Current affairs

As monogamy becomes the global norm, so does sexual betrayal. Surveys show that more than 70 per cent of married people report at least one affair. Does infidelity remedy the deficiencies of the lifetime partnership, or does it signify the destruction of any true union? Rosalind Miles recommends some reflection on the uses of adultery...
January 20, 1996

What does president Clinton have in common with Paula Yates? Prince Charles with Lady Chatterley? Jeffrey Archer with the "common prostitute" Monica Coghlan (whose services, a court found, Lord A was not in fact paying for with the ?2,000 he so generously gave her)? Accounting for infidelities-real and fictional-is a challenge akin to cracking the DNA code. But our public culture makes it difficult to talk about in a useful way.

We chatter about it, of course, incessantly. Adultery is constantly in the air: the recreation of the great and the not-so-good, and hence the staple of the tabloids. This seems to encourage us to discuss it in the manner of a party game. Name the most improbable celebrity pairings? Nelson and Emma Hamilton, Pandit Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten, Hugh Grant and Divine. It seems extraordinary that something so pervasive has received so little scholarly or even serious attention.

One exception is Dr Annette Lawson's 1988 study Adultery. Her surveys found that 78 per cent of British husbands had committed adultery as against 47 per cent of a comparable group in 1965; overall figures for both sexes showed 73 per cent of married people reporting at least one affair during married life (with similar findings in the US); in first marriages, 66 per cent of women and 68 per cent of men reported at least one liaison before the age of 40. These figures are backed up by divorce petitions which cite "adultery" and "behaviour including adultery" as responsible for almost 70 per cent of marriage breakdowns.

It often seems that the only response to extracurricular sexual activity is a moral one, ranging from mild disapproval to outrage. Condemnation of forbidden sex, often backed up by vicious punishments such as stoning or the lash, has been the norm in most societies, and still is in, for example, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Yet infidelity persists and even increases: astonishingly, an official analysis of blood samples in England in the late 1970s found that 30 per cent of the men surveyed could not have been the biological fathers of at least one of their children. Something as pervasive as this must serve a function; it must have a raison d'?tre in the modern world.

At first blink, asking why people have illicit sex seems to inhabit that same region of thundering obviousness as the Shakespearean observation that it is the property of water to be wet. "Forbidden fruit, " "spice of life," "danger adds excitement," "having affairs boosts self-esteem," the clich?s roll on as cod psychology disposes of the psychology of the cods. Pursuing the point seems to be on a par with asking why people eat food: we need it and we like it, what more do you want? Yet just as we have had to accept that the food we want and need can also kill, so it is clear that infidelity can be thought about-and practiced-in two different ways: it can be used both to nurture and to destroy.

but briefly, to our terms. The use of "infidelity" to mean "sexual betrayal" has fractured the older binary typology of "fornication/adultery," which assumed that both the single and the married were either living virtuously, or sinning against the laws of God and man. "Fornication" then denoted any sexual act carried out by an unmarried person, including all the known perversions, and those still to be invented. "Adultery" formerly meant any sexual act by a married person outside the marriage, though the absolute nature of the proscription meant that equivocation flourished like the green bay tree. Gladstone boasted so strenuously to his diaries that he had not committed "the one act that breaks the marriage bond" that he was clearly up to something, though not even Roy Jenkins, Gladstone's biographer, can tell us what it was. In our time, too, the confession that he had "committed adultery in his heart" helped to bring down President Jimmy Carter, though millions were left wondering what was on old Georgia's mind.

Modern-day adulterers are skilled equivocators too, with lists of detailed "don'ts" for the game of infidelity. These reassure them, if not their partners, that "this isn't really it": not in the matrimonial home; not in the marriage bed; not sleeping overnight; not having "full" sex (what's the empty kind?); not without a condom; not more than once with the same person-anything and everything rather than "not at all." By these measures, like the "poison in jest" with which Hamlet torments his faithless mother and her paramour, there is "no offence in the world." Many a happily married man and devoted husband and father has returned contentedly to his wife after a happy hour being blissfully fellated by a casual acquaintance in a hotel room, with no sense of wrongdoing whatever.

In the days when we cared enough about such things to establish degrees of distinctions, a single person who had sex with a married one became an adulterer too-such was the label attached by a disapproving Church of England to Edward VIII as a result of his liking for married women, long before Mrs Simpson came on the scene. Marriage was the keystone of the moral arch which wedded and unwed alike were supposed to support. The whole schema turned on the concept of the sanctity of the marriage bond as a pledge not between man and woman, but between man and God. Fornication between two single people was a "simple" sin; adultery comprised both fornication and the far graver sin of blasphemy, because it broke the holy sacrament of wedlock.

