Matters of the heart

A brief history of infidelity: It’s not always a bad thing

It’s cost some their lives throughout the ages and reminded others they’re worthy of love

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Fidelity may be the foundation of wedlock in most cultures today, but down through the centuries, the institution of marriage has accommodated or condemned straying spouses to wildly varying degrees.

In Puritan New England, for example, a fervid variety of criminalization was enforced not only for adulterous women but also for their male counterparts. Biblical injunctions informed many of the early laws of Puritan Massachusetts, including the capital law against adultery, which stated: “If any person committeth Adultery with a mar[r]ied or espoused wife, the Adulterer and Adulteress shall surely be put to death.”

In a passage from his journal, John Winthrop (1588–1649), first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, detailed one of the rare cases on record in which the penalty was actually carried out: “. . . The woman proved very penitent, and had deep apprehension of the foulness of her sin, and at length attained to hope of pardon by the blood of Christ, and was willing to die in satisfaction to justice. The man also was very much cast down for his sins, but was loth to die, and petitioned the general court for his life, but they would not grant it, though some of the magistrates spake much for it, and questioned the letter, whether adultery was death by God’s law now  . . .”

Both were executed.

Generally speaking, Americans have tended to take the Seventh Commandment more literally than their cousins across the Atlantic: In his classic 1675 Restoration comedy, The Country-Wife, the English dramatist William Wycherley treated it as a mere technicality. The play features characters with names like Mr. Horner, Old Lady Squeamish, and the relatively serious Mr. Dorilant, who nonetheless has one of the best lines in the play. “A mistress should be like a little country retreat near the town, not to dwell in constantly, but only for a night and away, to taste the town the better when a man returns.”

By that logic, the wife of a roving husband should be grateful, given that she’s appreciated all the more come Monday. But what about the wife who longs for her own weekend in the country?

Notorious for a string of famous lovers including Frédéric Chopin, Prosper Mérimée, and Alfred de Musset, George Sand (1804–1876) was a popular and controversial French author whose novels often questioned the social conventions of the day. Famously, she wrote that there is “only one happiness in life, and that is to love and be loved.” Even in her first novel, Indiana, Sand defended the right of women to leave their husbands in search of that happiness. In another work, Jacques, she wrote in the voice of the jilted but resigned husband. “That which constitutes adultery is not the hour that she accords to her lover: it is the night that she afterward passes in the arms of her husband. Oh! I should hate my wife … But such as she is, pale, depressed, suffering all the anguish of a timorous conscience, incapable of lying, and ever ready to confess to me her involuntary fault, I can only pity and regret her.????

The protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne is probably the most famous adulteress in American literature, best known for the initial A that she is forced to wear as punishment for her infidelity but that she embroiders artfully and exhibits without the expected Puritan shame. Hawthorne based his celebrated novel on a 1658 Plymouth Colony law that, like the Massachusetts Bay law, was rarely recorded as having been enforced, but stated: “whosoever shall commit Adultery shall be severely punished by Whipping . . . and likewise to wear two Capital letters viz A D cut out in cloth and sewed on their uppermost Garments.”

In one passage, Prynne stands before a crowd: “. . .with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, [she] looked around at her townspeople and neighbors. On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold-thread, appeared the letter A.” Her appearance “. . .had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and enclosing her in a sphere by herself.”

Certainly, people having affairs often inhabit a kind of parallel universe, with its own laws and moral logic. In some cases, they are able to rationalize their transgressions with the argument that what their partners don’t know won’t hurt them. This point was made in The Happy Family, a popular 1938 advice book that dealt with marriage and childrearing and went through 10 printings in its first decade alone. One reason for the book’s success was the imprimatur of Dr. John Levy, an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University. (Later editions were updated by his coauthor and widow, Dr. Ruth Munroe, a psychology professor at Sarah Lawrence).

“. . . The extramarital adventure frequently seems to its chief actor quite irrelevant to his marriage. He knows that it is transitory and unimportant, or at least wholly distinct from his family responsibilities. He feels perfectly capable of handling the situation himself without harm to anyone  . . . The erring husband maintains the rules of monogamy for the rest of the world while he orders his own life as he thinks best. He protects his wife from unnecessary pain by concealing his own freedom.”

The book suggests that this system works—sometimes. “A man who is genuinely fond of his wife, thoroughly responsible as a husband, and well integrated as a personality can handle hidden deviations from monogamy adequately. If the marriage is already disturbed, however, or if the man is himself very much upset by his behavior, the results of concealment are often as unhappy as they are unexpected.”

