The basis for trust within any marriage is the promise of exclusivity; one person wholly devoted to another. It is this fundamental belief that has helped sell scores of Hollywood romantic movies – there is one person out there for each of us. While this may seem a Disney notion, it nonetheless remains the fuel igniting many of our saccharine hopes and dreams.
Yet there are efforts ongoing to change that, to look at marital fidelity and sexual exclusivity in a new light – calling into question the entire notion of monogamy. The reason, we’re told, are high divorce rates and rampant stories of adultery. With statistics reported to be over 50% for each, there are calls to redefine what marriage and monogamy should look like in our culture. The story goes that marriage is a rigid social construct and we are all hapless victims oppressed by the winds of a nagging puritanical hurricane. They suggest the rules need changing, that we are no longer wired for the ancient concept of life-long matrimony as our grandparents may have been. Cohabitation was the first blow to this venerable dogma; ensuing strikes are coming by way of relationship slights-of-hand such as marital leases and so-called non-monogamy relationships.
A recent example of this appeared in the article, Is Infidelity a Societal Problem? In light of, among other things, an unending stream of cheating scandals, the author asks,
“So why is it just an individual’s problem? If so many are getting some on the side, isn’t infidelity a societal problem? What if instead of being branded with a Scarlet A, those who stray are told at the therapist’s office that the problem isn’t really just his or hers; the problem is monogamy, which clearly isn’t working for a good percentage of couples.”
She then proceeds to liken the ‘epidemic’ to the obesity crisis,
“So, obesity — which affects about as many people as infidelity does in direct ways and many more in indirect ways through higher health costs and taxpayer dollars to fund prevention programs — is seen as something that can be fixed in ways outside just an individual’s control… Infidelity, however, is not. Why? Especially since monogamy appears to “promote unhealthy behaviors” — aka affairs and sex avoidance. And since infidelity is among the top reasons for divorce, there’s a societal cost involved, too.”
This mode of thinking is not only flawed it’s dangerous. By every measure, government prevention programs designed to curb obesity have been miserable failures. Is there anyone left in the western hemisphere that can sincerely claim ignorance to the side effects of a unhealthy lifestyle of poor diet and lax physical activity? Yet obesity continues to climb across all socioeconomic classes, why? Much like smoking or credit card debt, when given the opportunity most of us choose pleasure over duty, reclining lazily in the lap of self-indulgence. This characteristic is an ailment of the human condition which no prevention program or cultural elixir can remedy.
Furthermore, while framing monogamy in such terms – cheating is a byproduct of forced social conditioning - may help ease our guilt-ridden consciences, it points to a misunderstanding of human relationships. This assertion fails to comprehend or worse ignores the importance of trust and how tightly woven trust is into the fabric of all relationships. If we were to do away with the promise of exclusivity within romantic relationships and marriage, where then does trust between a couple find footing? The moment we eliminate sexual purity between spouses the foundation of marriage will collapse. When exclusivity is erased all that remains are the crumbs of detachment and skepticism. How could a wife sincerely believe her husband’s claims of love and affection while he is sleeping with other women?
The author’s solution is no less problematic,
“What if we changed the discussion? What if non-monogamy was the norm, and those who truly wanted to deviate from that — be monogamous with a partner — would be free to make that choice? Monogamy wouldn’t be assumed, and wouldn’t we all feel a lot better if people were actively and consciously choosing to be monogamous? Infidelity would be a thing of the past.”
This is human morality graded on a curve; employing the same strategy in our sexual lives that so many criticize in the school system. Of course infidelity would be ‘a thing of the past’, because we’d eliminate the denominator entirely and reduce the definition of romantic relationship to that of carnal desire and convenience. Such an understanding of marriage would earn Anthony Wiener husband of the year award. Lastly, I find it interesting the author feels that making monogamy ‘optional’ would strengthen marriage and relationships. Employing a rationale that says if we’re given a hall-pass to cheat, but don’t, this somehow implies we sincerely want to be with the other person – since it would be monogamy by choice instead of through decree or vow.
But that happens already – it’s called dating.
This is the confusion that ensues when we try breaking free from the cords of individual responsibility; when we attempt to journey through life without an ethical compass; it leaves us wandering hither and yon in a no-man’s-land of moral chaos devising some preposterous means of escape. There is absolutely no correlation between the prevalence of a behavior and an individual’s accountability for that behavior. Just because a larger percentage of the population is cheating this doesn’t absolve the individual cheater. The slipperiness of such a slope could be disastrous.
Take for instance the real epidemic of child pornography (statistics from the FBI over a 10-year period).
Based upon the data – a surge of incidents, high societal impact, and the need for prevention programs – wouldn’t the author’s rationale for making infidelity a social problem apply just as equally and, as such, absolve the perpetrator of individual guilt?
An adulterer is no less accountable for her infidelity, because more people are cheating, than a pedophile is because child pornography is on the rise. Moreover, we must not fall into the trap of fabricating a moral escape hatch by comparing ourselves to the lowest common denominator. Part of the human experience is overcoming our coarse impulses not becoming enslaved to them. Marriage, the pinnacle of human relationships, is built upon a foundation of trust and it’s for that reason monogamy has and forever remains a cornerstone to its success.