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.

Fidelity and Infidelity in Love and Sports: Is Being a Fan Like Being in Love?

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I’ve known serially unfaithful men who were also among the most loyal and devoted people on the planet. A contradiction? They were untrue to their spouses but lifetime cheerleaders for a different “one and only”: a sports team. Please follow along as I consider this paradox. Perhaps we can learn both a bit about romance and about being a dedicated male fan in the process. I’ll use baseball as my example, but you are free to substitute the competitive team physical activity of your choice.

Most of us fall in love for the first time with a ball team. One of our parents, usually the dad, leads the way. We bond with him, try to please him, want to become him. He takes us out to the home field and we are dazzled by the immensity of the stadium/stage for the physical theater about to unfold. Our innocent devotion to the parent leaches into an attachment to the team he also loves. Virtually every die-hard fan can remember the first time he went to the ball yard and with whom. The experience, like meeting a first-love romantic partner, is unforgettable.

Before long we join our playmates in some version of the same game, all the more to identify with our fathers, older brothers, and the players on TV. We bond to friends through shared love for the sport and being on the same team, pulling together, praying to the same baseball god. Sports is like a civic religion, as many have written: something bigger than yourself, outside yourself.

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The crowd’s roar is intoxicating. Goose bumps. When we play the game, the full-bodied effort of running, stretching, leaping, diving, sliding, and swinging is as “in the moment” as life gets, as love gets. The day is warm, the wind is cool. The physicality of the in-person experience, whether on the field or in the stands, is not sex, but consumes the body and enlivens us, as sex does. They both involve a sweaty intensity.

Fandom and romantic love put us in jeopardy, as well. We give our heart to someone or something else. In a sense, we have no control, certainly none in the case of our team’s performance. Well, at least if you are in love with a person you can sometimes influence the destiny of your affair or marriage. Ecstasy and agony are part of the standard rations of fans and lovers.

Remember those early dates with your heart-throb — the anticipation and the preparation, the clock-watching as the time came closer? Not so different from a fan’s mental state before a big game. The urgency of seeing the hero, being next to the young gods, hoping to get an autograph or a photo proves the preoccupation.

Unlike love, however, the worshiped participants on the playing field are forever young. Even when fan favorites age and retire we transfer our loyalty to a replacement, but still a member of the same squad. Our spouses, however, are not ageless. Nor are we, of course, yet we delude ourselves into thinking so. Listen to the out-of-shape, middle-aged fan saying, “Oh, I could have made that play!” somewhat indignantly.

You take your children to the park and bond with them, as you did with your father. We display pride in carrying the multi-generational torch, either to repeated visits to the Promised Land of World Championship or, for the long-suffering fans of forever losing teams, toward a first time experience of becoming vicarious champions.

Material objects take the place of a genuine fiery beacon. I once had a baseball caught by my grandfather in the Wrigley Field stands, just as I own a scorecard dad got signed by the legendary Rogers Hornsby. There is more shared energy and positive emotion and identification among the united Chicago Cubs Nation than the fraught relations within the United States or the United Nations.

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How interesting that we never betray the multi-generational pact we have with our relatives, friends, and fans by quitting the “team,” but some do cheat on a spouse. Where else in the world can you be #1 except by identifying with a team of élite magic-makers? Not at home, where our foibles are on display and beg forgiveness. The world of a sports fan, by contrast, means never having to say you are sorry.

Perhaps part of the reason some flee the spouse is that we can do all the complaining we want about the men on the field, quite unlike an actual mate. Criticizing a beloved human is more costly. The partner tends to push back, the players don’t. You can berate the young men, they don’t berate you. The only cost is the price of a ticket.

Where else can you tell someone he isn’t trying hard enough? Maybe at home with your kids, but you will easily alienate and injure them. Rarely is the boss or the spouse fair game unless you want to corrode the relationship, lose your job, or sleep elsewhere.

Another difference: baseball, whether playing or watching, is recreation: the “Great American Pastime.” Marriage is not. Marriage takes work if there is to be ongoing reward.

A relationship, of course, offers many benefits not provided by fandom. Requited love, sex, offspring, consolation, trust, understanding, and shared intimacy. A sports team will not reject you (unless it moves to another city), but it provides no meaningful looks, tender embraces, quiet confidences and shoulders on which to cry. Most fans would not give up on the idea of ever having a partner, despite the complications. A sports team, by comparison, is like making love to a blow-up, plastic woman. Put differently, sports — in this fan’s opinion — should be taken for what they are, not the dearest thing on earth: a good and loving woman.

