Including ideas from Peggy Vaughan's book "The Monogamy Myth"
Variety Isn't Always the Spice of Life
By Rosanne Farnden Lyster
Adultery - infidelity - affairs - whichever descriptor you choose, it seems to be big news. It is rare that a week passes without yet another report of some famous person being caught out appearing: members of the royal family, world leaders and other politicians, entertainers, or religious leaders. Closer to home, are the liaisons of those we know of personally. Infidelity appears to be happening all around us. It sometimes seems to be more common than monogamy.
Is infidelity the norm? Some research studies would show that to be true. Others suggest that is not the case. Either way, the reality is that adultery is more common than most of us would think. And it is not an entirely new phenomena. Affairs have been part of relationships - even seemingly committed ones, since early time.
One might ask, "If affairs are as old as time, and occur with frequency, why bother about them? People should just accept them as fact and get on with their lives. What happens between two consenting adults is their business - the rest of us should keep our noses out of it." As you can well expect, I disagree. Extra-marital affairs are everybody's business. The outcomes of affairs can have a devastating impact on all involved: spouses, children, the extended family, social groups, and the broader society. We need to be concerned. As marriage educators and as people who are working to build strong and healthy marriages, it is an issue we must give more attention to.
"Infidelity," says Frank Pittman in his book Private Lies, "is a breach of trust, a betrayal of relationship. A breaking of agreement."(p 20). It is, he claims, an act against the marriage itself. Pittman goes on to suggest that while infidelity may not "be the worst thing that one marriage partner can do to the other ... it may be the most confusing and disorienting and therefore the most likely to destroy the marriage - not necessarily because of the sex, but because of the secrecy and the lies." (p 22).
If infidelity truly is one of the greatest threats to marital stability, the question we need to explore is this: How do we prevent affairs from happening? How can couples stay true to the vows that they make on their wedding day?
In her book, The Monogamy Myth, Peggy Vaughan says that if "you want to prevent affairs, you need a clear understanding of why affairs happen in the first place." (p 203). Good point. You can't try to prevent something if you don't know the cause(s). Unfortunately, most of us have an understanding of affairs that isn't broad enough - which means that any prevention strategies that are developed likely don't reach far enough. We typically see the causes lying within either the marital relationship itself (ie. personal needs are not being met) or the individual who has the affair (ie. s/he is weak, or a thrill seeker or a sexual addict). Vaughan makes the argument that there is a third factor to be considered. That factor is the influence of society.
"What?" you say. "Our society certainly doesn't condone or support affairs!" Well, the opposite may actually be true, claims Vaughan. And I believe that she is correct. Consider the media hype that surrounds affairs - people want to know all the details - but of course, they claim that they don't. Listen to the jokes that people crack, and the comments that they make. How often have you heard criticisms made that deride the fact that the affair was found out, rather than the fact that it occurred in the first place?
In this article, I would like to explore the monogamy myth that Vaughan outlines, paying particular attention to the societal factors that contribute to infidelity. In the next issue of Concerning Couples, the theme of preventing affairs will continue with an exploration of personal and marital aspects.
The Monogamy Myth, according to Vaughan, is based on the following assumptions: a) monogamy is the norm, b) my marriage will be monogamous, and c) our society is supportive of monogamy. If we believe that our culture supports couples to remain true to the vow of "forsaking all others," we believe in a myth. There are many problems of believing the monogamy myth. The greatest one for couples is that it can lead them to be complacent - not putting in place the guards around their marriage that need to be there to ensure its survival.
Our language is full of proverbs and metaphors. One that fits here is "If it ain't broken, don't fix it." When couples don't focus on the real possibility of disaster striking their marriage, they don't put the necessary safeguards in place. Taking the ostrich approach to affairs doesn't work. Vaughan notes that "the best hope for monogamy lies in rejecting the idea that a couple can assume monogamy without discussing the issue, or that they can assure monogamy by making threats as to what they would do if it happened." (p 8).
The Monogamy Myth purports that there are significant societal factors that actually support and encourage affairs. The whole blame doesn't lie at the societal level, but we need to consider the sociological context in addition to the personal and interpersonal if we wish to truly understand and prevent affairs.
While Vaughan cites eight factors, we will examine five.
SEX AND THE ART OF DECEPTION
Growing up, many of us learn that we shouldn't appear to be interested in sex - even though we are. So, we hide our curiosity, and become secretive. Then, at some point, action on that curiosity is taken - whether it is reading educational books about sex, finding pornography, or becoming sexually active in a physical manner. But, because we are not supposed to be sexually oriented, we hide it, deceiving others if need be. For many teens, deception, dishonesty, and sex go hand in hand. The only strategy they learn for dealing with sexual conflicts is to lie.
What happens then, when these teens get older, find a marriage partner and start down the monogamy path? Sooner or later, they become attracted to somebody other than their mate. This happens to most of us if we are truly honest. A sexual conflict comes into being. So what do they do? If their experience tells them to act on their impulse, but be deceptive, keep it hidden, and sneak around, the likelihood of them acting in that manner is great. B-I-N-G-O. An affair.
