The fallout from the Ashley Madison “data dump” has only begun. Much of the media attention has focused on B-list celebrity Josh Duggar, from his parents’ broken hearts to the inevitable amateur long-distance psychoanalysis and condemnations of the purity movement. However, sidebars do go into the hundreds of federal employees who have accessed the site from their offices, the marriages dissolving as suspicious spouses do their checking, and the expected questions about the morality of offering such a service.
The Oddity of Fidelity
It’s hard to feel any sympathy for either Avid Life Media, the owner of the website, or its many millions of subscribers. In every culture, which has some form of marriage, some definition of adultery obtains; the practice is largely frowned upon, in some cases incurring sanctions ranging from potential civil penalties to death. The oddity in our culture is not that so many people cheat, but rather that some expectation of fidelity is still kept, even after the sweeping changes wrought by the sexual revolution.
On the one hand, according to research published earlier this year, 22% of men and 14% of women have strayed at least once in their married lives; 74% of men and 68% of women admit they would cheat if they knew they would never get caught. On the other hand, the Gallup 2013 Values and Beliefs Survey recorded that 91% of Americans held affairs to be morally wrong, and that the number of people who thought it was acceptable had actually dropped 1% from 2001 to 2013. The most trenchant comment comes from Hugo Schwyzer: “We’ve become more willing to embrace diverse models of sexual self-expression even as we’ve become ever more intolerant of hypocrisy and the human frailty that makes hypocrisy almost inevitable.”
The “why” of cheating is the source of endless speculation, rationalization, and research. Unfortunately, a lot of the speculation ends up at the conclusion, “Monogamy is a myth” … even in articles which claim to be premissed on established scientific fact. However, such a sweeping conclusion leaves behind an unexplained fact: if monogamy is a myth, in the sense of being a fiction or false knowledge, then surely the oddity is not the rate of infidelity, but rather the outrageously high rates of marital fidelity.
If we clear up some terms, we should find a better understanding. Monogamy should be strictly understood as meaning only one sexual relationship at any given time. Multiple partners over the course of a life is the norm — at least it is now, and has been for many years. This has given rise to the term “serial monogamy”. Explains philosopher Aaron Ben-Zeév:
The compromise required in serial monogamy is not merely in giving up the dream of eternal romantic love, but also in relinquishing certainty and living in some sort of make-belief [sic] environment. People behave as if their current romantic relationship will last forever, and they really hope it will be so, but they will not be devastated if it does not turn out that way.
Ben-Zeév also quotes scientists David Barash and Judith Lipton, who argue that “what makes human beings unusual among other mammals is not our penchant for polygamy, but the fact that most people practice at least some form of monogamy.” Long-term monogamy is neither impossible nor unnatural, Barash and Lipton assert; “[human] beings,” Ben-Zeév elaborates, “are enormously flexible creatures and exhibit adaptability in dealing with the issue of monogamy and romantic exclusivity.”
Serial monogamy, then, obtains to a person who has had more than one mate in his/her life, but has been faithful to each mate in turn. But while social disapproval of infidelity has remained stable, researchers have noticed a sharp uptick in the incidence of infidelity among the under-30 cohort.
Young people are marrying for the first time later in their twenties (men averaging at 27, women at 25), by which time most of them have had sexual relationships with multiple partners, and formed habits deleterious to successful marriages. Primary among these is the tendency to end one relationship by beginning another; the proportions of men and women who have been unfaithful “in any relationship they’ve had” are 57% and 54% respectively. Second, young men and women are less likely to let close opposite-sex friendships slide; not only does this sustain a source of temptation, it also tends to create a kind of “emotional infidelity” even when there’s no physical cheating.
Promises and the Romantic Ideal
The question remains: Why do we still expect marital fidelity? Why do four out of five married men strive to be faithful to their wives despite the insistence that our biology demands multiple women? Why do most women remain faithful to their husbands despite the rhetoric that says they must have many partners to achieve equality with men? How has the ideal of marital fidelity survived when premarital chastity, heteronormativity, and even “’til death do us part” have suffered such terrible blows?