There is no escape from heartbreak as a fan or a spouse, however. Indeed, athletics, particularly if you are on a Little League losing team or simply the youthful fan of the Major League variety, is a preparation for life. Yet we seem to mate for eternity with a uniformed bunch of men, not necessarily with a spouse. An able-bodied squad, significantly, is a sometimes thing, an observed entity, not a person you live with in-season and out. Ballplayers go home for the winter. Fans, in a sense, do too. Partners don’t.

I met only one faithless sports fan, ever. Or, perhaps I should say, he was the wisest man on the planet. Many of you know that the Cubs have reached the World Series for the first time since 1945, when they lost in seven games. Lost, I might add, the World Championship that has eluded them since 1908. My friend was rooting for the Cubbies and was more than disappointed at the result. Soon after he made a major decision: he would never cheer for the Cubs again, never ever.

As a consequence, the gentleman in question enjoyed the ensuing 70-years far more than the rest of the Wrigley loyalists.

Talk about good timing and superb judgment!

He was eight-years-old in 1945.

The top photo displays Maurie and Flaurie (named after the original owners, husband and wife) of Superdawg, a Chicago drive-in and landmark. The W Flag is similar to the one that hangs from the Wrigley Field scoreboard after a Cubs victory. It is a practice going back many years, before the time we could consult our phones to discover the outcome of the game. Two different elevated train lines passed within visual distance of the flag, thus alerting fans of the day’s happy or sad tidings. The third image was taken by Arturo Pardavila III on October 22, 2016 before the sixth game of the National League Championship Series. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The second photo requires no explanation.

Levels of Infidelity

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Joe and Laura Hawkins are having marital issues. Laura just left the house without explanation. Joe wonders if she has a lover. He is alone with Anita, the family robot: a “synth” or “synthetic” (pictured above). After a couple of drinks, Joe “turns on” the robot’s sex program and makes use of it. This scene comes from the AMC TV series, “Humans.” The fictional possibility will soon be a present reality.

Question: was Joe unfaithful to Laura? She certainly thought so and kicked him out. The fact that Anita wasn’t “human” was a defense Joe offered — one dismissed by Laura. Where is the line? When do our thoughts, conversations, or physical interactions constitute infidelity?

The easy answer: unfaithfulness consists of sexual intercourse outside of a relationship based on monogamy. But let’s think about other possibilities. You be the judge whether these fit your understanding of “cheating:”

  • Oral sex. Bill Clinton’s statement, “I did not have sex with that woman,” was not especially persuasive.
  • Intercourse with a non-human, including not only an artificial life form, but any living thing. I once treated a lonely woman who copulated with a large dog. She was not being unfaithful (there was no human lover to betray), but her example offers an unusual extra-marital option for those with a partner who is drawn from Homo sapiens.
  • Mutual masturbation.
  • Naked kissing and fondling short of either oral sex or intercourse.
  • Making out and fondling while clothed.

The above five categories all include physical contact with a person who is not your spouse. Might interaction without touching the other be a betrayal of the monogamous promise? Consider the following:

  • Phone sex or other electronic forms of sex play.
  • Fantasizing about someone else while having sex with your significant other.
  • Masturbation to an image of another. Not just pornography — perhaps only a face or a person clothed.
  • Masturbation to the idea (memory) of another without using a visual stimulus.
  • Intimacy without physical contact, e.g. shared personal revelations, and mutual psychological support.
  • Emotional preoccupation with a former lover without any present communication with the person. Indeed, he needn’t be alive any longer.
  • Closeness between a parent and child where the offspring is pressured to be a kind of surrogate spouse, but without sex. The adult shares his troubles with the child. The latter is relied upon to help solve the elder’s problems. Roles are reversed.

As you ponder the question, consider the following true story. An old friend wrote a freshman college essay. The required topic was, “Something to Make the World a Better Place in Which to Live.” My buddy proceeded to describe a masturbation machine. He reasoned that our civilization is full of lonely people without a sexual outlet. Moreover, he believed his invention would cut prostitution and sexual assaults. Such devices now exist, but didn’t then.

