Ian Boyne | Why even happy people cheat
Is it only people who are bored or discontented with their marriages who cheat? Is cheating a sign of some inadequacy in a marriage? Do happy couples cheat? Yes, says marriage therapist Esther Perel in her new book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, parts of which were recently excerpted in The Atlantic.
Perel, who has counselled cheating couples all over the world, explodes the myth that happy couples don't cheat, and she makes a compelling case as to why even they would. She instances cheating wife Priya, who says: "Colin and I have a wonderful relationship. Great kids, no financial stresses, careers we love, great friends. He is a phenom at work, f...ing handsome, attractive lover, fit ... . My life is good." Yet she is addicted to her affaire with a truck man, calling it off only to plunge herself in it again.
It's amazing when you really think about it that people often feel such a sense of shock and betrayal when a spouse has an affaire. I often think that people don't consider the consequences of ideas or cultural trends. We are fiercely anti-intellectual and pride ourselves on being "practical people" who despise "theory", a word of abuse. Yet we have never quite come to terms with the fruits of the spirit of the age. This is an age where the sovereignty of desire is pre-eminent. The most sacred value is self-fulfilment, self-gratification. There is nothing greater than giving full expression to one's desires.
Look after Number One as our famed disc jock Alan Magnus used to say. That aptly summarised modernity's credo.
Marriage is seen as merely the pursuit of that self-fulfilment - two halves trying to make a whole. An incomplete person trying to find himself or herself in the other person. Words like 'commitment', 'fidelity', and 'discipline' are honoured ceremonially. They are the right things to say and invoke, but we all know in our heart of hearts that they mean absolutely nothing in the real world, for in that real world, our only rule is to 'Look After Number One'.
WHY NOT CHEAT?
So I have a happy, fulfilling marriage, with a gorgeous, ravishing wife. But I have a chance to have a new, scintillating experience with a fresh, even more gorgeous body. I can experience new heights of ecstasy. Why not go for it? Especially if I can get away with it and my wife doesn't have to know. As we say in Jamaica, weh eye nuh see, heart nuh leap.
If you or I can get away with cheating, why not? If your overarching principle is the maximisation of pleasure and new experiences, why not go for it? What would prevent you? Some archaic notion about having sex with only one person? Who taught us that? Where did that come from? Was it ordained by God? But if you have thrown out any notion of ethics from on high, why hold absolutely to fidelity?
If you are a deist like Michael Abrahams who does not believe in any Bible or revealed religion, or an atheist like columnist Mark Wignall and letter writer Ethon Lowe, what objective, morally unassailable reason would you have not to cheat even once especially if your partner doesn't have to find out and be hurt? If you are not hurting anybody even subjectively and are pretty sure you can keep this down, why give up that new, heavenly, orgasmic experience, Michael, Mark, and Ethon?
As Perel says in her book: "We live in an age of entitlement; personal fulfilment, we believe, is our due. In the West, sex is a right linked to our individuality, our self-actualisation and our freedom ... . No conversation about relationships can avoid the thorny topic of rules and all-too-human desire to break them. Bucking the rules is an assertion of freedom over convention and self over society."
Having an affaire can be liberating and empowering, some would say. And in an age that privileges the self and its gratification, and in a culture that valorises personal satisfaction, self-expression trumps everything. Ideas have conferences. We have long passed the age of Plato, where the value of the rider's controlling that galloping horse was extolled. There was a time when using willpower to discipline our baser instincts was prized. We have long thrown off platonic restraints or religious scruples. Now, we are down to the rule of our animal nature.
The last shreds of Judaeo-Christian culture and its earlier philosophical moorings are being scattered, yet naive secularists including Hollywood stars, sports celebrities, and Washington elites are expressing shock, dismay, and bewilderment over sex scandals like Weinstein's, etc. What's so shocking about our philosophical chickens coming home to roost?
Now this is not to make the naive, easily debunkable point that religion, per se, is the answer to our infidelity problem. Religious people are among the most promiscuous, adulterous, and morally perverse people. Pastors and priests are among the most lecherous and sexually loose. Being religious does not inoculate us against cheating. That's not the point. It is not that religious values insulate us against cheating or sexual promiscuity. It is that without a moral compass, without a philosophical base and reference point, without the holding of some moral absolutes and the meta-ethical theory to ground it being faithful to one's spouse is dicey.
The Christian might cheat, but if he genuinely believes that it is morally wrong and feels guilty, for there is an objective moral order supervised by a personal God who is the Source of morality, that is a strong base of control for him, rather than someone who believes that norms like sexual fidelity are merely social constructs or a matter of cultural relativism.
I ask, why do people feel betrayed by an affaire? What grounds the view that a spouse really objectively owes his partner sexual exclusivity? Interrogate that. Yes, that's the accepted view. But is it objectively and absolutely true? How do you know that? We have thrown off many things society has taught us. Many have rejected the view that heterosexuality is the only moral option. We have long rejected the view that sex before marriage is sin. Why do we still hang on to the view that an extramarital affaire is morally shameful, disgusting, and wrong?
Even sophisticated people in enlightened societies react with anger and disgust over the affaires of their partners. Why? It seems to be a religious hangover, with no more objectively moral basis, some could argue, than the condemnation of homosexuality, abortion, contraception, divorce, or premarital sex.
Professor F.L. Jackson, in the philosophical journal Animus (Volume 6, 2001), says, "The freedom of the individual is modernity's absolute." He goes on: "The authority of the institution of marriage would seem especially compromised by an ethics wherein individual freedom pre-empts every other basis of human compact. Vows declaring two individuals permanently one in the sight of God, a bond no one may put asunder, are taken as mostly as quaint rhetoric or archaic poetry."
Jackson says: "Ethically, radical individual freedom yields the principle that one has an absolute right to choose ... . This principle is devastating when applied to social and ethical institutions" like marriage. Let deists and arch-critic of Christianity Michael Abrahams tell me by what morally objective, transcultural philosophical absolute is it wrong for him never to sleep with anyone, however tempting, except his very beautiful and charming wife, Gail? Seriously. Why should Mark Wignall be faithful to 'Chupski', or why should he be hurt if she gives it away? By what objective philosophical principle can he rule out cheating? Isn't this one-man, one-woman view just a backward carryover from our Stone Age religious past?
I can stray just as easily as Wignall, Abrahams, or Lowe. That's not the point. The point is, why be alarmed and even call it 'cheating', if we don't accept the existence of moral absolutes?
We don't have a culture or a philosophical foundation of self-restraint. Rather, it's one of self-gratification and self-indulgence. In a culture like this, talking about cheating being a betrayal, or wicked, is just plain foolishness and blindness. We can't eat our philosophical cake and have it.