Infidelity and Moral Outrage
Why infidelity provokes polarization.
Posted Nov 04, 2018
Three years ago, I published an op-ed piece in the New York Times called “When the Best Sex is Extra-Marital." I told the story of a patient of mine, a married woman, who came for therapy to help her grieve when her married lover died suddenly of a heart attack. She had been having better sex with her lover than with her husband. Yet after grieving her loss, she was able to work out a satisfactory relationship with her husband to start a family. As a therapist, my aim with patients is to help them explore their thoughts and feelings and see what their practical options might be for constructively moving forward in their lives. I try to avoid judgment or imposing my own values to the degree possible. I was surprised to see that my op-ed piece generated over 700 comments. About half of the commentators criticized me for promoting infidelity, while the other half criticized me for promoting monogamy. Only a small minority appreciated that I was trying not to take sides and allow the patient to find her own way.
Initially, I felt hurt, angry, and even a little frightened to be the object of such intense moral indignation. I felt misunderstood and unfairly criticized. But ultimately, I learned to not take the criticism so personally when I saw that I was being criticized with absolute certitude for opposite and mutually contradictory reasons. That paradox piqued my scientific curiosity. Why does discussing the psychology of infidelity provoke such moralizing and polarizing discourse? Unfaithful partners are scorned as “cheaters” that should have to wear a scarlet letter for adulterer for the rest of their lives. Affair partners are shamed as “home-wreckers.” Betrayed partners, if men, are belittled as “cuckolds” — an emasculated man who couldn’t sexually satisfy his wife. Betrayed women might be mocked for being “prudish” if they make too big a deal of their husbands getting an occasional “lap dance” at a bachelor party. Are unfaithful partners and their affair partners “bad” people, because they have broken the rules governing sexually exclusive relationships and lied about it? Are the betrayed partners “bad” people whose sexually withholding and/or emotionally abusive behavior drove their unfaithful partners to infidelity?
Maybe if humans aren’t meant to be monogamous, we shouldn’t judge individuals who can’t uphold a marital arrangement that goes against human nature. Instead, we should judge the people who try to enforce an unnatural arrangement and make others feel unreasonably guilt-ridden for their failure to conform to an inherently oppressive arrangement. Yet others may believe that monogamy is the natural, if not God-given, arrangement, so that people who fail to honor their monogamous commitments and lie about it should be judged harshly. People have strong infidelity beliefs, if not convictions, so that moral outrage is evoked when their core infidelity beliefs are questioned. If you believe monogamy is unnatural, you might judge the people who try to promote and enforce it. If you think monogamy is natural, you might judge the people who seem to question and undermine its legitimacy. And of course, we might be judgmental of judgmental people of any persuasion, because harsh judgment of any kind can make others feel bad about themselves.
Being judgmental, if not moralistic, appears to be part of human nature. Self-righteous indignation seems to be our instinctive response to offenses against our core values and beliefs. Expressing our outrage at moral offenses, therefore, seems entirely legitimate. We are simply standing up for what seems right in the face of apparent wrongs. Yet I discovered in doing couples therapy, especially couples therapy for couples trying to recover from infidelity, that indulging one’s self-righteous indignation at being wronged is counter-productive when it comes to constructive marital communication. People respond defensively and angrily to being made the object of their partners’ moral outrage. As a consequence, the marital communication degenerates into shouting matches, each partner feeling the innocent and outraged victim of the other partner’s false and inflammatory accusations.
Couples therapists may have to help couples develop “mindfulness.” Mindfulness is the ability to look at reality objectively as it actually is, but without judgment. If reality is unfair or horrifying, see it for what it is without denial or minimization. Learn to accept it for what it is without judgment. Acceptance doesn’t mean that something immoral is OK, or that you have to like something distasteful. Sexual frustration in marriage as well as infidelity, like death and taxes, may sometimes be unavoidable parts of life that you have to learn how to constructively deal with, no matter how unpleasant. Yes, your partner cheated on you, but if you hope to reconcile, you may need to eventually let go of your hurt and anger and learn to forgive. Yes, the partner you cheated on was sexually rejecting or emotionally abusive, but if you hope to reconcile, making your partner feel bad about the character flaws you find insufferable won’t help your partner overcome those flaws.
The Fateful Choice
Of course, we don’t have to stay romantically involved with partners we no longer like and who can’t be fixed to our liking. Yet if we hope to reconcile with partners after a serious falling out, such as after an exposed infidelity, indulging our moral outrage is unlikely to facilitate the process of reconciliation. So, we have a fateful choice to make:
1. Judge our partners. Be it fair or not, judgment will bring out the worst in them (i.e., their hurt, angry, and defensive side).
2. Accept our partners. Acceptance, despite the ways they give moral offense, will bring out the best in them (i.e., a more forgiving and conciliatory side).
Josephs, L. (2018) The Dynamics of Infidelity: Applying Relationship Science to Psychotherapy Practice. American Psychological Association. Washington, D.C.