Belief in God also animated the current synonym for sexual betrayal which has widely supplanted "adultery" as the term de nos jours. At one time the word "infidelity"-the condition of the infidel-was so strongly rooted in its original Christian meaning of "lack of faith" that for centuries the qualifier "marital" had to be added to bring the term up to snuff. Even then, it described an attitude rather than an action. In the modern world the use of "infidelity" has arisen to cover the reality of cohabiting couples who may break the couple bond just as married couples do, but who cannot be conscripted into the "adultery" discourse. It says much about the way we live now that a sexual act could so thoroughly have driven out a meaning once connected so securely with the divine.

Theology may have decreed that adultery was the same offence for male and female, but biology means that the sin of the gander has always been seen as less dangerous than that of the goose. Male transgression has been taken as in the nature of the beast with two backs: Horner in the Restoration comedy The Country Wife is only one of countless characters in world fiction gleefully living out the prayer of St Augustine, "O Lord, give me chastity, but not yet."

But is there a single female character in art or literature, from Clytemnestra to Madame Bovary, who commits adultery and gets away with it? For more than 2,000 years, female lust in or out of marriage was enough to make a woman a monster, like Goneril and Regan in King Lear, or a murderess, like the wife of Arden of Faversham. Delicate Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream is punished with the attentions of an ass-it's as crass a bathos as Princess Di gleeking the hapless Will Carling, rugby captain of England, now branded an ass for his wooing by Her Fairyship herself.

Some sections of some societies at some periods took a less draconian view. Roman husbands may have had the power to put to death a wife who drank wine in public or went abroad unveiled, but the awesome debaucheries of Imperial women such as Messalina and Agrippina Minor in the 1st century AD show that the rules did not always apply. Elsewhere, folk memories of goddess worship survived long after the Great Mother had been banished by the arrival of the Father Gods of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In the Celtic societies of Britain, even after the arrival of Christianity in the 6th century AD, women continued to offer "thigh-friendship" to any man of their choice. When the Queen Mother of Norway chooses the hero Hrut in the 13th century Njal's Saga, he merely observes "Such things are for you to decide," and they go to bed for two weeks.

Under the rules of Christendom, the appetite for sexual variety had to be satisfied by serial polygamy rather than by open adultery, as in the many marriages of the Wife of Bath or Henry VIII. Elizabethan England, while preserving the husband's right to abandon "the dark house and the detested wife" in favour of the cheery light o' love, nevertheless developed an obsession with preserving a wife's chastity. But the male dread of being "cuckolded" is only partly related to the private fear of having a cuckoo in the nest-from which the word is supposed to derive. The real terror for a man lay in the prospect of public exposure, the irreversible humiliation and loss of face that a wife's adultery involved.

Still padlocked by patriarchy, the Enlightenment thinkers saw little reason to question rules which so obligingly catered to sex as a boys' pursuit, leaving girls to play with dolls until they could play house. Under Queen Victoria, even the boys' prerogatives were rolled back: muscular Christianity as taught by Charles Kingsley, and idealised by Tennyson in his Idylls of the King, returned to the Arthurian image of unstained manly virtue which exalted male virginity and chastity even above the female.

The restriction of sexual activity to coupledom and the sexual possessiveness so implied is becoming the norm, carried by the global spread of western culture. But some of the world religions-notably Islam and even Biblical Judaism-have seen things differently. Coupling arrangements are tailored to the needs and concepts of time and place. Among the Inuit of the Arctic Circle, wife-lending was customary. To this day the Semai of central Malaysia hold that nobody can reject a properly lodged request for intercourse. Upper class Edwardian England, admittedly with the warm glow of hindsight, now seems like one eternal golden summer of joyful rumpy-pumpy, one endless twilight of creaking floorboards, whispers and giggles, and people going bump in the night. And this was a game that once again girls could play too. "The lovers are the flowers," one Edwardian bride recalled being told by an older woman, "the husband is the tree."

which brings us to the uses of infidelity, Mode A. Despite the best efforts of the Christian church, an age-old European tradition has established a pragmatic view of adultery as a necessary part of marriage, as in the French saying: "the chains of marriage are so heavy that it takes two to carry them, and often three." Deriving on the one hand from the lofty ideals of courtly love, and on the other from a down-to-earth acceptance of marriage as a social arrangement first and foremost, the idea that love and marriage did not inevitably go together like a horse and carriage gave generations of adulterers, if not carte blanche, at least the feeling that they were not alone. Even up to the 1960s sexual revolution, so long as virtuous women were not expected to enjoy sex, a division of labour within marriage seemed only common sense: the wife would take care of the children and the house, and the husband's sexual satisfaction was something he sent out for, like dispatching the laundry or the dry cleaning.

