“Whoever wants to be a judge of human nature should study people's excuses.” Hebbel
"Fidelity is possible—anything is possible, if you’re stubborn and strong. But it’s not that important." Michelle Pfeiffer
"I missed you and she reminded me of you." An excuse a man gave his wife for having an affair.
Extramarital affairs are usually considered to be morally wrong, and hence the people who engage in them tend to provide various excuses for doing so. Thus, Jane, a 46-year-old married woman, said: “I treated myself to a crisis that would provide the suitable circumstances for me to have an affair.” It is easier to excuse an affair when your marriage is undergoing a crisis. However, in Jane’s case, the good treatment continued for five years (long after the crisis was over).
Excuses and extramarital affairs
Excuses are a defense mechanism that offers an indirect rational justification for a perceived erroneous deed. Excuses do not refute the negative value of the deed, but merely describe mitigating circumstances that explain the agent's behavior. Excuses defend the agent—often by showing or implying that the consequences were unintended and that therefore the agent was not fully responsible for them.
Extramarital affairs call for excuses that might serve to reduce the agent's culpability. By making excuses, you do not justify the deed; you merely reduce your responsibility. Even after providing an appropriate excuse for the affair, the affair might still be regarded as erroneous or immoral, and you might still feel bad about it.
It should be noted that these excuses are used not merely to persuade the spouse, but also to persuade oneself that the affair is not so wrong and even is valuable. Such self-persuasion enables the person to conduct the affair. It is debatable when the person is being more dishonest—when he uses excuses to persuade himself or when he does so to persuade his spouse. The spouse is likely to view any excuse more critically and hence it will be necessary to offer her more honest excuses, but on the other hand, the agent knows the facts better, and hence it will be harder for him to deceive himself.
People know that an excuse is a superficial attempt to justify a transgression, yet they keep looking for excuses to alleviate their doubts and feelings of guilt. Consider the following true story. Doris, a married woman in her forties, had a conversation with her married friend Diana about their great wish to have an affair once in their lives. But Doris said that she could not find any excuse to engage in an affair because her husband was so kind and loving. They were sitting in a car one evening, discussing this issue while their husbands went to fetch them coffee. Doris's husband brought her a cup of coffee with sugar, whereupon Doris told him that by now he should know that for the last half a year she drinks coffee with sweeteners. Dana quickly told her, "Now you have a very good excuse to have an affair."
In this paper, I do not discuss whether affairs are morally good or bad, but merely analyze the types of excuses that people provide when having an affair.
Types of excuses for extramarital affairs
As extramarital affairs are perceived to be negative, excuses can be used to mitigate criticism by (a) appealing to the positive value of the affair, and (b) asserting the reduced culpability of the agent. These two aspects express the two major aspects of moral judgments—the positive or negative nature of the deed and the responsibility of agent who performed it.
I. The positive value of the affair
The positive value of the affair can be presented by pointing out the negative state of the person’s current marriage and by affirming the affair's positive aspects. Another type of excuse in this category seeks to justify the affair by believing or arguing that if any harm has been done, it is not significant.
The negative aspects of the marriage
The major (justified) criticism of extramarital affairs refers to the harm that these cause to one’s marriage. The most common and profound excuses in this regard imply that the marriage was long over before the affair started and that in any case, the agent was unable to continue living that way. Hence, the affair can sometimes even be presented as being a positive way in which to shake up the problematic marriage. As Anastasia, a married woman in her mid-fifties, said to her lover: “My marriage has been dead for quite a while. When I am in the cold, hostile atmosphere of my house, I keep thinking of you, and it warms me a bit.”
I don't love you anymore.
I'm unhappy and trapped; I haven't been happy for years.
I don't want to live like this.
Our marriage is boring and unpleasant.
We're not like we used to be.
The positive aspects of the affair
As it is difficult to deny the negative aspects of the affair, the excuses that focus on its positive aspects are important in making the agent’s behavior more acceptable. These aspects may be divided into egoistic aspects, aspects that benefit the agent alone, and altruistic aspects; the latter appeals to the notion that the affair could improve the marriage in general and the agent’s situation in particular. As Belinda, a married woman in her late forties who had an affair, said: “I did not mean to hurt my partner, just to allow me to get a taste of paradise upon entering the second half of my life.”
