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.