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What If Your Partner Doesn't Believe Adultery Is Wrong?

Each of us must decide what we're willing to accept in our relationships.

bdcbethebest/Pixabay, CC0 license
Source: bdcbethebest/Pixabay, CC0 license

A commenter on my post “Are You Tempted by Adultery Even Though You Believe It's Wrong?” who goes by HappilyMono recently asked a great question: “What if your partner doesn't believe it is wrong?” After the question, I'll discuss several aspects of it, drawing on some of my earlier posts.

Your example presumes that the "passionate" cheater knows it is wrong. I am married to someone who "gets tremendous pleasure or satisfaction from the occasional relationship she forms outside of her marriage" but does not think there is anything wrong with it. She attributes this to biology or evolution, and claims that it is against our nature to be monogamous. She feels like giving up that nature is akin to me asking her to bury a large part of who she is. I am not sure about all that, and suspect it may be more "reconsidering the immorality of adultery" so that she can align her desires with her ethics.

I have tried to do something similar in the past, and found it is not for me. I am happiest in a traditional monogamous relationship, where I simply do not put myself in the path of potential complications with others.

How can the two of us square our very different approaches? Right now, I feel like I am vulnerable and do not have good choices. When she engages in an emotional relationship with someone else, I feel deeply hurt. But I also want her to be independent and empowered, not to repress herself and feel trapped - seeing her in pain at having closed off a part of herself hurts me too. I know that eventually if it is not something she embraces on her own, she will cheat anyway. Even more complicated, we have a small child together, which leads to both me taking commitment more seriously and her feeling more trapped.

This question touches on two topics I've discussed before: 1) whether monogamy is "natural" and whether it matters, and 2) how much partners should compromise in their relationship. (I'm setting aside the ethics of adultery itself because this post is not about helping this couple deal with infidelity, not judging. And for the sake of argument, I'll refer to HappilyMono as male.)

Even if HappilyMono's wife is rationalizing her sexual desires by arguing that monogamy is unnatural, it is a valid point made by many evolutionary biologists and psychologists. However, it misses the larger point: as I explained in an earlier post, the promise of fidelity is meaningful precisely because it's so difficult to keep. If it were easy to stay with one person for a long period of time, it wouldn't represent the kind of sacrifice that shows our feelings to the person we care about.

But let's focus more on the nature of this sacrifice. According to HappilyMono, his wife claims that staying faithful is "asking her to bury a large part of who she is." HappilyMono is admirably sympathetic, wanting her to be "independent and empowered, not to repress herself and feel trapped," even though her extramarital activities make him "feel deeply hurt." Given the nature of his wife's desires (and his own), and taking them both to be sincere, it seems either partner would be making a significant sacrifice to please the other—and even though sacrifice is integral to monogamous relationships, it doesn't necessarily work for everyone.

I discussed different kinds of sacrifices in a post about compromise in relationships, where I explained that small compromises are often necessary when people choose to merge their lives, but compromises that involve important wants or needs, or a core part of a partner's identity, ask too much. It's one thing to ask your partner to spend a little less time on their hobby and a little more with you, but another thing entirely to ask them to give up their hobby altogether "for the sake of the relationship." As I wrote there:

A healthy relationship should affirm who each partner is and allow each person to meet his or her needs together with the other. A lesser relationship demands that one or both partners change in a deep and meaningful way to meet the needs of the other, which compromises one or both of the persons involved. In such cases, the compromise serves the relationship, which is backwards—the relationship should serve the persons in it.

Given the nature of the desires of both HappilyMono and his wife (without judging either), it seems either one would need to make a significant sacrifice to please the other. He places a large value on monogamy and she places a large value of her sexual freedom, and unfortunately these are mutually exclusive. Of course, we can wonder why she entered into a monogamous marriage in the first place if she felt it was unnatural and intolerable, but she may have felt differently then—people change, and relationships have to change with them (as I discussed here). (Also, keep in mind that we don't have her side of the story.)

HappilyMono frames the problem very well when he asks, "How can the two of us square our very different approaches?" Unfortunately, given their positions on monogamy, I don't know if they can (even taking into account the child they share). One of them can always try to adapt to the desires of the other, but this may be too much of a sacrifice to expect, given how important these desires are to them. (And there is no way to meet in the middle, because monogamy is an all-or-nothing proposition.) But this sort of compromise on the part of either partner will likely lead to greater resentment, frustration, and unhappiness for both of them, which is bad also for their child.

This may be a case in which all parties would be happier, at least in the long run, if the couple separates—but, of course, only HappilyMono and his wife can decide that. Whatever they may choose, I wish them both the best of luck, and the same goes for any other readers that find themselves in a similar situation.

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