Myths of Infidelity

Everybody is unfaithful. It's normal, expectable behavior. But the truth is most people are faithful most of the time.

By PT Staff, published on May 1, 1993 - last reviewed on February 10, 2006

The people who are running from bed to bed creating disasters for
themselves and everyone else don't seem to know what they are doing. They
just don't get it. But why should they? There is a mythology about
infidelity that shows up in the popular press and even in the mental
health literature that is guaranteed to mislead people and make dangerous
situations even worse. Some of these myths are:

  1. Everybody is unfaithful; it is normal, expectable behavior.
    Mozart, in his comic opera
    Cosi Fan Tutti, insisted that women all do it,
    but a far more common belief is that men all do it: "Higgamous,
    hoggamous, woman's monogamous; hoggamous, higgamous, man is polygamous."
    In Nora Ephron's movie
    Heartburn, Meryl Streep's husband has left her for
    another woman. She turns to her father for solace, but he dismisses her
    complaint as the way of all male flesh: "If you want monogamy, marry a
    swan."

    We don't know how many people are unfaithful; if people will lie to
    their own husband or wife, they surely aren't going to be honest with
    poll takers. We can guess that one-half of married men and one-third of
    married women have dropped their drawers away from home at least once.
    That's a lot of infidelity.

    Still, most people are faithful most of the time. Without the
    expectation of fidelity, intimacy becomes awkward and marriage
    adversarial. People who expect their partner to betray them are likely to
    beat them to the draw, and to make both of them miserable in the
    meantime.

    Most species of birds and animals in which the male serves some
    useful function other than sperm donation are inherently monogamous.
    Humans, like other nest builders, are monogamous by nature, but
    imperfectly so. We can be trained out of it, though even in polygamous
    and promiscuous cultures people show their true colors when they fall
    blindly and crazily in love. And we have an escape clause: nature
    mercifully permits us to survive our mates and mate again. But if we slip
    up and take a new mate while the old mate is still alive, it is likely to
    destroy the pair bonding with our previous mate and create great
    instinctual disorientation—which is part of the tragedy of
    infidelity.

  2. Affairs are good for you; an affair may even revive a dull
    marriage. Back at the height of the sexual revolution, the
    Playboy
    philosophy and its
    Cosmopolitan counterpart urged infidelity as a way to
    keep men manly, women womanly, and marriage vital. Lately, in such books
    as Annette Lawson's
    Adultery and Dalma Heyn's The Erotic Silence of the
    American Wife, women have been encouraged to act out their sexual
    fantasies as a blow for equal rights.

    It is true that if an affair is blatant enough and if all hell
    breaks loose, the crisis of infidelity can shake up the most petrified
    marriage, Of course, any crisis can serve the same detonation function,
    and burning the house down might be a safer, cheaper, and more readily
    forgivable attention-getter.

    However utopian the theories, the reality is that infidelity,
    whether it is furtive or blatant, will blow hell out of a marriage. In 30
    odd years of practice, I have encountered only a handful of established
    first marriages that ended in divorce without someone being unfaithful,
    often with the infidelity kept secret throughout the divorce process and
    even for years afterwards. Infidelity is the sine qua non of
    divorce.

  3. People have affairs because they aren't in love with their
    marriage partner. People tell me this, and they even remember it this
    way. But on closer examination it routinely turns out that the marriage
    was fine before the affair happened, and the decision that they were not
    in love with their marriage partner was an effort to explain and justify
    the affair.

    Being in love does not protect people from lust. Screwing around on
    your loved one is not a very loving thing to do, and it may be downright
    hostile. Every marriage is a thick stew of emotions ranging from lust to
    disgust, desperate love to homicidal rage. It would be idiotic to reduce
    such a wonderfully rich emotional diet to a question ("love me or love me
    not?") so simplistic that it is best asked of the petals of daisies.
    Nonetheless, people do ask themselves such questions, and they answer
    them.

    Falling out of love is no reason to betray your mate. If people are
    experiencing a deficiency in their ability to love their partner, it is
    not clear how something so hateful as betraying him or her would restore
    it.

  4. People have affairs because they are oversexed. Affairs are
    about secrets. The infidelity is not necessarily in the sex, but in the
    dishonesty.

    Swingers have sex openly, without dishonesty and therefore without
    betrayal (though with a lot of scary bugs). More cautious infidels might
    have chaste but furtive lunches and secret telephone calls with
    ex-spouses or former affair partners—nothing to sate the sexual tension,
    but just enough to prevent a marital reconciliation or intimacy in the
    marriage.

    Affairs generally involve sex, at least enough sex to create a
    secret that seals the conspiratorial alliance of the affair, and makes
    the relationship tense, dangerous, and thus exciting. Most affairs
    consist of a little bad sex and hours on the telephone. I once saw a case
    in which the couple had attempted sex once 30 years before and had
    limited the intimacy in their respective marriages while they maintained
    their sad, secret love with quiet lunches, pondering the crucial question
    of whether or not he had gotten it all the way in on that immortal autumn
    evening in 1958.

