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The Real Problem With Adultery

Why the argument for 'the pleasures of adultery' comes up short.


I found a recent entry in The Philosophers' Mail, entitled “The Pleasures of Adultery,” to be intriguing although ultimately misguided. It takes up the topic of sexual infidelity but places too much emphasis on the sexual aspect and too little on the infidelity, or the broken promises and violations of trust that represent the true harm of adultery.

(The Philosophers’ Mail, affiliated with Alain de Botton’s School of Life, is regularly an entertaining and enlightening read, a welcome effort to use pop culture to introduce philosophical musings—to, in de Botton's words, "read and caption the news with an eye to traditional central philosophical concerns; for compassion, truth, justice, complexity, calm, empathy and wisdom.")

The uncredited author of the adultery piece—perhaps de Botton, perhaps not—is correct to highlight, as many have, that adulterous liaisons are a natural preoccupation, and makes an interesting argument that one who doesn’t have them might be lacking in some way:

To be provocative: what if there was something wrong in not being tempted, in not realising just how short a time one had been allotted on this earth and therefore with what urgent curiosity one might want to explore the unique fleshly individuality of more than one of one’s contemporaries? ... Isn’t the blanket rejection of such temptations a little too neat, an infidelity towards the chaotic richness of life itself? Could one trust anyone who would not, under certain circumstances, show any interest in being untrustworthy?

We are human, indeed, and many of us are tempted by the delights of the new, especially those of the sexual variety. But in the last sentence above, the author conflates the notions of desire and virtue: it is one thing to desire that which would render us untrustworthy, but it is another thing entirely to desire being untrustworthy. Which does the author mean? I would hope the first, but I can’t discount entirely the second (which I find disturbing).

But the main problem I have with this piece is nicely encapsulated in one lyrical but empty paragraph:

It would be deeply unusual to expect people to grow up in hedonistic liberated circles, experience the sweat and excitement of nightclubs and summer parks, be bathed in images of desire and songs of longing and ecstasy, and then one day, at the command of a certificate, renounce all further sexual discoveries in the name of no particular god and no higher commandment, just an unexplored supposition that it must all be very wrong.

The author doesn’t seem to appreciate that, for many of us, the imperative to be faithful to one’s partner is not a simple matter of a certificate, higher commandment, or god. Ultimately it rests in the promise one partner makes to the other—and breaking that promise, I think, is very reasonably held by most people to be “very wrong.”

The author very correctly points out that sexual infidelity is not the only wrong partners can inflict on each, nor necessarily the worst:

Adultery may be the lightning conductor of modern indignation, but are there not other, subtler ways of betraying a person than by sleeping with someone outside the couple; by omitting to listen, by forgetting to evolve and enchant, or more generally and blamelessly, by simply being one’s own limited self?

All of this is true; we can fail each other in so many other ways other than in terms of sex. But for better or for worse, the most exacting promises and expectations most people have in their relationships regard sexual fidelity. No one has to like this aspect of relationships, and many people argue against it or reject it, but that’s not the point. If you don’t want to be monogamous, don’t promise to be monogamous. But if you do make that promise to your partner, you have an obligation to keep it—not for the sake of any societal norm or expectation, but out of respect and love for your partner.

The author makes the common argument that no one can hope to be everything to his or her partner. He or she blames “the ethos of modern marriage, with its peculiar brittle insistence that one person must embody the complete sexual and emotional solution to another’s every need.” I tend to agree, but this realization should inform the promises that partners make to each other at the beginning of a relationship, not comprise an excuse for breaking them later on.

Furthermore, partners in relationships should be explicit regarding their expectations and the promises they’re willing to make. As I’ve written before, adultery is whatever partners believe it is, whether that means sexual intercourse, kissing, or texting. People in relationships should not feel bound by anyone else’s expectations of them—each person should feel bound only by the promises made to his or her partner. If you don’t feel your partner can be everything to you, then don’t promise to get everything from your partner. But if you do so promise, as I said above, you have an obligation to live up to it.

At the end of the day, adultery is not about the sex—it’s about the betrayal. We simply focus on the sexual aspect because it’s so visceral and associated with emotional intimacy within relationships (along with centuries of religious and political baggage). This also explains why many people would be more bothered by their partner romantically kissing another person than engaging in meaningless sex. The form of the betrayal is less important than the betrayal itself and its corrosive effect on trust in the relationship.

More generally, the author doesn’t seem to appreciate that the value of commitment is based in part on the value of what is given up for it. Of course, sexual desire has a unique pull on most of us. But promises of fidelity would mean much less if we were promising to give up something we didn’t want! The fact that most of us want sex so much is why it means so much when we promise it to just one person—and that promise to that person, not societal norms regarding monogamy, is what should make us think twice about "the pleasures of adultery."

For a select list of my previous Psychology Today posts on relationships, self-loathing, and other topics, see here.

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