and especially the issue of maintaining boundaries, more complex. However, it more adequately describes reality. Being true to your heart often expresses genuine emotional fidelity despite its being sometimes formal infidelity.

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

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