In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Proclaimed monogamy with clandestine adultery

Proclaimed monogamy with clandestine adultery is unsatisfactory.
The classic solution to the stability-change conflict in marriage is to support monogamous marriage while from time to time committing clandestine adultery. For many people this solution is beneficial. Thus, in one study of people who were currently engaged in extramarital sex, 56 percent of the men and 34 percent of the women said that their marriages were happy. Despite having an extramarital affair, these people said that they love their partners and enjoy good sex with them. However, the high rate of divorce and extramarital affairs indicates the decreased utility of this centuries-old solution (see In the Name of Love).

This solution is responsible, at least in part, for the popular cultural idea of an opposition between the "dullness of marriage" and the "thrill of romance." The ideal of courtly love advanced by medieval troubadours was essentially adulterous. Almost always, true love could exist only between unmarried people. The classic pair in this literature was an unmarried knight and the wife of a great lord. In his treatise, On the art of honorable loving, Andreas de Capellanus records the following verdict from a "court" of noble ladies: "We state and consider as firmly established, that love cannot assert its powers between two married people. For lovers give everything to one another freely, not by reasons of force or necessity. Married people, on the other hand, have to obey each other's wishes out of duty, and can deny nothing of themselves to one another."

From a different perspective, Catholics were taught the sinful nature of sex and that the main purpose of marriage was not love but procreation. The separation of marriage and romance is also evident in cases where the custom of marriage is maintained for practical rather than romantic concerns, including instances where people marry for reasons of status or wealth.

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Here are a few saying expressing the separation of marriage passionate romantic love:
"Love is an obsessive delusion that is cured by marriage." Karl Bowman
"Those who want to read about love and marriage to buy two separate books." Alan King
"Marriage is like a bank account. You put it in, you take it out, you lose interest." Irwin Corey
"It is most unwise for people in love to marry." George Bernard Shaw
"I just want what every married woman wants, someone besides her husband to sleep with." Peg Bundy, the character on the television show Married with Children.

One way of combating the above prevailing view has been to reject the prevailing assumption that marriage is a potential threat to the "thrill of romance." Eva Illouz argues that in the first half of the twentieth century, advertising and movies advanced a new vision of love as a utopia in which marriage could be exciting and romantic. For example, a 1921 advertisement for soap shows a man and a woman in a close embrace; the caption reads: "You would never guess they are married." The message implies that if you buy the soap, your dull marriage will be revitalized and filled with passionate romance. Another ad from the early twentieth century, in this case for a deodorant, claims: "Love cools when husband or wife grows careless about body odor." The implication, Illouz claims, is that passion dies in a marriage because of trivial oversights that can easily be rectified by external factors, such as an efficient hygiene product.

Such "heroic" attempts to overcome the opposition between the "dullness of marriage" and the "thrill of romance" have not made much impact upon divorce rates. On the contrary, denying this opposition created expectations that could not be fulfilled and led to increased frustration, which became an additional reason for the increase in divorce rates in the second half of the twentieth century. On the other hand, acceptance of this opposition has legitimized the pattern of proclaimed monogamy with clandestine adultery-after all, some proclaim, it is not natural to live without the thrill of romance. Getting a kick out of exciting extramarital sex often provides the energy required to continue in a dull marriage. This pattern was reasonable as long as adultery was limited and clandestine, when adultery could be regarded as an occasional deviation that does not threaten the foundations of marriage. Whenever the secret deviation becomes a prevailing overt practice, it threatens marriage to the point of becoming the problem rather than the solution.

Cyberspace drastically increases the popularity of adultery, as it provides easy access to sexual encounters that involve reduced cost and risk. People can engage in adultery within the comfort of their own homes or offices. At any moment, any person can be swamped with tempting sexual invitations. Given the prevalence of AIDS, this type of casual sex is even more tempting. Whereas in offline circumstances romantic and sexual stability is the rule and transitory relationships are considered exceptions, in cyberspace transitory relationships are the rule and stable boundaries hardly exist (see Love Online).

Although cybersex may somewhat reduce the problematic nature of extramarital sex, it still touches upon the most sensitive and intimate aspect of the romantic bond: romantic exclusivity. For most people, maintaining this exclusivity is the most profound commitment of the romantic bond. Violation of such exclusivity is most painful emotionally.

The pattern of proclaimed monogamy with clandestine adultery-leaves the social form of marriage intact while finding individualistic psychological outlets that reduce the emotional problem of the sameness of marriage. This solution is increasingly becoming unsatisfactory since adultery has become so prevalent that many marriages cannot remain intact. Another solution to this conflict is to alter the social form of marriage itself by introducing fresh and flexible elements into it. Cohabitation is one such solution; serial monogamy is another.

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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