Clearly it’s issue week here at the reading room. I saw this discussion going around and urge you to read Emily’s great post and the post that started it. What could be more emotive and complex, more of a discursive minefield, than fidelity in marriage? Hence the topic became irresistible to me. It’s also been one of the main plot lines of narrative for the past couple of hundred years, which also indicates that it’s offered an intriguing knot of psychological and societal factors to many skilled writers. If an issue starts to dominate creative fiction you can bet it involves an explosive combination of emotions within a structure of constraint and regulation and reflects profoundly on questions of existential significance. But I get ahead of myself here; let’s look at a story instead.

My favourite adultery novel dates back to the seventeenth century and is the story of the formidable Princesse de Cleves. She is a young noblewoman brought to the Court of France to find a husband and is dutifully married off by her mother to a suitable chap. Now, given that marriage in the time of the story is fundamentally a political alliance, a means of amassing land or climbing social ladders, the court is a hotbed of intrigue; appearances must be maintained but taking lovers is routine behaviour. However, the Princess de Cleves’ mother has higher aspirations for her daughter than just a glitzy marriage; when she’s on her deathbed, with the full force of maternal emotional blackmail behind her, she insists that the Princesse should remain virtuous: Love your husband and be loved by him, she commands, for that is the only route to happiness. Naturally it is not long after this that the Princess meets the man of her dreams, the dashing womanizer, the Comte de Nemours. He’s up for anything, but the Princesse, mindful of her mother’s wishes, resists all but a little flirting. Inevitably the Princesse’s husband finds out and, unable to believe in his wife’s unusual virtue, he is convinced that she has been unfaithful; the marriage is stained and he dies not long afterwards. Now, here’s the rub: the Princesse has no reason not to marry Nemours but when he comes to propose she turns him down flat. They’ve had the best of their romance, she reasons, in the fantasies they’ve entertained about one another. To try to live those dreams would inevitably result in disappointment and tedium, the beauty of their virtual love sullied by the workaday world of reality. When the novel was published it caused something of a stir because its audience simply did not believe the Princess to be a plausible character. No one, surely, would act the way she did? But this was also the seventeenth century, the classical age, when taming passions with the power of the mind was much admired. The story of the Princess has lasted so long, I think, because it manages to inhabit precisely that uncomfortable fissure between the ideals of self-control and the down-to-earth view of human desire that has worried away at the self-image of the human race ever since.

So what does the Princesse teach us about adultery? Well, she tells us two awkwardly incompatible things. The first is that we bother with relationships at all to assuage desires that are fundamental to being human, so fundamental in fact that people generally have trouble believing that anyone can live without their satisfaction. The second is that those desires are bound up in romance, in fantasy, and that they have little to do with the day to day banality that is intrinsic to a marriage. In other words, marriage is not the solution to certain kinds of deep-rooted desires, although it is offered to us as though it were. Now, don’t get me wrong, marriage is the answer to a number of other, pressing problems: it’s about teamwork and support, it’s the best basis for raising children, it offers companionship and security, and none of these things are negligible. In fact in the right combination, they can offer the kind of fulfillment that is far more valuable than those exquisitely piercing demands of the self. But that doesn’t account for all those adulterous narratives. So we might begin to consider what’s so important about the desires that adultery does satisfy, and for that we have a shelfload of nineteenth century novels to help us along.

Hands up who wants to be a terrible warning – Emma Bovary? Effi Briest? Anna Karenina? If we take a chaise longue full of adulteresses we can see the paradoxical patterns of nineteenth century society start to fall into place. All of these women were trapped in claustrophobic situations, married without resources to men who utterly failed to appreciate them, who provided them with the houses and the food they could not survive without, but never gave them the affection, the recognition, the adoration they could not feel alive without. Adultery in this era is a study of tragedy provoked by the intolerable state of female incarceration in a supposedly free world – these women are all effectively imprisoned by the laws of their time. But it’s also a comment on the way that people are altering their perceptions of themselves. What really begins to bite in the nineteenth century is commerce; all those industrial revolutions, the concept of shops, paid-for entertainment, a class based on new money, these changes make people aware in a way they have never been before of the notion of value. And so, adultery fascinates authors because it reminds them how essential the sense of value is to the individual and that even beyond marriage commercialism swarms in the black market place of infidelity. Hence, also, the fascination with the adulteress, because women had no way to experience themselves as valuable except in relation to the desire they could provoke.

