Paula always thought that infidelity should be “a deal breaker” in marriage—until two good friends confided in her about their unfaithful husbands. “I had a hard time wrapping my head around how you could possibly stay with someone who could not be faithful to you,” she said, “someone who could bring that betrayal into your life. But once you have children, custody most often comes with a split, so the reality that you’re never really free from the person tends to be a huge factor in encouraging or pressuring people to stay together after infidelity. I was just amazed,” Paula concluded. “I never thought that I would be able to see the other side, but marriage with children is really different than marriage without children.”
Is this an admirable stance of forgiveness, a navigation of the heart’s ambiguities, or a dubious case of what one woman once described to me as the “craven” act of putting up with a marital outrage?
I lean toward the former. It seems to me that we’re more imaginative, tolerant and attuned to marital ambiguity in real life than we are in our imaginations. We talk about marriage in black and white terms, but we live it in shades of gray. This is most obvious in sexual mores and, as with Paula’s view, more common in marriages with children.
On the one hand, Americans famously disapprove of extramarital sex, although we commit it with some frequency, in anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of marriages (and the infidelity “gender gap” has now closed, with both men and women straying in roughly equal numbers). A fascinating 1994 research study finds that Americans are among the most infidelity-intolerant people in the world, with a near unanimous 94 percent judging extramarital sex to be “always or almost always wrong,” and just 6 percent “only sometimes wrong or not wrong at all.”
On the other hand, we forgive extramarital sex fairly often. A suggestive 2008 survey found that nearly half of wives surveyed thought they’d be forgiven for having an affair, and more than half would forgive their husbands, after the fact, if they did. This isn’t what we say we’d do, but it’s what we privately imagine we’d do, nonetheless.
A therapist I talked to for Marriage Confidential observes these secret ethical ambiguities all the time. He noted that some of his clients do want to work things out in their marriages, but were “ashamed of having positive attachments” to their unfaithful spouses, or seeing what happened in multi-faceted ways, because they feared they'd be perceived as meek or deluded for doing so.
Maybe the problem isn’t that we never live up to the black and white, Boots Are Made for Walkin’ ultimatums, but that we don’t permit ourselves to embrace the gray in marriage. We fear it might look weak or pathetic to forgive a lapse; we think we’d look gullible or naive if we questioned the rules of monogamy with our spouses, or strayed from the received ethics.
All the same, the gray zone is where a lot of marriages reside, and have resided historically. Spouses tolerate a few transgressions over the course of a married lifetime. In other cases, they practice don’t ask, don’t tell when it comes to non-monogamy—they know but they don’t know about other intimate attachments that their spouses might have, and they’re not overly threatened by it. In other cases, if a betrayal happens, they contextualize it within the whole history of the marriage. Is this weak, or adaptive?
We all should try to live by ethical standards, and the most important in marriage are probably trust and honesty, but I don’t think it’s wise to live post-millennial marriage like a cartoon, in black and white, or a caricature, with Saints and Jerks and ultimatums. It’s the sort of talk that we engage in with our heartbroken girlfriends, or boyfriends, and it serves an important function because it expresses our disapproval of bad behavior.
But real life is always getting drawn outside of the cartoonish lines, and secretly, we know this. Couples slide down into crisis, together. They conspire to become imperfect, together. Sometimes they end up deceptive, surly, or angry toward each other in ways that neither of them ever, ever thought they’d feel. I don’t condone any of this, but I understand it.
Many (50% of younger Americans) think marriage is “becoming obsolete.” Does it feel obsolete to these people because we fall short of the ideals too often, or perhaps because we’ve not considered how the ideals might change to fit with the 21st century? As with a suspension bridge, strength comes from being able to sway a bit with the winds, rather than bracing rigidly against them.
These are new survival skills for the post-romantic age: flexibility, imagination, perhaps even a love for shades-of-gray, complicated intimacies. I’m reminded of a woman with two children whose husband had had an affair. And, after he had an affair, she had one, too. His lasted longer, and still occasionally goes on, but she wasn’t terminally perturbed, and nor was he. When it started, “he’d been monogamous with me for 19 years, after all,” and they had a good marriage, in so many ways, and wanted to raise their children together. They ended up with a different marriage than what they imagined they’d have. But they’re still contentedly married.
Real marriage is rarely encapsulated in an adage that fits on a billboard. Decent people end up with vexatious, imperfect, flawed, complex relationships. And some are still married, even so.