Is Infidelity More Than a Matter of Sex?

One morning Gregor S. realized his wife was more interested in the vacuum cleaner than she was in him. No, not in a perverse way. She simply wanted to keep bugs and dirty things out – everything else in its place – more than sex with her spouse. Priorities were thus arranged. The house was spotless, her marriage immaculate and chaste. Their children, Gregor reminded himself, were the fruits of a different stage of history, when the carnal batteries were juiced; before his wife’s facial expression alone told him, “Don’t even think about it.”

Frau Samsa began the romance with the promise of fidelity and still lived by the letter of her oath: no other man enjoyed her charms. The husband, however, expected ranking ahead of cleaning supplies.

Sex was like a Christmas toy, the thing you once raced downstairs for, soon consigned to a dusty closet shelf. When those bygone fleshly episodes came to mind, Mr. S. alternated among moods of wistful remembrance, moments of serious conversation with his beloved, and angry comments.  Temporary changes resulted, as fleeting as sound and smoke, to paraphrase Goethe.

When had this metamorphosis in his bedroom occurred, he wondered? What was Greg to do now?

The master masturbated, immediate service always at hand. His eyeballs scanned internet pornography, a turn-on without risk of rejection: where video women invite touch by anyone watching. Impersonal, of course.

Mr. Samsa did not wish to cheat or pay for sex. The guy wondered, however, whether months of abstinence again qualified him as a virgin.

In the USA, he’d be labeled a cad had he found a mistress. Society would say he had no cause, if it considered cause at all.

I treated more than a few such men. Usually middle-aged. A buddy told me he heard the same story from several guys at our 40th high school reunion. Sadness claimed them more than anger.

Another couple. In their 30s. The wife was gorgeous, saucy, bright. Her husband wasn’t interested enough in the sensual part of their marriage. On the other hand, he played lots of softball, an activity for which he was enthusiastic and energetic. The excuse to this wife? “Gee, I’m too tired now.”

One could make a long list of activities preferred over coupling by the sexually disinterested: intimate time with friends, focus on children, allegiance and availability to parents, church tasks, and work. Even reading. When relationship problems surface (all marriages have them in their course) one partner may say sex must wait until understanding is first achieved. Not always. Sex does, at times, help repair a frayed connection.

Let’s expand the definition of fidelity. My guess is the unstated commitment to another includes conversation, interest, and concentration as well as passion. Respect, tenderness, and devotion, too. Does the word fidelity apply to those who show regular contempt for a partner; neglect or indifference? Does taking the other for granted break the marital promise? Can the failure to defend and support a spouse in society fracture the unwritten covenant? Are loyalty and constancy words only applied to the sex of things?

An ancient Buddhist teaching says there are five ways a husband should minister to his wife:

By honoring her, by not disparaging her, by not being unfaithful to her, by giving authority to her, by providing her with adornments. (From DN 31: Sigãlaka Sutta; III 180-81, 187-91).

The wife has a similar list. Note that sexual fidelity is allowed no prominence.

An affair can happen without premeditation. We look. There is a spark. For a man, the tinder is almost always dry. But, no adultery for heterosexuals is possible in the absence of willing, interested, or instigating women. Once the dalliance is over, the relationship with the spouse might continue as before, assuming there is no revelation of the indiscretion. Meanwhile, other bond-breaking actions can be chronic, more intentional: criticism, humiliation, rejection, avoidance … How do you weigh the physical vs. the emotional, one vs. the other?

Please understand me. My questions are not rhetorical: posed as if I had a definite answer. The domain is complex, the choices agonizing.

Different models of commitment exist beyond the North American heterosexual variety. Among gays, allowance is often made for other physical contacts even in committed relationships. Does this risk throwing-over the partner? I imagine it does, but mostly in an already unsatisfying partnership. I have no data here, so am open to enlightenment from gay readers.

In this uncertain territory I claim certainty about one thing alone: that spouses usually promise more than sexual fidelity when they join; at least if wedlock is driven by love instead of necessity, security, or lust alone.

If you believe extra-marital amour is always unjust, realize a marriage can die in multiple ways, not only that one. The worm in the rose bed takes many forms. Relationships crack when understanding is missing and a partner is lonely: where the chill of an adjacent body is unrelieved, and both magic and kindness have disappeared. Couples therapy only works when each party’s part is faced.

Moral superiority dependent solely on your avoidance of other beds may be a mirage.

The top screen shot comes from the 1950 movie, In a Lonely Place, a Columbia picture starring Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart. The photo below is a software-generated landscape created with a program named Terragen, this one the work of Fir0002. Both images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

23 thoughts on “Is Infidelity More Than a Matter of Sex?