What was his reward for an idea before its time? A mandated visit with the school psychiatrist!

Would use of a masturbation machine constitute adultery?

Let’s look at the issue differently. Should infidelity be permissible if

  • your spouse refuses sex? You have not copulated in years.
  • your partner is or was unfaithful, the latter in the recent past?
  • the loved one can’t engage in conjugal relations with you because of a permanent infirmity?
  • the spouse is abusive?
  • you are stranded on a desert island with only one other person. Is it OK if, after a period of years with no hope of rescue, the two of you become Adam and Eve?
  • the husband or wife back home (in the desert island example) at last gives up and begins to date after the same long wait?

In these six conditions, do the special circumstances make the behavior acceptable? In effect, we now have two queries before us:

  1. What is the definition of infidelity?
  2. Are there any conditions which remove the moral stain? Put differently, do you believe fidelity is a moral absolute or dependent on the situation? A moral relativist would refrain from a uniform ethical condemnation without considering the details. The Ten Commandments and similar religious prohibitions, however, exemplify an absolute rule: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

If you believe in any mitigating circumstance — an instance in which adultery is OK — remind yourself that infidelity usually involves hiding the truth or frank lying. The ingredients in an extra-marital potion are a combination of breaking with promised monogamy and deceit.

I’d be delighted to read your comments, short or long, on these questions. I hope you will indulge me.

Remember one other thing: where there are already robotic cars, there will soon be synthetic humans with artificial intelligence (AI) superior to mortals. Not to mention bodies impervious to aging (or replaceable with ones as good or better). Human flaws will have been programmed out, but the creation will possess emotions.

The concerns I’ve raised about extra-marital contact will only get more difficult.

Sooner than you think.

“Relationship Crime” or the Man Who Knew a Little Bit Too Much

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Knowledge can be a problem. You know the old saying, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

I once had a friend who was dating a lovely woman. She was charming, sweet, and fun to be with. And, this lady was very kind, a person who respected others and went out of her way not to do harm. My wife and I enjoyed her company and my friend seemed to appreciate her immensely, as well.

But, not really looking for someone else, he stumbled upon another woman who pursued him; a pursuit to which he succumbed. Rather quickly, it is true. He didn’t put up much of a fight.

She too was charming and perhaps a bit more energetic than his current lover, and I suspect a little bit sexier, too. She had a sleek sultriness that his girlfriend didn’t possess. But since he never told woman #2 that he was “involved” with someone else, he was “fair game” as far as she could see; and he certainly didn’t proclaim any abiding allegiance or committment to the lady he’d been dating.

From this point, my buddy enjoyed the company of both women — enjoyed sex with each of them — and he saw no reason to tell either one about the other.

But he did tell me what he was doing.

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I asked if either one knew that he was sleeping with someone else; and he had to admit that each of them thought she was in an exclusive relationship with him — that she was the “one and only.”

I pointed out that there was implicit deceit involved, since he knew that his lovers were with him only because they did not know the truth.

“No one is being hurt,” was his reply. And he was sure, he said pre-emptively, that he did not have a sexually transmitted disease, which he’d checked out recently with his MD. No one was in harm’s way from physical disease, he assured me.

As far as this man was concerned, he had made no promise of eternal fidelity and believed that a “no strings attached” understanding existed all around.

My friend was not a young man, nor were the two women — the three of them hip-deep into their fifth decade on the planet. Everyone had been around the block several times. All parties had been hurt more than once. They knew the pain of heartbreak. They didn’t need any more of it, not that anyone of whatever age needs more. It was just that the resilience of youth was no longer as available to any of them as it had been a while back, and one would have hoped that the man had thought just a bit about this fact.

I asked him how he would feel if his youngest sister were sleeping with someone who was doing what he was doing: simultaneously having sex with another woman whose existence was a secret?

This sort of thing used to be called “two-timing,” but I didn’t remind him of that.

He pretended that he did not hear me. Better to keep the walls up, the compartments separated. It was the sort of response (or lack of response) you get from someone who doesn’t want to think any troublesome thoughts that might arouse his slumbering conscience. And so he kept the metaphorical blinders on himself, so that he could not see the collateral damage of his self-serving behavior.

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Although he wouldn’t have admitted it, he viewed these women “instrumentally” — in terms of what they were good for and how they could be used, while comforting himself that “no one is being hurt.”

