[in-fi-del-i-tee] noun, plural in·fi·del·i·ties.
1. marital disloyalty; adultery;
2. unfaithfulness; disloyalty;
3. lack of religious faith;
4. a breach of trust or a disloyal act; transgression.
I started this blog by looking at the statistics. Somewhere between 18% and 60% of married Americans will have an extramarital affair during their marriage. Men cheat more than women. Two to 3% of all children born in this country are the product of infidelity. Only 3% of all mammals are monogamous, and, arguably, it is not the norm for humans. The numbers are staggering, but they tell us almost nothing.
The dictionary definition of infidelity is fairly predictable. In practice, however, it can be much more nuanced. Most people consider any sexual act with someone other than your partner and without your partner present to be infidelity, whether it is sex, oral sex, anal sex, etc. But there are grey areas, too. French kissing is generally over the line. What about a simple kiss? Embracing? Hand holding? And what about emotional infidelity?
With the boom of the internet, and increasing reliance on electronic communication, it is disturbingly common for a person to feel a higher degree of intimacy with a person they have never met across the world than his or her neighbor just over the fence. It’s so easy to be amazing behind the mask of your keyboard. There are no fat days, no bad hair days, and no facial blemishes. Your eyebrows can be untweezed, You can be three inches taller and twenty pounds lighter. Your Brazilian can go Amazon. You don’t even have to wear deodorant. You can always edit yourself before you thoughtlessly put your foot in your mouth, and you can place total faith in those benign, little emoticons to convey just exactly how each word and sentence should be interpreted.
I am a family law attorney. The issue of infidelity arises in nearly every dissolution case. Sometimes it is a single affair that is the coup de gras that ends a relationship. Sometimes one spouse has been aware for years that marriage has not really affected the other spouse’s dating life or pursuit of other sexual partners (sometimes prostitutes, same-sex prostitutes, and even transgendered prostitutes). The who that a person cheats with is usually (but not always) less important to their partner than the fact of the cheating.
It’s peculiar that the partner of a cheater sometimes grapples with what I call the Fool’s Dilemma: whether s/he cheated in the context of a love affair, a relationship with meaning, or s/he cheated with someone who “didn’t matter.” In the former case, it is not just a sin of the flesh, it is a complete betrayal of intimacy, the forging of an emotional attachment with another person. In the latter case, if the cheater risked the entire relationship for a meaningless sexual encounter, what is the value of the primary relationship? The answer to the Fool’s Dilemma is immaterial, because it is the devaluation of the primary relationship that is at issue.
And therein lies the problem: the devaluation of the relationship. Betrayal. Because cheating is not about sex per se. The problem with cheating is that it is merely a symptom of deceit. Deceit is a many-headed, ravenous beast that feeds on self esteem, trust, anxiety, depression, and of course, jealousy.
In many marriages, the paramour has a higher degree of intimacy on some levels than the spouse, because she usually knows about the existence of the wife, yet the wife does not know about her. This is not always the case. Recall the dramatic New Year’s Eve scene in the 1986 film, About Last Night, when Elizabeth Perkins’ character cries in the bathroom, “He’s going back to his wife,” and Demi Moore replies, “His wife? I didn’t know he was married.” Elizabeth Perkins wails, “Neither did I!” This is less common.
Infidelity is rarely an isolated affair. Once a partner passes the threshold of cheating, the second time is easier and the third time easier yet. Pretty soon, the partner engaged in the deceit becomes so habituated to it, that it evolves into a norm. In many of these cases, a person who has repeated affairs has a partner who has learned to tolerate it for a number of reasons. She may be financially dependent; there may be minor children of the primary relationship; she may no longer be sexually interested in her partner and is grateful for him to pursue those endeavors elsewhere. In other cases, a cheater is matched with a partner who chooses to believe convincing (or not-so-convincing) lies rather than confront the truth. The believer can be a willing participant in the deception.
And we cannot forget the paramour. The paramour makes a conscious decision to engage in a relationship with a person who is primarily involved with another person. The paramour chooses to be the B cast. This is true regardless of what the cheater says. If the primary relationship is on the cliff, or if the primary partner is no longer in love is of no import. The cheater chooses to take on a paramour rather than terminate the dysfunctional relationship, and the paramour is de facto the second string.
However, regardless of whether or not the partners in a relationship accept infidelity, it is necessarily accompanied by an erosion of intimacy. Relationships are fed on intimacy and the more effort that each partner puts into the other, the more both prosper emotionally and intellectually from the relationship. Grass is greener where you water it. If the goal is to connect to your partner, then any deception is contrary to that goal, whether the deception is an extramarital affair, a lie about anything that matters to the other person. (Obviously, I am not talking about surprise parties and the like.) Deceit is tantamount to betrayal, and that many headed beast can ruin a relationship and crush the emotional well being of the betrayed.
In my eleven years on the bar, I have seen dozens, if not hundreds, of examples of infidelity at the end of marriages and domestic partnerships. This is not something that occurs in a vacuum. Deceit is a slippery slope that begins with trepidation and soon gathers steam. Disengaging from the habit, once it’s established is extraordinarily unlikely. I do not believe in sex addiction, but habitual lying is a side effect of many personality disorders and may be as difficult to overcome as any psychological addiction.
Circling back to our definition, infidelity in practice truly is any breach of trust or a disloyal act. Not only are we defined by the choices we make, our relationships are defined by them as well.