  1. Excellent article, Dr. Stein….again words of wisdom from a wise man. Also words to ponder. Thank you for your Tweet. Do not feel you need to thank me as you always respond here.

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  2. YES, in a word, the answer to the question posed in your blog title, is “Yes”! Infidelity is so much more than a matter of sex. It is physical and emotional and mental and brings a 3rd person into a marriage thus affecting the lives of 3 people, (maybe more if the affair is with another married person) not just 2. And this is assuming there are no children at either end!

    Per your quoted ancient Buddhist teaching, I think if a husband is unfaithful, by that act alone, he is also dishonoring and disparaging his wife plus he has taken authority away from her and is providing adornments for another woman, thus breaking all 5 ways he should “minister to his wife”, simply by just breaking the one.

    Premeditation or not, makes no difference and though true that adultery is not possible “in the absence of willing, interested or instigating women”, however, as often as not, those same “willing, interested or instigating women” are deliberately misled as to the marital status of the man they are flirting with. They don’t know he’s married.

    Lastly, it seems to me that to say that “once the dalliance is over, the relationship with the spouse might continue as before, assuming there is no revelation of the indiscretion” seems naïve. If the wife never finds out about dalliance #1, there is bound to be a dalliance #2 and so on. A guy that strays once and gets away with it is emboldened to do it again. Even if not, the relationship at home is bound to change because he knows, even if she doesn’t.

    As you point out, there are many things that can break the marital contract, however, sexual infidelity, out of all of these things, takes it to a different level.

    Anyway, this is how I see it, I’m sure others feel differently.

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  3. A spirited and thoughtful comment, Brewdun. As you might know, I’ve written several essays on this site about relationships and infidelity. There are many angles. My intention is not to offer a second version of the Ten Commandments, but to hold up this thing we call “fidelity in a committed relationship” and have you take a new look at it. Indeed, in this particular post, my emphasis was intended to be the “other” area of broken promises more than the sexual one.

    Yes, children are impacted, at the very least by the dishonesty that goes with hiding something, and by representing yourself in a fashion at odds with the way you are conducting your life. I don’t know the data on how many of the women in affairs are misled by men, nor how many of the men might be misled by women. On the other hand, I’ve encountered individuals who are married and are knowingly having an affair with another married person. In keeping with this line of thinking, I treated men who had a single affair and never another. One, in particular, was a Catholic fellow so plagued by guilt that he told his wife, 10 years later, about the indiscretion (a one night stand) and both he and his wife were clearly worse off for the telling. Again, thanks for your view of the subject. I imagine many others see it just as you do.

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  4. I feel like this continues our conversation…glad for these continued feelings of connection with you.

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  5. And I don’t think it’s just a man thing. I think there are plenty of women who do the same. I think as you’ve stated it’s a relationship thing.

    And to the opposite point, I think there are nonsexual affairs whether they be with vacuum cleaners or other people or relationships that enhance a marriage and not necessarily detract. Although I do believe that the sex still needs to be given to satisfy whichever partner that may need.

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  6. Well, I hope readers understood that his wife’s relationship with the vacuum cleaner was only to do vacuuming! I heard the story of a man who had affairs (purely sexual) and when at home fulfilled the role of a spouse and parent. Compartmentalizing is a remarkable thing. We see it lots now in USA political attitudes, where people hold seemingly contradictory positions, supporting candidates who do not represent the values they profess. Still, I think it a very slippery slope to be sexual creature outside the marriage and a devoted partner within it. Of course, in the case I mentioned, the wife apparently had no interest in sex. Ideally, the sexual side of a relationship should be satisfying to both partners. When it is not, it tends to be dutiful rather than enthusiastic; and, often, the one performing the duty is resentful. On an entirely different track, I hope someone caught my reference to Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.” The protagonist is named Gregor Samsa. Thanks again for your thoughts, Al.

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    • I did not catch because it was out of knowledge realm (what, I don’t know everything??!!) But now I have something intriguing to check out.

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  7. I was wondering if anyone would know it. Not that you should. But it is a great book! Not about sex, by the way.

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  8. Infidelity is an enormously complex topic. I’ll just leave it at that.

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  9. Dr. Stein:

    OMG…I get more excited about your blog than anything else I read. I still think you should publish these gems!

    Another thoughtful and honest read!

    This is a cartoon from New Yorker magazine and it just continues to send me into fits of laughter. No doubt, this will become the subject matter of my next therapy session.

    I hope you can open the below link and that you enjoy. Deb Shultz/San Diego, CA

    http://www.newyorker.com/cartoon/a20969

    >

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  10. I don’t know…I used to think this, that it wasn’t about the sex so much as the emotional entanglement. But a couple of things have me thinking differently:

    1) a sense of how much more intense things would get with my therapist if he was to touch me in any way (not that he will/would). There IS something different/stronger/more powerful about sex. It sets up a different sort of attachment inside of us, and sets off entirely different feelings (I think).