Perhaps you are asking why all this troubled me. Several reasons. I cared about the first woman — my wife and I both cared about her — and were happy to have become her friends. We knew that she was being fooled, even if she was not presently in any pain. We knew that the “relationship” was based on deceit and her lack of knowledge. We expected her heart to be broken before long. And, I felt bad about the moral degradation of my friend, someone who I could no longer look at in the same way as before — could no longer respect as I once had.

My buddy told me all that I have now related to you on the condition of confidentiality. But that was going to be a problem. Not that I would break his trust, but that I now had what might be called “guilty knowledge.” I knew too much for my own good.

My wife and I had a double-date scheduled with our friend and girlfriend #1. At dinner I was uncomfortable. I knew something that his lady friend didn’t know and I realized that eventually she would be left spinning, which didn’t lighten my mood. It was as if I had just read her X-ray and discovered a spot on her lung about which she knew nothing — yet.

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Nor did I want to participate in the sham of their implicitly exclusive relationship, the references to future things that they planned on doing (some with us), or watch the way that this gracious and good woman-in-love looked at a man who, although he was my friend, was ( I now realized) not nearly so gracious and good; and not in love with her.

The day after this get-together, I phoned to tell him that so long as he was dating both of these women I could not go out with him in the company of either of them; I could not pretend that I didn’t know what I did know.

I knew a little bit too much.

It was not long before my friend ended the contact with the first woman. I suspect that his decision to end the relationship had more to do with his developing feelings for female #2, than any unhappiness with his first girlfriend or the flowering of his dormant conscience. And, I’m pretty sure he’d had difficulty coping with the logistical problems of juggling two relationships, each with a woman who wanted as much of his time as he could give. After all, there are only seven days in a week and the task of keeping both women happy (and unaware of the other) began to wear him down a bit.

And just to show how little influence I had on my friend, he repeated the two-timing when another woman came along who found him attractive. Now girlfriend #2 achieved the position of the previous girlfriend #1, and like here predecessor, she too was eventually taken to the relationship consignment shop. I guess practice makes perfect.

Many years before, when I was an intern in a psychiatric hospital, I recall a raving, out-of-control man being brought into the locked-unit to which I’d been assigned. He was suffering from Bi-Polar Disorder, which you might know by the label Manic Depressive Disorder. Clearly, he was in a manic phase — grandiose, impulsive, erratic, exploding with energy, and incapable of making good judgments.

He had been a high school teacher of mine. A wonderful teacher. Fortunately, he didn’t seem to remember me and I made no effort to remind him of who I was and thus risk embarrassing him.

There are things that we don’t want to see in life: the failings of our friends, the frailty of respected parents and teachers, the needless hurt that one person we care about is doing to another one we care about. We don’t usually want to be party to deception, an accessory to even the kind of commonplace “relationship crime” that my friend was committing against a woman he liked very much.

None of this is very earth-shaking, I know. Unless, of course, you are girlfriend #1. But watching people diminish themselves is no fun, even for therapists who see it every working day. Bad decisions, hurtful decisions, thoughtless and self-serving decisions — all of it part of routine human experience.

We’ve all done some of it, but the best among us learn that it is wrong while others just keep on doing it.

As I said at the start, “I once had a friend…” He might now more accurately be described as an acquaintance. Someone about whom I think wistfully, remembering the days when I thought he was better than he turned out to be. Was he? Had I simply missed some things about him, never seen him in the kind of situation that revealed his limitations?

Sometimes the only conclusion to the story is “I don’t know.”

The top image is Two Women with Sink by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. The second photo is of Bernard Spindel Whispering in the Ear of James R. Hoffa in 1957, taken by Roger Higgins, a photographer for the New York World Telegram and the Sun newspapers. The following picture of a Saddlebred Stallion in Harness is the work of Steve Fortescue. Finally, the flash-animation Spinning Dancer was created by Nobuyuki Kayahura at the Procreo Flash Design Laboratory. All images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Thou Shalt or Thou Shalt Not?

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In the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s death, a few of my patients spontaneously offered some interesting commentary. It amounted to the following: they felt uncomfortable celebrating his assassination. They viewed the immediate and most visible response to bin Laden’s death as if the general public entered into some bizarre and gigantic adaptation of the scene from the Wizard of Oz  in which most everyone is singing “Ding Dong, The Wicked Witch is Dead.”

