It’s hard to turn go anywhere these days and not hear about the Jodi Arias trial. If you’re not familiar with the Phoenix, Arizona case, here’s a summary from the CBS 48 Hour website, Crimesider: “Arias is charged with first-degree murder in the 2008 death of her ex-boyfriend, Travis Alexander. Alexander was stabbed 27 times and suffered a slashed throat and gunshot to the head. Arias claims she killed him in self defense. She faces the death penalty if convicted.”

This is a tragic story, and the trial involves a number of mental health experts taking the stand. I was watching today as Alyce LaViolette, MS, MFCC was giving testimony as an expert for the defense. In the course of the interrogation, the defense implied that Travis Alexander had emailed other women with whom he appeared to have been having romantic relationships. In the course of that testimony, when asked whether that act would be considered infidelity Ms. LaViolette did not equivocate. “Yes,” she responded, adding, “It’s considered a form of psychological abuse.”

The last thing I want to do is step into the “legal expert” arena, but as a marriage educator I feel compelled to address the opinion offered by Ms. LaViolette: that infidelity occurred between Arias and Alexander. Infidelity, at its root definition, requires the violation of an oath of commitment--a duty to be faithful. When two adults choose to date each other, it typically involves neither the implication nor the demand that dating all others is off limits. In fact, in Western culture, dating prior to marriage is one of the ways that people ultimately choose their spouse. From Casanova to George Clooney, single individuals can, and some would argue, should, date with impunity. After all, if one day they are to be married, then the door will forever be shut on meeting other suitors.

I’ll grant you that infidelity can happen in circumstances other than marriage. In some parts of the U.S., more people choose to live together than choose to marriage. Moreover, in most states in this country, romantically involved gay and lesbian couples do not have the option of marrying. Nonetheless, if cohabitating or romantic couples define themselves as being in committed, monogamous relationships, then it makes sense to broaden the definition of fidelity to include people who have sworn such a promise. All who have made this vow must repudiate romantic relationships with anyone but the person they are committed to.  If they hold to that promise, they are faithful.

To run fast and loose with the phrase “infidelity” cheapens the value and intent of being in a monogamous relationship, particularly marriage. When two individuals decide to stand before friends and family (or even in front of a justice of the peace) and swear to be faithful to each other for life, then that’s when one ought to take a close look at whether infidelity is happening. It’s much easier to know how to fix (like a broken vow) something if you have a clear idea of what you are trying to fix.

So lets all try to be clear what it means to cheat on a partner, and moreover, let’s invest our hearts and souls to prevent that from happening. As for the categorical declaration that infidelity is abuse…I’ll save my comments on that for another day.

About the Author

Scott Haltzman, M.D.

Scott Haltzman, M.D., a psychiatrist and relationship researcher, authored four books during his tenure with the Brown University faculty.

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