    2) having grown up with a philandering father – many, many women – who never officially left my mother/the family. Again, sex was this all-powerful, threatening thing that had the power to rip the family apart – a force so strong, it could neither be contained nor controlled.

    Maybe just me and my issues. But I DO think it’s loaded with it’s own volatile stuff.

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    • I don’t think it is just you. The comments generated by this post have reminded me, as JT noted, of the complexity of this issue. First, it seems that my post probably influenced the conversation by offering a long lead-in that was both focused on sex and (at least in its intent) funny. The bottom line of what I wrote was to see if one might look at marital commitment as a thing that isn’t solely sexual. Put another way, to say marriages die when a partner assumes being a monogamous companion (one who doesn’t sleep with anyone else) is all or most of what is required. Thus, sex becomes a concern not only by its presence in or out of the marriage, but also by its absence in the marriage, or its presence in the marriage as a duty to be fulfilled rather than a passion gleefully sought.

      I’d also add one more thing. The common view is that cheaters cheat: a character flaw is then thought to be the cause of the cheating, rather than the relationship or the situation. Psychologists have long know (in classroom situations, for example) that the conditions within the class during an exam can make a considerable difference in whether people cheat on a test and how many cheat. I’m not saying marital infidelity is the same kind of cheating. Rather, I’m saying we are influenced by factors in our relationship at home and in the relationships we have with potential sexual partners outside of the home, as well as societal expectations, and the ease with which infidelity is possible. Not all of those who are unfaithful will become repeatedly unfaithful. And, among those who have been and want to be faithful, some (under some conditions) will become unfaithful at least once.

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      • The big problem in a marriage when either partner has a relationship outside of it, whether it’s just once or multiple times is trust. Once the trust has been broken suspicion marches in and it will cause as much if not more problems than the actual cheating did.

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      • Hmmm…I’m not sure about that. For me, Cheater’s Gonna Cheat (apologies to Taylor Swift).

        I don’t think it’s all about circumstance and opportunity, but also, in a big way, about personal values sets and moral compass. Which is also what I think is missing from this list “… factors in our relationship at home and in the relationships we have with potential sexual partners outside of the home, as well as societal expectations, and the ease with which infidelity is possible.”

        There was some figure that my accountant gave me, years ago, about the percentage of employees who would commit corporate financial fraud if they had the opportunity and the systems were lax enough. I can’t recall what it was, but it was def. not 100%. Maybe something like 50%. Anyway, using the factors at home, things that are missing, expectations, possibilities etc model….assuming all have financial ‘need’ or temptation, not all cave into it. I guess that’s how I feel about infidelity. It’s something we choose from inside of ourselves, regardless of outside factors.

        My own marriage is absolutely in a state of quiet desperation in this area. I think a LOT about what to do about that (since I’m the one who wants to do the doing…). But right now, I absolutely cannot imagine giving into that under any circumstances. Mostly because I feel like sex IS powerful enough to eclipse all the other good stuff.

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  11. The complexity is not only in the topic, but in our ability to discuss it!

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    • Thanks for your reply, defragging me. I intended to offer no all-inclusive list of reasons for infidelity, nor to suggest that circumstances in and outside the marriage explain all instances of infidelity. Certainly, you are right to point to the individual’s moral compass as a determinative factor. That said, I have seen more than a few people who didn’t think they’d behave in a certain way, like cheating in their marriage, (and complained about those who did cheat), until they were faced with a similar situation in their own life and discovered that there was a difference between judging others and upholding their own moral standard. If you take politics as an example, Frederick Hayek (who lived through the formation of the Third Reich), witnessed people who were Communists and therefore avowed enemies of the Fascists, themselves become Nazis once the latter took over Germany. As Stoic philosophers repeatedly pointed out, we don’t know who were are until we are tested. All the rest is talk and self-serving imagination. That said, I don’t think you and I are very far apart in looking at this issue. I’m simply trying to say that marriages die for lots of reasons. Infidelity may be #1 and is certainly the most dramatic, but it is not the only way a marriage can die. Thanks for the strength of this exchange.

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  12. I agree this is a big problem. I fear, however, that we concentrate so much on this one aspect of marriage (sexual infidelity and trust) that it crowds out every other consideration. As I wrote above, marriage can die in lots of ways. The “quiet desperation” of some marriages requires more attention, in my opinion.

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    • Ah, “quiet desperation”, for sure! Unfortunately, you don’t have to be married or even in a relationship to be dying from a life of “quiet desperation”.

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  13. This is a very complex issue, Dr. Stein, with deep roots in patriarchy.

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