In the first part of this post, I discussed whether partners had any obligation to have sex with their partners, given the fidelity they expect of each other: If people have needs which they are forbidden from satisfying outside the relationship, it is reasonable for them to expect those needs to be met within the relationship. But at the same time, we are understandably reluctant to tell people that they must do certain things in a relationship, even a generally accepted component of a committed adult relationship such as sexual relations.
In the end, I couldn’t give a definite answer either way, due to the conflict between the vaguely defined responsibilities of partners in a relationship and their personal autonomy, especially regarding sexual activity. But that post ended with the question that we will tackle now:
Does an absence of sex in a relationship justify adultery?
Even for those who would answer yes, there are a few things to think about before committing to that conclusion. For one, there is the danger of implying that any gap in sexual activity in the relationship justifies adultery, which may suggest to some that they can run off and cheat the first time their partner says “not tonight.” Furthermore, even if we were to acknowledge an obligation to meet a partner’s sexual needs, what amount of sex will suffice—a specific frequency or number of times per week? A certain range of positions or activities? A certain level of enthusiasm or passion? Will a partner claim that adultery was justified, not because of an insufficient amount of sex, but because his or her partner refused to have sex in a certain way or place? Are sexual needs that particular?
Please trust that I do not ask this lightly: I think there would be serious disagreement on this issue, and that disagreement complicates the issue significantly.
Maybe we should ask: What does it mean for a person to have his or her sexual needs satisfied?
To answer this, drawing another parallel with cheating will be useful. In an earlier post, I wrote that cheating in a relationship means whatever each partner thinks it means. If your boyfriend is uncomfortable when you text another man, or your girlfriend doesn’t like it when you go on work lunches with your assistant, that should count as cheating because no one should be in a relationship in which your partner acts in way of which you disapprove.
If this seems dictatorial, it should: Each person should have the right to dictate what he or she is willing to endure in a relationship, and the other partner can decide if he or she is fine with those restrictions. This also allows partners to define what adultery means to them, rather than adopting some general societal norm that may not apply to them in particular.
In answering the question above, about the amount and type of sex that will satisfy a person’s needs, should we apply the same reasoning? In other words, can we say that whatever a person feels he or she needs is what that person should expect from his or her partner? I would say yes: Each partner deserves to be made happy in the relationship, and to have his or her needs met, whatever they may be—especially when those needs cannot be met outside the relationship. If both people are not having their basic needs, and their desires satisfied, there is a problem in the relationship, whether it is a result or cause of those frustrated needs.
But I don’t think the definition of needs is the real issue here. Our original question was: if a partner is not satisfied within his or her relationship, does that justify violating the rules of that relationship by cheating? Whatever insufficient sex means to any particular person—even if that can be considered a betrayal of his or her partner’s obligation—the fact remains that adultery just makes it worse. (“Two wrongs” and all.) In addition, adultery brings a third person into what is a problem between two, which may only aggravate whatever problem led to the breakdown in sex in the relationship in the first place.
In the comments to my post "On 'The Pleasures of Adultery' and the Real Problem with It" (which inspired this discussion), I wrote that I hoped partners going through a period of no sexual activity would talk about the issue, and seek help if they needed it, instead of the frustrated partner quickly resorting to adultery and feeling it was justified. Readers responded emphatically that many couples struggle with this for a long time before one decides to cheat. I’m sure it happens both ways—for example, some frustrated partners may have other issues that may be leading them to consider cheating, and a lack of sex at home could push them over the edge. I simply hope that, as my commenters wrote, couples experiencing this problem talk about it and try to work through it before one decides to damage the relationship further.
How can couples deal with this?
Assuming that the sexual issues themselves cannot be solved, and that the frustrated partner is not willing to deny his or her needs, then the partners have to acknowledge that one of them can no longer get his or her basic needs satisfied within the relationship—and something has to change. Either the relationship has to end, or the understandings within the relationship have to change to allow the frustrated partner to seek sexual fulfillment elsewhere.
Sometimes, however, neither of these options works for a couple. Financial, religious, or family issues may make it extremely difficult to end the relationship, and the partner who refuses sex also refuses to allow his or her partner to go outside the relationship to get it. What does the frustrated partner do when he or she has exhausted every other option? In that case, as I described in an earlier post, the person has a hard choice to make, and must use his or her judgment to balance the prima facie wrong of adultery with the other principles and circumstances that speak either for or against it.
As always, moral philosophy can outline the various factors at play in an ethical dilemma—the issues of right and wrong or good and bad—but it can rarely tell you that various factors combine and balance to determine a “right answer.” In the end, you have to make a decision that you feel is consistent with your moral character and which allows you to look at yourself in the mirror when you get up in the morning—wherever that happens to be.
For a select list of my previous Psychology Today posts on adultery, relationships, self-loathing, and other topics, see here.