Please understand, none of them thought he was a good guy. They all believed he was an evil man on the order of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao Zedong. All of my patients believed that the world would be a better place without him. And, they understood the sense of relief, exhilaration, and justice expressed in the streets and around Ground Zero of the 9/11/01 attacks.

But, he was still a human being, murdered with relatives — who included his children — close by. And here we were, waving flags, chanting “USA,” singing, and celebrating. It simply felt uncomfortable for the few patients who mentioned it, who were also aware of the bittersweet nature of this man’s death, especially for those who were most harshly affected by his life.

This got me to thinking about how we view moral rules and exceptions to those rules, including the biblical admonition not to kill.

What follows is a brief commentary on a few of the Ten Commandments — how they are understood and how most of us create some wiggle-room with respect to carrying them out or not. You will note that I skip a few:

  •  “… you shall have no other gods before me.” I find this interesting because it does not say that you cannot have other gods. Rather, you are told not to place any other gods higher than the god of the commandments. Remember that polytheism was common in the ancient world, so a relative ranking of gods might not have struck people as unusual at the time these rules were written.
  •  “… for I the lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me …” Here, it seems not only that are you in trouble if you reject the almighty, but so are your kids, and your kid’s kids, etc. Contemporary civil justice rejects this notion.
  •  “Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work — you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slaves may rest as well …”

Relatively few among us in American society follow the letter of this direction. Even if we do not personally work (or study), we may employ others who work in our stead. Interesting too, that no mention is made here of the inappropriateness of slavery. Rather, it seems to be considered acceptable, and advises only that you give your slaves one day of rest per week.

  •  “Honor your father and your mother…” Well, does that include a parent who abandoned you or abused you, too?
  • “You shall not kill/murder.” This allows for no exceptions, but civilized societies commonly make exceptions for self-defense, justice, and war.
  • “Neither shall you commit adultery.” Although most agree that this shouldn’t be done, it is obviously done quite a lot. Some even justify it. See my blog: Infidelity and Its Treatment
  •  Neither shall you covet your neighbor’s wife. Neither shall you desire your neighbor’s house, or field, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” Boy, if we really could wipe out the “desire” mentioned here, Western economies would fall like dominos. Envy fueled by advertising is omnipresent. Without that desire, cars, jewelry, homes, clothing, and gadgets of all kinds would be valued only in terms of utility, not because they are necessary to “keep up with the Joneses.”

One of the toughest things in life is to match up what we say and what we do. Life is complex and some amount of compromise, not to mention relativism is inevitable: not every situation easily permits the use of a hard and fast rule. Certainly, these commandments have not been taken literally in every situation as we live them, whatever lips service we might give to their importance and guidance.

It is more than understandable that Osama bin Laden’s death would be celebrated in this country; or, at least, provide a sense of some relief and satisfaction, despite the biblical injunction not to kill.

Somewhere, though, in the fading sounds of the near festive gatherings surrounding the announcement of his death, is the quiet rejoinder of John Donne. The last four lines, in particular, just might capture a bit of the sentiment that my patients were referring to:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as a manor of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

The photo above is part of the house which John Donne occupied in Pyrford, England; taken by Suzanne Knights, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

John Donne’s words come from his 1624 Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation 17.

Growing Apart in Marriage

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In the black and white world of “absolutes,” life decisions are easy and obvious. But life as it is actually lived becomes a good deal more complex and muddy.

Here is an example:

Take a middle-aged man and wife, both approaching 50. They married young for many of the same reasons that other people do: physical attraction, the fun and good times of first love, and religious faith.

He had been groomed to work hard, build businesses, and accumulate wealth. She had been raised to refinement, home making, and the raising of children. Although both were college graduates, neither saw education at the time as more than the expected and required thing to do.

They both succeeded at their appointed tasks. He was often absent, working late to achieve and maintain the commercial success that he won. She had the major responsibility for raising the children and keeping the home a beautiful and congenial place in which to live.

Time passed. As the children left the home, she turned increasingly to her religious community for companionship and to the comfort provided by her faith, the one which he professed only nominally. She attended less to her physical well-being and gained weight. She was satisfied with her life, fulfilled and sustained by her belief in God and a like-minded group of co-religionists. This woman believed her relationship to her husband was satisfactory in terms that were typical of a long-married couple with grown children.