The affair makes me feel so good.
I function better. The affair makes me happier and that enables me to function better in all aspects of my life.
I follow my heart. Although I sometimes feel that I am not honest with my spouse when having a relationship with my lover, I always feel that I am dishonest with my heart when I am not with him.
The sex is incredible; it was never that good with my spouse.
I just wanted to have a friend of my own.
My ego needs a boost.
The affair is good for my spouse, as it causes me to treat him better.
The affair makes me less nervous and more patient with my family.
The affair enables me to solve my marital crisis.
I wanted to shake up our marriage and make it better.
Having an affair helps me to cope with my dull and unpleasant marriage; without the affair, I would have left my spouse.
My lover has an unhappy marriage, and I was filling an emotional void in his life.
It does not mean anything to me
It seems that merely indicating the negative aspects of one’s marriage and the positive aspects of the affair are not persuasive enough; hence, the person having the affair often feels compelled to provide further excuses. One important type of such excuses indicates that the whole affair is actually of little significance. Accordingly, even if the criticism against the affair is accepted, it will not be very weighty.
I hardly meet my lover, and the very brief time I spend with her cannot significantly hurt my spouse.
It isn't serious.
It's just sex.
It has nothing to do with you.
I never meant to hurt you.
She is just like a sister to me, that's all.
Nothing is happening; we are just friends and enjoy each other’s company.
You are really blowing this out of proportion.
I was just curious.
It's only harmless flirting.
II. The agent’s reduced culpability
The first major feature of moral judgment, discussed above, refers to the good or bad nature of the affair. The second feature refers to the culpability. Even if the affair is bad, if the agent is not responsible for it, he cannot be held responsible. This group of excuses is divided into those which indicate mitigating circumstances that (a) reduce the agent’s responsibility, and (b) suggests some moral justification for the affair (which further reduces the person’s culpability). The excuses in this group, which seek to mitigate the agent's culpability, indicate the great advantage and even necessity of love in human life, so that for some, giving up love is like giving up life. Dan, a married man in his late fifties, explained his extramarital affair to his wife by saying that “I thought you did not love me anymore.”
It is entirely your fault:
You never listen to me.
You work too much.
I thought you would change.
You don't give me any attention.
I'm tired of having to do everything around here.
Sex is no fun with you.
You were never really there for me when I needed you.
You left me before I left you.
You are trying to control me and I'm not prepared to put up with that.
You've driven me away from you.
I did not have any other choice:
It isn't in my control—it is biology, curiosity and wanderlust.
I'm having a mid-life crisis and looking for meaning in my life.
She was too good to ignore and I couldn't resist approaching her.
I need some space.
I can't help myself.
I can't go the rest of my life sleeping with just you.
I really don't know what I want to do with my life.
I never wanted to get married.
It's no one's fault:
Social norms should be updated to allow intimacy with more than one person.
We've never been right for each other.
It is just happened.
You were not around and she seduced me.
I don't know why I did it. It wasn't planned.
I can't say no to him.
I only responded; she was the one who started.
It’s payback time:
My partner (or lover) cheated on me, and my own affair is a justified revenge.
The affair helps me overcome his infidelity and makes both of us reevaluate our values.
A certain person has done me wrong, and my affair with her husband is a kind of revenge on her.
When excuses are not sufficient
Excuses are usually not very persuasive, as they have the often impossible task of eliminating the agent's culpability. Accordingly, one excuse is often not sufficient for this task and so several are necessary on the assumption that every excuse carries some weight and that if they are all put together, they might amount to sufficient weight to counter the criticism. When you have a very good justification, one reason is usually enough; when there is no such justification, one needs to accumulate sufficient excuses as no one of them is likely to be convincing.
Excuses are a way of eating one's cake and having it too. Commenting on her extramarital affair, Elizabeth, a married woman in her fifties who provides many altruistic excuses for her affair, said: “I see nothing wrong with having a very confined network of people that I love and can benefit me, and I would accept the same for my husband.” Others use precisely the opposite excuse. Thus, Elena says she left her husband, not because he was unfaithful to her but because she was unfaithful to him. She could not find an excuse for her own infidelity and believed that her affair indicated that she no longer loved him.
The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, I did not want to hurt you, but I was curious about what it would be like to have sex with someone else.”