One does not have to accept the latter arrangements to see the logic of the third wheel on the bicycle-made-for-two. The extra wheel helps to balance the partnership by supplying its deficiencies. Infidelity is used by one or both partners to handle pressures that the other cannot relieve and may even seem to cause. The sense of a secret life, a knowledge withheld, can defuse feelings of anger against the partner which could otherwise put the relationship dangerously under strain. It can silently revenge injuries, satisfy grudges or even out the score without risking open hostilities. It can put a bloom on the home situation by making the erring partner more tolerant of the spouse kept in the dark. It can even show adulterers what they are missing in a way that sends them back, humbled but happy, to the arms they had thought to escape.

"They are not long, the days of wine and roses," lamented Dowson. Reluctance to accept that he is not a thing of beauty and a boy forever is another prime reason why a man may be motivated to introduce a fresh pair of legs into the game. In a world where the youth culture insists on sex, and all culture insists on youth, even a 28-year-old can be made to feel that he is played out. But men are not the only ones who can feel that they "owe it to themselves." Now that the old biological and patriarchal reasons for protecting women's fidelity no longer apply, some unlikely evangelists for female sexual freedom take to the high seas of extramarital adventure with as much conviction as if they were freebooting for England. Both men and women busily adultering in this post-feminist paradise will argue that love is the greatest thing, that the "buzz" makes everything worthwhile, that they are not hurting anyone, that it spices up their marriage or helps their partnership by making them happier.

Oh, what rubbish! is the anguished countercry of the deceived partner, whose only crime may have been to trust too well. Infidelity Mode B takes us into the opposing territory of those who feel or know that so far from sustaining a marriage, infidelity is the clear and certain death knell of any union worthy of the name. Given the general loosening of sexual mores over recent decades, it may seem strange to relate that Mode B attitudes are as strong-if not stronger-than ever.

During the last 30 years women's reclamation of the right to sexual enjoyment is possibly the greatest freedom feminism has won-and one area where sexual equality has moved further than any other. Yet paradoxically the promiscuity of the 1960s may only have reinforced what Annette Lawson calls "the Myth of Romantic Marriage." The more the shared bodily fluids flowed amid the wreaths of pot-smoke in the spirit of peace, love and laughter, the more the flower children sought their own version of the Holy Grail. But the Big One, the Ultimate Soul Mate, often did not show up or proved a disappointment. Their children, the marrying generation of today, disheartened and disgusted by their parents' divorces and degrading sexual d?gringolades, currently display in their conversation, in their behaviour, in their music and culture, a fierce faith in monogamous, exclusive, lifelong love and mutually faithful partnership which is likely to make anyone over 35 think of tooth fairies and Tinkerbell.

But for the young today, this heart-wrenching faith also goes hand in hand with a social imperative decreeing that "having a (sexual) relationship," and when that ends, having another one, is an inalienable right of youth, as well as a prime leisure activity and hence an organising principle of all purchase and consumption. This applies to women as much as men; nearly half the women in Lawson's study had had pre-marital sex with someone other than their husband to be. Behind this lies a loose idea of "getting it out of your system": of having enough sexual experience to make it possible to settle down in perfect contentment and willingly renounce playing the field. How anyone can think that a youth spent in sexual freedom and unfettered access to sexual choice is a good preparation for up to 50 years of rigorous fidelity and denial, is a question not to ask.

The problem here lies in the individualistic conceptualisation of a long term partnership which takes no account of it as a public and social structure; an institution, indeed, which must still be sustained when feeling fails. And no amount of previous experience or lack of it, nor the most passionate commitment to the concept of a "together into the sunset" union, can alter the fact that for either party, coupledom may falter many times in the course of the long life together. "I'd always regarded adultery as unavoidable," muses a character in a Sarah Dunant novel, "a kind of inbuilt structural defect of marriage." Young people in particular place a high premium on the love contract; so high, perhaps, that when the love goes, even temporarily, it seems inevitable to both partners that the contract must go too. Breaking the bond of exclusivity breaks also the trust on which the union is based. Within this framework, infidelity is the weapon of destruction, the battering ram with which the deceiver breaks down the house of love.