The man, on the other hand, became more interested in philanthropy and involved himself in charitable projects in which the wife was uninterested, simultaneously turned-off by the religious focus of his wife; indeed, by now he had become sceptical of organized religion, if not agnostic in his outlook. And, in the free time that his success afforded him, he worked-out and kept fit. As well as discovering a passion for history, philosophy, and science, he read voraciously for pleasure. The world of ideas had captured him.

The wife would encourage her husband to pray with her and to attend bible study groups, but his study of the history of religion made him doubt the authority of the documents that his wife accepted as the foundation of her world view. She was calmed by the certainty of her belief in God, while he had become a sceptic.

For her part, the increasing “intellectuality” of her husband and his decision to return to school for occasional classes left her untroubled, but unable to connect with his newly developed interests. His efforts to engage his wife in conversation about the things that he found intensely exciting found her indifferent, unable even to feign curiosity. That was simply not who she was.

And so they grew apart, although her life remained satisfactory to her, since she was not looking for the intellectual interaction that her husband wanted; or sex, for that matter, although she dutifully complied with his desire to continue a physical relationship with her. Other than the children and  the practical matters that occupy business partners or roommates, there wasn’t much depth of communication, and certainly no meeting of minds.

The woman did not sense the extent of her partner’s disaffection, his feeling of emptiness, or experience these feelings herself. She was close to the children while he had only business associates, no close friends. Nor was he one to talk about his feelings with her easily, so that his wife’s lack of intuition left her unaware of his loneliness and his desire to engage with someone who stimulated him in every sense.

Indeed, intensity was not what his wife wanted, not in bed, not in the world of ideas, not in thoughtful conversation about his feelings. When he did try to achieve these things with her, he was left even more disappointed than before.

Still attractive to women, with a strong personality, good looks, and the status conferred by money and power, he was tempted by younger, more admiring females who offered a sense of engagement that his wife seemed not to value. Still, the ethic of responsibility with which he was raised gave him pause, and he experienced a feeling of anticipatory guilt as he thought about the prospect of being unfaithful.

Whether this man acted on the temptation for an extra-marital affair or sought a divorce is not something I’d like to address quite yet. First, I want to raise some basic questions about relationships and responsibility:

1. Should this couple stay married for what might be another 40 or more years?

2. Is it possible that the idea of fidelity — the promise of a lifetime of faithfulness — made more sense when lives were shorter than they are today? The average lifespan of 50 at the turn of the 20th century has now been extended, at least in this country, to the mid-70s for men, and even longer for women.

3. How much should we be held accountable for a decision (to marry) made at a relatively early age that does not — cannot — fully anticipate the unpredictability of changes in personality, behavior, and beliefs that may occur in any life?

4. To what degree should one member of a marital couple sacrifice his or her happiness so that the other member remains satisfied and content?

So what happened?

The female was not interested in marital therapy (although she did give it a half-hearted effort), instead believing that it was her husband’s lack of religious faith that should be the target of intervention, and that only if he was properly devoted to God would he be relieved of his troubles. He eventually did have affairs, but when his wife found out he saw what injury he had done to her, felt guilty, and renounced infidelity (and the divorce he also contemplated) going forward.

The husband attempted to accept his wife’s limited interests in the things that stoked his imagination. In his mind he had already hurt her enough and therefore could not demand more.

This woman was now, once again, contented in her life, if ever mindful of her husband’s potential for further betrayal, of which she did not hesitate to remind him. The couple stayed in their rural suburban community away from the stimulus of the city that he craved, partly as his penance for harming her, and partly (she hoped) to keep him away from temptation. He did not again pursue other women or respond to their attempts to entice him.

Later, as his involvement in the world of business began to wind down he suffered a diminished and unsatisfactory life, relieved only by the self-stimulation of reading, his increased closeness to the children he had left for his wife to raise while he pursued the bread-winner role, the grandchildren who received the best of him (as his children had not), and the joy that came with being an active part of their small lives.

Most of us know at least one old friend, someone we hardly ever see anymore, with whom we somehow remain close. “We pick up wherever we left off, even though we haven’t seen each other in years,” or so we say in such situations. But we also know the experience of growing apart from a person we might even see fairly often.