And so, whilst there are many factors that influence adultery, I do wonder whether the greatest of them all is a desire for self-validation. You are probably saying no, no that cannot be true. But it’s difficult otherwise to explain the continued interest in adultery in literature as we head into the twentieth century and a loosening of the marriage bonds. Why are we still fascinated with what’s happening in an affair when nowadays it’s the simplest procedure to get a divorce? It has to be because what is at stake is a sense of self-worth, a yearning to be valuable, a longing for a kind of ideal, loving relationship at the height of its splendour (but which cannot be sustained without the continual input of fantasy) that remains intrinsic to our happiness. I think that people who get sucked into an affair are having trouble with their self-esteem, for whatever reason that may be, chronic or acute. And precisely because they are experiencing trouble with their own value they do not dare to alter the image they present to the external world. Rather than confront their partner, expose their neediness or vulnerability, walk out of their job, sob, wail or rage, it’s so much easier to outsource the emotion and have it dealt with by a third party. So I do think that by the time we reach the end of the twentieth century, adultery has shape-shifted within the bonds of society once again, and now it represents a bid for self-validation but in a way that also seeks to keep the original marriage together. Adultery becomes a flying buttress on the institution of marriage, however destructive it may at first seem.

None of this is to say it’s a good idea. The sensible thing to do is to have it out with the spouse, or find other ways of feeling valuable that don’t require external input, but marriage is such a sensible condition that it this may feel like misrecognising the madness of the feelings from which the actions stem. And anyway, affairs are their own punishment; if they embody cherished ideals, they’re in trouble from the start. The Princesse is undoubtedly right – it takes a lot of avoidance strategies to prevent beautiful fantasies from being trampled into the muck and dust of reality. I also think that no one (beyond the age of childhood) should ever be considered a victim. Marriage is a funny old state. That degree of commitment unleashes all kinds of profound needs and emotions and expectations and yet there is nowhere much for them to go in the daily grind of grocery shopping, work, childcare. It’s no wonder that leaving the top off the toothpaste becomes the focal point for extraordinary, excessive rage. But it’s also the place where you get to know another person in their every last detail, if you choose to notice. Divorce hurts so much partly because the other party knows more about you than anyone ever should be allowed to. If free brainwashing came with divorce there’d be a lot of happier people around. But I think that level of intimacy is important and you neglect it at your own cost. No one ever said it was easy, and sometimes life makes it impossible, but without the continual interaction of emotional weather reports, resentment balance accounts, contentment ratings indexes, then a marriage falls into formality and risks becoming the kind of structural shell that needs propping up from the outside. And the two partners to a marriage take equal responsibility for that.

I told my husband what I thought. ‘What a sissy, girlie way of looking at it,’ he said. And there may have been something in there about my obsession with personal responsibility, I can’t recall. ‘Men are very quiet about adultery,’ he added, ‘because they know it’s in their natures. I could just decide selfishly that it was what I wanted and for no better reason than I could do it.’ I was highly entertained by this image he was concocting of himself as a super stud. ‘So what would you do if a woman at work started to sidle up to you from time to time, and made goo-goo eyes at you and suggested you meet up later for a coffee?’ I asked. The same kind of look came into his eyes as I imagine on baby deer who find themselves face to face with a hunter and a cocked shotgun. ‘I’d run away,’ he replied. Quite. He isn’t the faithless type, and if he did find someone else naturally I would be outraged, and furious and devastated and want to feel like a victim and demand recompense, and somewhere below all these roiling, festering layers would be the disquieting knowledge that I had seriously failed to meet his needs. Well, it’s only my opinion and maybe there are people out there who lie and cheat mercilessly, who act out of greed and rampant egotism, who embrace irrationality and transgression for the sheer hell of it. But I can’t help but feel that for many people, it’s the equivalent of unblocking an impasse, or bursting out of a stifling cocoon to expand a hidden part of themselves in warmth and air, only to find that what they have really done is pull the plug from a hand grenade. Few situations invite the spectator to judge so readily as adultery, but as with so many of the awful situations people get themselves into, I do feel the better response is compassion all round.


13 thoughts on “Monogamy

  1. I am so pleased that you picked up this topic. It is fascinating to me that everyone read my post as being about monogamy versus cheating. What I was saying is that I don’t cheat because I don’t have any interest in going elsewhere — that monogamy seems about right and rewarding to me and so even if offered an open marriage I would not take it. However, there is no doubt in my mind that cheating — going behind someone’s back when monogamy has been promised — has everything to do with monogamy. You are right, without the monogamy there could be no cheating, and without the cheating, some folks would lack a counterpoint to their marriages.

