The stupidity and folly of adultery

Anna Karenina - 1997©REX/Moviestore

Sean Bean and Sophie Marceau in the 1997 film of Anna Karenina

If believing in the ideals of marriage is often naive, so too is believing that adultery can be an effective antidote to its many disappointments.

What is ultimately ‘wrong’ with adultery is its sheer dangerous optimism. While it may look at first sight like a cynical activity to engage in, adultery in fact betrays an absurdly hopeful conviction that one can somehow magically rearrange the difficulties and shortcomings of marriage through a lie. This is to misunderstand the facts of life. It is impossible to sleep with someone outside of marriage and not violently destroy the things one still cares about inside it – and yet, in case we get carried away with the charms of fidelity, it is equally impossible to remain utterly faithful in a marriage and yet not miss out on some of life’s greatest and most significant pleasures that lie outside the couple.

In short, as the adulterer forgets (to the huge cost of those they care about and who believe in them), there is no solution.


Monica Lewinsky gets to know Bill Clinton in the White House, 1995

There is no answer to the tensions of marriage, if what one means by an ‘answer’ is a settlement in which no party suffers a loss, and in which every positive element can coexist with every other, without either causing or sustaining grievous damage.The three things people usually want in this sphere – love, sex and family – each affects and harms the others in devilish ways. Loving a person may inhibit the ability to have sex with him or her. Yet having a secret tryst can fatally endanger a relationship with a spouse who is loved but no longer excites. However, having children can imperil both love and sex, and yet neglecting the kids in order to focus on marriage or sexual thrills may threaten the health and mental stability of the next generation. The choice isn’t between happiness and grief; all that is on offer are different varieties of suffering.


Helen’s affair with Paris sparked the Trojan War

Periodically, frustration breeds an impulse to seek a utopian solution. Perhaps an open marriage would work. Or a policy of secrets. Or a renegotiation of the contract on a yearly basis. Or more child care. All such strategies are fated to fail, however, for the simple reason that loss is written into the rules of the situation. If we sleep around, we will put at risk our spouse’s love and the psychological health of our children. If we don’t sleep around, we will go stale and miss out on the excitement of new relationships. If we keep an affair secret, it will corrode us inside and stunt our capacity to receive another’s love. If we confess to infidelity, our partner will panic and never get over our sexual adventures (even if they meant nothing to us). If we focus all of our energies on our children, they will eventually abandon us to pursue their own lives, leaving us wretched and lonely. But if we ignore our children in favour of our own romantic pursuits as a couple, we will scar them and earn their unending resentment. Marriage is like a bed sheet that can never be straightened: when we seek to perfect or ameliorate one side of it, we will succeed only in further wrinkling and disturbing the others.

'Snow White and The Huntsman' film photocall, Park Hyatt Hotel, Sydney, Australia - 19 Jun 2012© REX/Tim Hunter/Newspix

Kristen Stewart betrayed Robert Pattinson with director Rupert Sanders

The only cure for infidelity is pessimism. We need new sadder vows to exchange with partners in order to stand a sincere chance of mutual fidelity over a lifetime. Certainly something far more cautionary and downbeat than the usual platitudes would be in order – for example:  ‘I promise to be disappointed by you and you alone. I promise to make you the sole repository of my regrets, rather than to distribute them widely through multiple affairs and a life of sexual Don Juanism. I have surveyed the different options for unhappiness, and it is you I have chosen to commit myself to.’ These are the sorts of generously pessimistic and kindly unromantic promises that couples should make to each other at the altar.

Thereafter, an affair would be a betrayal only of a reciprocal pledge to be disappointed in a particular way, not of an unrealistic hope. Spouses who had been cheated upon would no longer furiously complain that they had expected their partner to be happy with them per se. Instead they could more poignantly and justly cry, ‘I was relying on you to be loyal to the specific variety of disappointment which I represent.’

Too many people start off in relationships by putting the moral emphasis in the wrong place, smugly mocking the urge to stray as if it were something disgusting and unthinkable. But in truth, it is the ability to stay that is both wondrous and worthy of honour; it is not the norm. Fidelity is a heroic achievement. That a couple should be willing to watch their lives go by from within the cosy cage of marriage, without acting on extra-mural sexual impulses, is a miracle of civilisation and kindness for which daily gratitude is in order.

© REX/Moviestore Collection

© REX/Moviestore Collection

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as Antony and Cleopatra

Spouses who remain faithful to each other should recognise the scale of the sacrifice they are making. There is nothing biologically ‘normal’ or cost-free about sexual renunciation. Fidelity deserves to be celebrated as a high point of the ethical imagination – ideally with some medals and the sounding of a public gong – rather than discounted as an unremarkable norm whose undermining by an affair should quickly provoke utter rage. A loyal marriage ought at all times to retain within it an awareness of the immense forbearance and pessimistic, stoic generosity which the two parties are showing one another in managing not to sleep around (or, for that matter, in refraining from killing each other). That is something to feel truly hopeful about.

See Part 1: The pleasures of adultery