In the first instance we have taken different routes in life, lived away from each other, but wound up in the same psychological, intellectual, and emotional place. In the second example, even though our external paths have not differed very much, our internal compasses led in different directions. We may be close by, but we are no longer close.

The relationship problems exemplified by the couple that I’ve described grew out of the divergence of these two human personalities as time passed. It would be easy to see one partner as evil and one as good, but I hope that it is clear that this situation was more complicated than that. The husband was not cruel. He did not wish to harm his wife and, in the end, was clearly leading the less happy life of the pair.

He had sought fulfillment by pursuing other women, at least temporarily. But did not his wife pursue her own self-interest, as well? It included a kind of marriage between herself and an institution of faith — the church and the people who made it up. That it did not involve sexual infidelity, however, does not mean that it had no effect on her husband. Indeed, he craved an intellectual, emotional, and physical exhilaration that his wife found unnecessary to her well-being.

It could be argued that in ultimately choosing fidelity to his wife, forsaking the kind of betrayal he had visited upon her earlier, the man had betrayed himself and the possibility of a satisfying companionship for himself ever after.

Life does not always easily correspond to neat categories of right and wrong, good and evil. Even the Ten Commandments are not seen as absolute by most Christians and Jews, at least those who justify killing in wartime or self-defense, or accept the State’s right to perform capital punishment.

Sometimes people who once matched well, change. Sometimes you can do nothing wrong and get an unfortunate result. Sometimes the choices that partners make prohibit mutual satisfaction because of who they are, not because one is good and one is bad. A relationship that works for both parties today may not continue to work indefinitely.

It is a bit unsettling to look at life this way.

But that is the way it looks from here.

The image above is American Gothic by Grant Wood, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

On Sacrifice

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/2b/Rembrandt_-_Sacrifice_of_Isaac_-_WGA19096.jpg/500px-Rembrandt_-_Sacrifice_of_Isaac_-_WGA19096.jpg

Would you like to know who you are? Then it is essential to know what is of real value to you. One way of finding that out is by asking the question, “What would I be willing to give up for something that I claim is important to me? What would I be willing to sacrifice for love, or great wealth, or power, or honor, or for my child’s well-being?”

What we are willing to sacrifice defines us, both as individuals and as a society. But first, let’s look at what the word sacrifice means:

The on-line Merriam-Webster’s dictionary gives the following definition of the noun sacrifice:

1 : an act of offering to a deity something precious; especially : the killing of a victim on an altar
2 : something offered in sacrifice
3 a : destruction or surrender of something for the sake of something else b : something given up or lost <the sacrifices made by parents>
4 : loss <goods sold at a sacrifice>

Thus sacrifice involves loss and giving something up.

In primitive societies, it often included murder.

Human sacrifice was intended most often to appease a God, win the God’s favor, or avoid the God’s wrath. Igor Stravinsky wrote a famous ballet about this, The Rite of Spring.

More recent depictions of this sort of behavior have included Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 novel, The Visit. In this story a wealthy woman (Claire Zachanassian) returns for a visit to her home town, a place that has fallen on hard times. She departed in disgrace many years before when she was impregnated by her young lover. This person denied the charge of paternity and bribed two people to support his case by claiming that they had been intimate with her. Shamed by the townsfolk, Claire eventually turned to prostitution.

Her return home is noteworthy for a “proposition” she has for the town where her former lover continues to live as a respected businessman. She will bequeath an enormous sum to the hamlet if it will do one simple thing: put to death the man who caused her disgrace. In effect, the book asks the question of what this woman is willing to sacrifice for revenge (her money, her morality) and what the town’s people are willing to give up for money. The movie of the same name starred Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn.

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/b3/Adi_Holzer_Werksverzeichnis_835_Abrahams_Opfer.jpg/500px-Adi_Holzer_Werksverzeichnis_835_Abrahams_Opfer.jpg

More recently, a very different sort of sacrifice is depicted in a 1967 episode of the original Star Trek TV series, The City on the Edge of Forever. While in an irrational state, the ship’s physician enters a time portal on an alien planet, one that takes him back to 20th century USA in the midst of the Great Depression.