Cultural context shapes an unfaithful husband’s level of anguish, of course. It’s said that in recent decades, as in past centuries, a quiet fling is no big deal to the French. That was surely true of Yves Montand. The French film and recording star was married for 34 years, until the death of his wife, the actress Simone Signoret, and he had numerous mistresses, including Edith Piaf, Shirley MacLaine, and, most famously, Marilyn Monroe.

But in a 1973 interview even he noted that, when it comes to adultery, some moderation is called for: “I think a man can have two, maybe three affairs while he is married. But three is the absolute maximum. After that, you’re cheating.”

A decade later, Richard Taylor, a professor and philosopher with an abiding interest in virtue ethics, wrote about the joy of extramarital sex in one of his most unconventional works Having Love Affairs: “most vehement condemnations of it seem to come from those who have abandoned hope of experiencing it, and who therefore represent it to themselves as something base in order to assuage their own sense of deprivation. A person involved in such a love affair—overwhelming, forbidden, explosively dangerous—can think to himself, with some truth at least, that here is one person in the world who cares for him for no ulterior reason at all, who has nothing to gain by it and very much to lose, but who does nevertheless love.”

Yet Taylor gave marital passion its due: “This does not mean that love affairs are better than marriage, for they seldom are. Love between married persons can, in the long run, be so vastly more fulfilling that none but the hopelessly romantic could suggest otherwise  . . .”

Discovering that a spouse has been cheating certainly can breed unrelenting bitterness, as memorably related by Nora Ephron in Heartburn, her thinly disguised 1983 novel treating the grim facts of her marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein. Of her character’s wayward husband, she wrote: “The man is capable of having sex with a venetian blind.”

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In 2010, Wendy Plump penned a wrenching New York Times column that later formed the basis for her 2013 book: Vow: A Memoir of Marriage (and Other Affairs). She described the fallout of infidelity from the equally painful viewpoints of the cheater and the cheated upon. Yet some reader responses to the piece questioned her conclusions:

“An affair is not always—rarely is—a rejection of one’s spouse. Affairs happen because we are human. If a marriage is only about maintaining fidelity in the bedroom—maybe that’s a main problem with the marriage? I do have one caveat: if affairs are repetitive and/or blatant, it’s probably time to end the marriage,” one reader wrote in.

Another noted a cultural bias:

“. . . Every human being’s experiences are different. This is a fatalistic American POV. I had an affair with a man who had been unhappy for years with his wife. I was in a marriage where I was lonely and neglected. We had known each other since college. We left our partners. And have been happy together for years now  . . .”

A third reader objected to being judged: “. . .
 Having an affair was one of the best things I ever did. It gave me the courage to leave a bad marriage and reminded me that I was worthy of love and would be loved again. I haven’t a single regret about my actions; however, I somewhat resent being told that I should.”

Assumptions about love and sex are often unreliable. It is an old cliché, for instance, that women look outside of their marriages for love, whereas men go searching for sex. But in fact, along with some of the societal shame surrounding infidelity, the myths about women and monogamy have been melting away in recent years.

In Sex at Dawn, their studious and comprehensive 2010 volume about human relationships, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha reexamined the long-held assumption that males—whether humans or other primates—have a greater tendency toward promiscuity than females because of the need to increase their chances of reproduction. The researchers found persuasive evidence that females are just as wanton as males, and that, for both genders, monogamy is a far cry from the natural human state that so many anthropologists, psychologists, and moralists have asserted it to be.

The authors, a married psychologist and psychiatrist, relied on primate research and cross-cultural anthropology to conclude that humans—much like the bonobo, our closest ape relative—began as foragers who worked cooperatively and shared sex partners freely.

“No group-living nonhuman primate is monogamous, and adultery has been documented in every human culture studied—including those in which fornicators are routinely stoned to death. In light of all this bloody retribution, it’s hard to see how monogamy comes ‘naturally’ to our species.”

The authors ask: “Why would so many risk their reputations, families, careers—even presidential legacies—for something that runs against human nature?”

The answer may be debatable. But it’s certain that men and women alike will continue to take that thrilling risk, and bear all of the consequences that go along with it.

Stephen Adler is the coauthor, along with Lisa Grunwald, of “The Marriage Book: Centuries of Advice, Inspiration, and Cautionary Tales from Adam and Eve to Zoloft,” which will be released on May 12.

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