    In general, monogamous couples have a lot more sex than the people
    who are screwing around.

  5. Affairs are ultimately the fault of the cuckold. Patriarchal
    custom assumes that when a man screws around it must be because of his
    wife's aesthetic, sexual, or emotional deficiencies. She failed him in
    some way. And feminist theory has assured us that if a wife screws around
    it must be because men are such assholes. Many people believe that
    screwing around is a normal response to an imperfect marriage and is, by
    definition, the marriage partner's fault. Friends and relatives,
    bartenders, therapists, and hairdressers, often reveal their own gender
    prejudices and distrust of marriage, monogamy, intimacy, and honesty,
    when they encourage the infidel to put the blame on the cuckold rather
    than on him or herself.

    One trick for avoiding personal blame and responsibility is to
    blame the marriage itself (too early, too late, too soon after some
    event) or some unchangeable characteristic of the partner (too old, too
    tall, too ethnic, too smart, too experienced, too inexperienced). This is
    both a cop-out and a dead end.

    One marriage partner can make the other miserable, but can't make
    the other unfaithful. (The cuckold is usually not even there when the
    affair is taking place.) Civilization and marriage require that people
    behave appropriately however they feel, and that they take full
    responsibility for their actions. "My wife drove me to it with her
    nagging"; "I can't help what I do because of what my father did to me";
    "She came on to me and her skirt was very short"; "I must be a sex
    addict"; et cetera. Baloney! If people really can't control their sexual
    behavior, they should not be permitted to run around loose.

    There is no point in holding the cuckold responsible for the
    infidel's sexual behavior unless the cuckold has total control over the
    sexual equipment that has run off the road. Only the driver is
    responsible.

  6. It is best to pretend not to know. There are people who avoid
    unpleasantness and would rather watch the house burn down than bother
    anyone by yelling "Fire!" Silence fuels the affair, which can thrive only
    in secrecy. Adulterous marriages begin their repair only when the secret
    is out in the open, and the infidel does not need to hide any longer. Of
    course, it also helps to end the affair.

    A corollary is the belief that infidels must deny their affairs
    interminably and do all that is possible to drive cuckolds to such
    disorientation that they will doubt their own sanity rather than doubt
    their partner's fidelity. In actuality, the continued lying and denial is
    usually the most unforgivable aspect of the infidelity.

    One man was in the habit of jogging each evening, but his wife
    noticed that his running clothes had stopped stinking. Suspicious, she
    followed him to his secretary's apartment. She burst in and confronted
    her husband who was standing naked in the secretary's closet. She
    demanded: "What are you doing here?" He responded: "You do not see me
    here. You have gone crazy and are imagining this." She almost believed
    him, and remains to this day angrier about that than about the affair
    itself. Once an affair is known or even suspected, there is no safety in
    denial, but there is hope in admission.

    I recently treated a woman whose physician husband divorced her 20
    years ago after a few years of marriage, telling her that she had an odor
    that was making him sick, and he had developed an allergy to her. She
    felt so bad about herself she never remarried.

    I suspected there was more to the story, and sent her back to ask
    him whether he had been unfaithful to her. He confessed that he had been,
    but had tried to shield her from hurt by convincing her that he had been
    faithful and true but that she was repulsive. She feels much worse about
    him now, but much better about herself. She now feels free to
    date.

  7. After an affair, divorce is inevitable. Essentially all
    first-time divorces occur in the wake of an affair. With therapy though,
    most adulterous marriages can be saved, and may even be stronger and more
    intimate than they were before the crisis. I have rarely seen a cuckold
    go all the way through with a divorce after a first affair that is now
    over. Of course, each subsequent affair lowers the odds
    drastically.

    It doesn't happen the way it does in the movies. The indignant
    cuckold does scream and yell and carry on and threaten all manner of
    awful things—which should not be surprising since his or her life has
    just been torn asunder. But he or she quickly calms down and begins the
    effort to salvage the marriage, to pull the errant infidel from the arms
    of the dreaded affaire.

    When a divorce occurs, it is because the infidel can not escape the
    affair in time or cannot face going back into a marriage in which he or
    she is now known and understood and can no longer pose as the chaste
    virgin or white knight spotless and beyond criticism. A New Yorker
    cartoon once showed a forlorn man at a bar complaining: "My wife understands
    me."

    Appropriate guilt is always helpful, though it must come from
    inside rather than from a raging, nasty spouse; anger is a lousy
    seduction technique for anyone except terminal weirdos. Guilt is good for
    you. Shame, however, makes people run away and hide.

    The prognosis after an affair is not grim, and those who have
    strayed have not lost all their value. The sadder but wiser infidel may
    be both more careful and more grateful in the future.