At the instant that this happens, the Enterprise starship disappears from its orbit of the world on which the time portal exists. Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, already on the planet in pursuit of Dr. McCoy, recognize that he must have altered history in such a way as to result in a universe in which their space vehicle never existed.  Kirk and Spock therefore enter the time portal themselves at a moment in history slightly before they believe that McCoy reached 20th century earth, in order to prevent whatever action he took that changed subsequent events.

While back in time, Kirk and Spock meet a social worker named Edith Keeler, who runs a soup kitchen for the down-and-out victims of the Depression. Soon, Mr. Spock uses his technological prowess to discover that Dr. McCoy will eventually have something to do with Edith Keeler herself.

In one possible historical thread, Spock finds a newspaper obituary for her. In another, however, he discovers that she will lead a pacifist movement that delays the USA’s entry into World War II, resulting in Hitler’s victory and the very alteration of events that prevented creation of the star fleet of which the Enterprise starship is a part. Thus, in order to create the more benign future known to the three officers, Edith Keeler must die.

There is only one complication. Captain Kirk and Edith Keeler (played by Joan Collins) have fallen in love.

The climatic moment comes when Dr. McCoy and Captain Kirk see each other across the street for the first time on 20th century earth. As they rush to reunite, Edith Keeler (on a date with Kirk), attempts to cross the street to join them, heedless of the fact that a fast-moving truck is headed toward her. The doctor attempts to rescue Kirk’s love, but is restrained by Kirk from doing so. Edith Keeler is killed.

The heartbreak is heightened by the incredulous McCoy’s indictment of his captain and friend: “I could have saved her…do you know what you just did?.” Unable to speak, Kirk turns away while Mr. Spock says quietly, “He knows, Doctor. He knows.” Thus, Kirk has sacrificed Edith Keeler’s life and his own happiness, to prevent her from actions that would have led to world enslavement by the Third Reich.

I have always been troubled that two of the most important biblical stories involve human sacrifice. The tale of Abraham and Isaac finds the former, the founder of the Jewish faith and monotheism, asked to sacrifice his son Isaac in order to prove his devotion to God. As he prepares to do this, an angel appears and stays his hand. A lamb is slaughtered instead. Rembrandt depicted this beautifully in the painting reproduced above.

Remember now, that I’m a psychologist. I cannot look at this painting without wondering what the child Isaac might be thinking and feeling in the aftermath of this moment. How will his relationship with his father be changed? Might there have been other possible ways of testing Abraham without permanently scarring his son?

The foundation story of Christianity poses a virtually identical dilemma, with the sacrifice of Jesus to pay for the sins of humanity. I fear that we are so used to abstracted representations of these events, that we have become inoculated against the trauma depicted by them and the human, societal, and theological implications of such horrors, reportedly authorized by God.

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/45/Michelangelo_Caravaggio_022.jpg/500px-Michelangelo_Caravaggio_022.jpg

Of course, most of our sacrifices are much less dramatic. Do we give up eating what we might want in order to be fit and live a longer and healthier life? Do we brush off the attractive member of the opposite sex who “comes on” to us, in order to maintain our marital fidelity, avoid injuring our spouse and children, and keep whole our integrity? Do we sacrifice time having fun or attempting to climb the career ladder in order to go to our child’s boring orchestral recital and enduring hours of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” played by tiny violinists, all of whom are out of tune?

I’m sure you can imagine many more such choices and sacrifices of your own.

We make decisions, all of us, about the question of national sacrifices too. Jobs vs. clean air, tax cuts vs. social services, giving to charity vs. keeping the money for ourselves, liberty vs. the promise of security, and most poignant of all, the decision of when war is necessary despite the sacrifice of the unlived lives of our young adult children.

Just as an exercise, you might want to make a list of all those things you spend time on that are inessential, all the things that you could live without if it came to something really important.

Or, still another exercise: if you could only take 10 things or 10 people with you to a desert island, who or what would they be and who or what would you leave behind? And what cause would be great enough for you to agree to go to a desert island in the first place?

Who are we as a nation? Who are you as a person?

We might know more about our country and ourselves if we first ask what we are willing (and unwilling) to sacrifice.

The top image is the Sacrifice of Isaac by Rembrandt. The second picture, taken by Michael Gäbler, is of Adi Holzer’s hand colored etching Abrahams Opfer from 1997. Finally, Caravaggio’s version of the same scene Die Opferung Isaaks from 1594-96, sourced via the Yorck Project. All of the above come from Wikimedia Commons.