"Look, I need to have sex with somebody. I'm not going to if you don't approve of it, but please approve of it."

Those were Will Smith's words in 2005.

He went on to say "In our marriage vows, we didn't say 'forsaking all others. The vow that we made was that you will never hear that I did something after the fact". His wife, Jada Pinkett's take was "is there somebody right for a nice night? Maybe. But somebody that can sustain our life and sustain what we've built together, absolutely not!"

Is It Cheating If...?

Is infidelity about extramarital sex, sexting, lying, being caught or all of the above?

I think we can all agree that Anthony Weiner's sexting was beyond foolish, given his congressional position. But the meaning of marital fidelity is hardly something on which everyone agrees. In his apology speech, Weiner said that his wife "has known about some of these online relationships since before we were married. And we spoke frankly about them because - well, we spoke frankly about them." He also swore he had never had sex outside his marriage, as if what he did do was less of a deal breaker.

I have no idea whether Weiner and his wife had some agreed upon definition of sexual fidelity, whether she thought he had changed before they married, or that marriage could change him. It's none of my business. What is my business is helping people clarify and maintain the sexual boundaries that work best for them, while not hurting others.  There's no one-size-fits-all formula and the lines people draw sometimes move over time.

Risky Businesses

Since some careers (athletes, musicians, actors, pilots and politicians to name a few) are more loaded with sexual opportunity, temptation and entitlement than others, couples in these professions might make their own rules about the meaning and limits of fidelity to accommodate their special circumstances.  Entertainers are notoriously low on marital longevity lists but some of the most enduring relationships have included unconventional agreements.

Will and Jada aren't alone.  Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee were devoted to each other in a 56-year marriage until his death and stated in their joint autobiography that it was partly due to agreeing on an open marriage. But they changed their minds about the wisdom of that choice as they got older. (By the way, so have a lot of the people I have encountered who have experimented with open marriage. Since exponentially more people can become involved directly or indirectly, there are simply more possibilities for instability, loss of privacy and hurt somewhere in the system).

In a 2007 interview, Dolly Parton, who's been married for 45 years, said "I don't want to know it, if he's cheating on me. If I'm cheating on him, he wouldn't want to know it - and if we do, if that's what's making it work, then that's fine, too." Then in 2010 she backpeddled a bit. "That just means we let each other be who we are and how we are. But I'd kill him if I knew he was with somebody." "We love people. He knows I'm a flirt and a tease, but it's harmless. I've never met the man that would take his place."

Yesterday, Today Show co-host, Kathie Lee Gifford, challenged former Playboy playmate, Shannon Tweed (who has been with rocker Gene Simmons for 28 years and is now accusing him of philandering). "Didn't you know what you were getting into, Shannon? I mean they're Kiss - they're rock stars!"  In an interview last year, Tweed said she was fine with Simmons' lecherous public image since she believed it was concocted for show but that she would not tolerate philandering in reality. Interestingly, Kathie Lee was just as indignant and flabbergasted when her famous athlete husband was caught with his pants down in the 90s as Shannon is now.  But she wasn't showing any empathy for Shannon yesterday.

Are You and Your Partner On the Same Page?

From masturbating with porn, to virtual sex with avatars, emotional affairs, sexting, oral, anal and sexual intercourse outside the couple relationship, I have seen partners disagree on the meaning of faithfulness.  And they often don't discuss where they differentially draw their lines until after they are committed to each other and somebody's boundary gets crossed and discovered.

The reasons for not having clear, specific conversations about fidelity run from the benign to the cagey.  Here are a few.

1. You assume you both have the same ideas about sexual fidelity because your values match in other areas, so you don't think you need to discuss the topic.

2. You're afraid that if you tell your mate that an affair would hurt but you would ultimately forgive the straying to save the relationship, you increase the risk of being betrayed. The latest study on the dark side of forgiveness  lends some truth to this argument!

3. You already see evidence of your partner's difficulties with sexual boundaries but are so strongly attracted to his or her other qualities that you look the other way. Rose, Eunice and Jackie Kennedy all seem to have had a flair for compartmentalizing their husbands' escapades while remaining married and using their own substantial power and position to tend to their charitable causes.

4. You're deliberately vague or silent because you want more freedom than you think your mate will accept. You figure if you're never clear about exactly how you define fidelity and are caught in a compromising position you can say you never broke a promise because you never actually made that one.

Infidelity Prevention 

My personal ideal for committed love relationship is a physical and emotional sanctuary in which a couple share their most intimate emotional and physical selves exclusively with each other. But I don't assume that sexual and emotional boundary breaches can't or won't happen.  Not talking about it or thinking it won't happen to you doesn't help protect you.  Fortunately  there are ways to strengthen prevention.  The first step is talking in detail about what infidelity means to you. Dr Peggy Vaughan, one of the best researchers and writers on the topic of affairs I've ever come across has written a terrific new book on affair prevention called To Have and To Hold. It's backed with research and well worth a read - especially if you think it would never happen to you.

Copyright 2011, Linda R. Young, all rights reserved

Photo credit: Julia Freeman-Woolpert

About the Author

Linda Young

Linda Young, Ph.D., is a psychologist and relationship coach whose work has appeared on or in CNN, NPR, The Oprah Magazine, and USA Today, among others.

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