Mode A can only continue for as long as the strains and contradictions, hostilities and deceptions, can be neatly contained within the average life. But so long as infidelity is used to supply deficiency, there is a risk that in time, the sense of the deficiency which the affair highlights will become too great to be borne. And as the sexual act between two people, however private, forms one of the great moments of society where both personal and public meet, so it is almost impossible for infidelities of any length to be kept secret from any other person, if only from the desk clerk in the afternoon hotel. And once public, an affair, however trivial, can go on expanding with growing power of destruction like a dumdum assault.

There are only two possibilities. Infidelity, which by definition implies breaking a bond of faith with another, will either destroy the original partnership, or it will not. Problems arise when one party to the infidelity is in Mode A while the other is in B (consciously or not). A text book illustration is afforded by the Prince and Princess of Wales. Schooled by his father and that hoary old adulterer Mountbatten, Charles genuinely believed that so long as he did his duty by his wife, he was entitled to his petite amie as well. For her part, broken as a child by her parents' loathsome divorce manoeuvres, Diana seems to have had an idealised version of a romantic marriage and husband-bond which would heal all the hurts of the past and build a happy-ever-after future. It is a tragedy of Greek proportions, and as with Greek tragedies the effects will be felt for generations.

Nor does the conflict end there. Mode A adulterers are likely to betray their lovers, as well as the official partner of their bed and board. Among Lawson's adulterers 15 per cent of the men and 25 per cent of the women have had just one liaison, but 40 per cent of the men and 25 per cent of the women report at least four. Traditionally it was the errant male who nursed his marriage while stringing along a well-deceived woman who might wait all her life for him to make good his claim on her love. The mistress who learns, over long lean years of endless lies, the truth of Iris Murdoch's dictum that "a married couple is a dangerous machine," has been a classic object of pity. Joining her now among the ranks of the betrayed are the increasing numbers of men used by women to break out of an existing marriage, and then deftly dumped just when they hope to inherit. It is well known by agony aunts and professionals in the field that women rarely settle down with the man who has furnished their escape route; but it is rarely recognised by the men themselves.

For Mode B believers, nothing except the loss of a child can equal the psychic pain of discovering that their partner has made open house of the closed circle of their mutual trust. For Mode A adulterers, on the other hand, the idea that their recreations could threaten their marriage is so far from their minds that they may still be shaking their heads with disbelief in the divorce court. (The new divorce figures are holding steady at last after decades of ascent, so perhaps couples are getting better at agreeing which mode they are in.)

Can we link fidelity with any concept of honour, as the use of the terms "betrayal" and "cheating" imply? "Honour" as a concept seems overdue for revision, because it has been essentially a contract between men. One of the most remarkable features of the love of Lancelot for Guinevere in the Arthurian cycle is that in choosing to commit adultery with her and remain faithful to that commitment, he puts her not only above his duty to King Arthur, but also above his allegiance to patriarchy, his peers, and the entire honour code of the Knights of the Round Table. Even today, taking a fellow officer's wife, let alone the wife of a superior officer, is still an unforgivable offence in circles which have long abandoned other sacred cows, as the saga of ex-Captain James Hewitt has shown. For Lancelot it meant the loss of a wife and family of his own, the sacrifice of Arthur's love, the enmity of Gawain, madness, exile and death.

"Yet in certain he loved the Queen," writes Malory, "above all other ladies damosels, all the days of his life." The final spur to infidelity for some is the hope or conviction that, as with Lancelot, in the forbidden friend lies the one great love, the true love "that sages sang, and poets e'er have feigned." For the outside half in the partnership, like Jilly Cooper who had to track the spoor of this great beast through American Express slips and slips of other kinds, the antics revealed, the incessant dodge and weave, may lack something of this nobility.

So what's the answer? A generation of cohabitees have now discovered that avoiding marriage does not make dealing with the fidelity bond issue easier. Structurally too, 20th century couples have to go further, make love last longer, than any others in history. It is no surprise that the second most frequent moment of divorce-after the early years, pre-children-is post-retirement. The average duration of the Renaissance marriage was eight years. The sainted wives lamented with such feeling by Milton and other poets had usually been with their bards only so long as it took to bring them to the childbeds where they died. Twiggy may have opined in the 1960s that no relationship should last longer than a fridge (which coincidentally lasts between seven and eight years), but she herself has lived to give the lie to the fridge theory of attachment in her own married life. When most couples today still get together in their 20s, a modern partnership may have to outlast seven fridges-and for some, even more.

Yet regarding marriage or coupledom as a life sentence is likely to drive many of us to the nearest exit-the one marked "infidelity." It's against all the rules of romantic love to question its imperatives. But next time you find yourself in this revolving door, you might stop and ask yourself whether you belong to the same mode as your partner.