One argument is that we expect spouses to be faithful because they took vows to that effect. Fidelity isn’t simply about sexual exclusivity; it’s about keeping promises, about standing by your word even when doing so is inconvenient, painful, and costly. Even in an age where businessmen prefer contracts to handshakes, the ancient odium clings to the man who habitually breaks promises on the poorest of excuses. However, by this argument we should regard all divorcé(e)s as morally culpable. Quite the contrary: the facts show, that most people excuse divorce almost too readily. No; the promise by itself does not explain our overwhelming conviction that cheating is wrong.
The cynic would find the answer in the ideal of romance. We are ultimately in love with love, and desire to find that One True Love, that Ideal Partner and Soul-Mate who will be all we need, and with whom we will spend the rest of our lives in complete bliss. Like Miracle Max says in William Goldman’s book The Princess Bride, “True love is the greatest thing in the world, except for cough drops.” (It’s shorter than the movie version.)
Of course, the person we marry never quite lives up to that expectation, but that doesn’t keep us from desiring such a union. In fact, we often feel we’re entitled to such a lifelong romance, and feel cheated when the emotion we associate with True Love eventually subsides. (Such as when Westley starts forgetting Buttercup’s birthday and Buttercup starts discussing Westley’s shortcomings with her Facebook friends.)
The Catholic Answer
The flip side of the cynic’s answer is the start of the Catholic’s answer: complementarity. Contrary to certain schools of thought, sexual bifurcation is not purely a social construct; there are differences between men and women, differences that hold across cultural lines, that are rooted in our different biologies. Complementarity is the recognition that each sex brings to the marriage table things the other sex either lacks or doesn’t have to the same degree. It does not follow that either sex must be inferior, because of these differences. Rather, they’re equal to each other because they’re each equally-incomplete reflections of God: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27)
“In creating men ‘male and female,’ God gives man and woman an equal personal dignity.” “Man is a person, man and woman equally so, since both were created in the image and likeness of the personal God.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2334; cf. Familiaris Consortio 22, Gaudium et Spes 49 # 2, Mulieris Dignitatem 6)
Complementarity is only part of the explanation. Despite the extensive efforts certain parties have put into “re-educating” us about sex and marriage, we still subconsciously recognize that marriage isn’t an end in itself, that it’s more than a couple’s legally-benefitted decision to share bed and board. Rather, marriage is the foundation of the family; objectively — that is, beyond the subjective agendas of the partners and the surrounding culture’s fashionable notions — marriage is ordered towards begetting and educating children. Sustaining such a relationship over the course of decades that childrearing requires an ordering towards permanence, which in turn needs a radical, continual self-giving to each other, the willingness to set other relationships and other goods on lower levels of priority.
Because of this ordering towards permanence, the partners each have a right to primacy in the other’s affections; the promise of fidelity goes beyond the merely carnal and into the emotional. The marital relationship changes animal coupling into a participation in God’s ongoing act of creation, the burst of divine Love that launched the universe; there can never again be such a thing as “just sex” while the two are married. Only within this context of creative love can sex reach its full potential; outside of the marital bond, treated as a pastime or a commercial service, sexual intercourse is coarsened and debased.
Eros and Agapē
The cynic may try to have the last word, by asserting that this is merely the old romantic notion, dressed up in Vatican documents. It would be much more true to say that the old romantic notion is the ancient Christian teaching, but with the emphasis placed on eros: sexual love, passion, even joy.
When St. Paul exhorted the men of Ephesus, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25), the verb he used was agapē (Lat. diligere): affection, esteem, the beneficial love which wills good for others. Eros is something felt; it is an emotion, fleeting, ephemeral. Agapē, on the other hand, is something done; it is a decision we make, an action to be taken, something that we choose to do until we quit or die. Like Christ’s command to “love one another” (John 13:34-35), it depends not on sentiment but on will.
Eros is not irrelevant; joy and passion are not proscribed, or even suspicious. Neither, however, are they to be depended on; for they are such frail, wayward supports for such a weighty enterprise as marriage.
We expect married people to be faithful to each other, in the end, because we still have the sense that the nature of marriage requires it. It is possibly the last treasure we’ve saved out of the wrack of sexual sanity; amazingly, we still believe it’s possible to say “no” to temptation when morality dictates that we should. Against the drive of forces that would rid us of all sexual shame, we retain a sin of which we rightfully believe people should be ashamed. In a time when piety is mocked and blasphemy is de rigueur, there’s still something of matrimony that we revere and uphold to be holy.