“I Never Thought I’d Be Able to See the Other Side of Infidelity….”

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. 

How to vaccinate the world’s most vulnerable? Build global partnerships.

Pfizer's partnerships strengthen their ability to deliver vaccines in developing countries.

Susan Silbermann, Global President of Pfizer Vaccines, looks on as a health care worker administers a vaccine in Rwanda. Photo: Courtesy of Pfizer.
  • Community healthcare workers face many challenges in their work, including often traveling far distances to see their clients
  • Pfizer is helping to drive the UN's sustainable development goals through partnerships.
  • Pfizer partnered with AMP and the World Health Organization to develop a training program for healthcare workers.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists find a horrible new way cocaine can damage your brain

Swiss researchers identify new dangers of modern cocaine.

Getty Images
Mind & Brain
  • Cocaine cut with anti-worming adulterant levamisole may cause brain damage.
  • Levamisole can thin out the prefrontal cortex and affect cognitive skills.
  • Government health programs should encourage testing of cocaine for purity.
Keep reading Show less

A new study says alcohol changes how the brain creates memories

A study on flies may hold the key to future addiction treatments.

Scott Barbour/Getty Images
Mind & Brain
  • A new study suggests that drinking alcohol can affect how memories are stored away as good or bad.
  • This may have drastic implications for how addiction is caused and how people recall intoxication.
  • The findings may one day lead to a new form of treatment for those suffering from addiction.
Keep reading Show less
Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.