Adultery: What Counts and Who Decides?
What counts as infidelity—and who decides?
Posted May 18, 2010
Maybe I should keep avoiding the question after all—hey, what's up with Lost, anyway? That's just messed up...
Uh... anybody got a good bonobo story? (Just kidding, Vanessa.)
The easy answer is that there is no answer, if by "answer" we expect one standard that will satisfy everybody. Some people are more upset by sexual activity, others by emotional entanglements—the latter would presumably be more upset with a kiss or a tender email than a pair of unfamiliar underwear under the bed. Some couples agree to open sexual liaisons outside the relationship, but also agree not to develop feelings for their other partners. And some adhere to a rule of "anything but sex."
Is there a pattern here? All of the examples above are stated in terms of what the other partner will or will not tolerate, what makes him or her upset, or what couples have agreed to. In words, adultery is in the eyes of the one being cheated on. (That sounded snappier in my head, honest. Really. Hey look, there's a bonobo!)
It's no use saying that kissing (or sex, or romantic emails) is adultery if not every person would be upset by his or her partner kissing (or having sex with, or emailing "<3 <3 <3" to) somebody else. But if betrayal is an essential part of adultery, than whatever betrayal is to a particular person, adultery is also. That also explains the view that something is adultery if you wouldn't tell your partner about it—because the issue is what your partner would be upset with, and different people get upset about different things.
But what if you disagree with your partner about something you're doing? Suppose that you're enjoying romantic dinners with a friend from work and your partner accuses you of emotional infidelity, but you don't think he or she should be upset. (First of all, do not tell your partner that he or she "should not be upset"—even bonobos know not to do that.) You don't feel like you're doing anything wrong, but your partner does. So who's right?
So what counts or doesn't count as adultery is an issue for each couple to decide for themselves, depending on what boundaries they're comfortable setting—as well as how forgiving or flexible they'll be with them. Ultimately, it's not the act that's wrong, but how it makes your partner feel.
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