One way then to look at preventing affairs is to address this factor by acknowledging and accepting that we are sexual beings. If we can make it acceptable to be honest and open about sexual issues, then we remove the need for deception and secrecy. People need to learn that life is full of conflicts to be resolved. In a sexual conflict such as being attracted to someone other than one's mate, we need to model that honesty and self-control are healthier responses than deception and self-centred action. In doing this, the power of one societal factor is reduced.
THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES
How often have you engaged in a conversation that includes comments such as, "Men!" (accompanied by rolling of the eyes); or "Typical female!" (accompanied by an all knowing smirk); or some other gender stereotypical comment that lumps all males or all females into one group? If you have, and I am sure you have, then you have contributed to one of the factors that allows adultery to continue. Vaughan claims that our tendency to portray men and women in stereotypical manners creates distance and misunderstanding, which "in turn makes it more comfortable for men and women to deceive each other and rationalize having affairs." (p 28).
Obviously, this is not a factor that we can change overnight. Despite all the changes which have occurred, gender stereotyping is still very strong. Global types of prevention strategies need to continue to chip all the changes which have occurred, gender stereotyping is still very strong. Global types of prevention strategies need to continue to chip away at these stereotypes. On an individual level, we must each become more aware of the occasions where we group our mate in with the rest of their gender. Once we can catch ourselves doing this, we can begin to challenge that action and then become curious about knowing them better. "No, he is not a typical male. My husband is one man whom I love, but am disappointed with right now. I wonder what is going on with him."
CONSTRICTIVE ROLE EXPECTATIONS
While marital roles are becoming less proscriptive, many people feel locked into roles which are not comfortable for them. Sometimes these roles are imposed by culture, often they are self- imposed, and frequently, the roles are taken on because one assumes his or her mate expects it. Cohabiting couples who decide to get married often claim that little will change in their day-to-day relationship upon saying their vows. And yet, soon after the honeymoon, they find themselves bristling, feeling out of place, experiencing confinement that they never felt before they said "I do." When the roots of these feelings are examined, some of these feelings can be traced back to role expectations.
Well, what happened? The reality is that there are no clear or traditional roles for cohabiting couples. So each couple sets up what seems to work for them. However, once they become married, they usually have role models that they can look to for how to set up life as a married couple. I expect you to be more like my mom was. I expect you to be the opposite of my dad. Or I expect that I will be the same type of husband/wife that my father/mother was.
When people feel trapped into roles, the idea of a relationship where they can "be themselves" looks mighty attractive. For these folk, affairs can be very appealing, because just as for cohabitation, there are no expectations for how an affair is structured.
THE GOOD THINGS IN LIFE
We have a very commercialized society where sex is used to sell almost anything from soup to nuts. Vaughan believes that "the commercialization of sex through advertising also contributes to affairs in our society." (p 29).
The advertising world would have us believe that we deserve the best, the finest. One of the good things in life we are told we deserve is someone sexy, someone exciting. In the day to day grist of life, this is not how many view their spouse. When our world is bombarding us with the message to get the latest, the finest, the best - it is not too hard to make the leap from material items to our mates. If one deserves that new model car, maybe a newer model sexual partner is also part of the formula. Maybe we would be happier with someone else. The commercialism of our society tells us to never be satisfied with what we've got. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. We are also seduced into the mode that everything is disposable. Don't fix your stereo, just upgrade it! And hey, if you are going to upgrade your car and your computer then you might as well upgrade your sex life too - even if it is just a "test drive".
HAPPILY EVER AFTER
Most fairy tale romances end with the line "...and they all lived happily ever after." If we cling to the "unrealistic image of marriage as magic - we set ourselves up for affairs." (p 31). What happens when you discover that your marriage doesn't have that fairy-tale ending and it's not all happily ever after kind-of stuff? The answer for many is that they become disillusioned. Some couples work hard at discovering what marriage is really all about, while others continue to pursue the fairy tale by entering an affair which appears perfect - at least at first.
If couples were a lot more open honest about what marriage is really all about, we could take a lot of the air out of this balloon. Children need to grow up seeing the give and take of healthy, committed marriages. Adults need to know that their's is not the only marriage that sometimes feels less than satisfactory and requires a lot of work.
Prevention Means Having Our Eyes Open
David Schnarch, author of The Sexual Crucible and Passionate Marriage has some very interesting ideas. One thing he encourages couples to do is grow to the place where they can have sex with their eyes open. One of the reasons for this is that it allows your spouse to "see behind your eyeballs" into the real you. Having our eyes open about affairs means that we come to a point of seeing what factors are really at play. We begin is see below the surface, beyond our quickest assumptions of why affairs occur and start to look at the bigger picture. It is only when we do this that we can develop prevention strategies that will actually work.
Rosanne Farnden Lyster, MA. CCFE is a consultant to the BC Council for Families who has a special interest in building strong marriages. She lives with her husband Jim, and their twin toddlers in rural Saskatchewan.