  2. lost – it’s true that there’s also a fascination with failed love in many, many narratives. But I guess it matters which genre you read – ‘women’s fiction’ (which isn’t a term I like but I use it here because I can’t think of a better one) like fairy tales often insists on happily ever after. But it certainly doesn’t do to be in love in a Russian novel. Emily – I really liked your post and to be honest I’m vaguely dissatisfied with my response. I began thinking, ooh, adultery and the novel (I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you’ve had to teach a similar course) and then couldn’t think of a good modern novel to talk about, although there must be loads of them. It’s probably too complex a topic to isolate the one point of view and I feel I haven’t done justice to the question. And after all, people can do what they like so long as everyone agrees to it, and no, I wouldn’t want an open marriage either. No matter what else it did or didn’t provide, I know my pride couldn’t accommodate it.

  3. I think of relationships as being a bit like a matrix, in which the parties (I’m assuming a two-person relationship here!) each bring their own emotional, physical and erotic histories, couched in their response to all the social and cultural norms around them, which together fuse, one way or another, to create something new.

    I think it’s that matrix of two people together–the way that love, like culture, is a “way of struggle”–that generates or doesn’t generate the possibility of infidelity. Two sets of couples might find themselves comparably constrained by the things to which your post, litlove, draws attention: children, family, money, boredom, but in only one couple is there adultery. If there isn’t, as you identify, some profound appeal for the self in the notion of being the adulterer, then I don’t think it takes place. And the question of which person will stray and which won’t seems to me as much about how individuals are configured in and by their relationships and it is about who is good and who is bad.

    I’m reminded too of an article by (I think) Elizabeth Edwards on adultery in Le Morte Darthur. Her comment was that the whole structure Malory’s tale was dependent on adultery. If there wasn’t the adultery between Launcelot and Guenevere (even though in Malory’s tale it’s largely emotional, not sexual, for most of the story), then the court wouldn’t have the tensions, the alliances, the rivalries that brought about its flowering. Of course we tend to focus on the adultery’s role in the court’s downfall, but so long as it was not revealed there was high-level and magnificent dysfunction. Maybe that’s what long-term adultery is too!

  4. Nice post. Reminds me of the quote: “Higgomus hoggamus, women are monogamous. Hoggamus, higgomus, men are polygomous”. By Dorothy Parker (of course).

    But I also like what Adam Phillips has to say (in his book on the subject): “to talk about monogamy is to talk about everything that might matter. Honesty, murder, kindness, security, choice, revenge, desire, loyalty, lying, risk, duty, children, excitement, blame, love, promising, care, curiosity, jealousy, rights, guilt, ecstasy, morals, punishment, money, trust, envy, peace, loneliness, home, humiliation, respect, compromise, rules, continuity, secrecy, chance, understanding, betrayal, intimacy, consolation, freedom, appearances, suicide, and, of course, the family … Monogamy is a kind of moral nexus, a keyhole through which we can spy on our preoccupations.”

  5. I’ve been delving into your blog for a while but this is the first time I’ve felt compelled to comment – anonymously however, for reasons which will become obvious!

    As someone who has “committed adultery” (for want of a less criminalizing way of putting it) your analysis of it felt very close to home, closer in fact than many of my own diary scribblings. Perhaps this is partly because it is considerably more charitable! It feels uncomfortable to search for the positive in the experience, because it was so full of battering pain for myself and others (one way or another there were quite a few people involved). However it wasn’t entirely negative in the end.

    But first the reality that the Princesse de Clèves managed to avoid: it was a constant struggle between crushing guilt and something like release, with a good measure of dizzying fear, anger, and utter confusion thrown in. One of the worst things about it was that it consumed time like a ravenous dog. One relationship is busy enough, but two? A clever dog though, as it doesn’t leave any time to think. It’s like leaping out of a crashing plane again and again with no respite: nothing exists but the terrifying, awful, addictively exhilarating present moment. I deeply regret the experience, but in the end it has changed me for the better, forcing me to confront all kinds of complicated and difficult things about myself and my view of life. I can see more clearly now that it was a desperate attempt to resolve some pretty deep messes inside. I wish I had been able to take the sensible route – to open up to my partner and confront the problems – but I begin now to understand why that felt impossible to me at the time, like a barred exit. In time I hope to forgive myself.

    The plug-turning-to-hand-grenade image is a powerful one, and in my case feels very accurate. I was unbelievably lucky though, as I had some good people around me and, once I was able to let them in, which was very hard, they helped me to pull myself out of the dreadful mess I’d made. One of them was my partner, who was also transformed by the whole thing. So we have both changed and we’re still together, happier than ever.

    I wouldn’t recommend adultery to anyone, not because it offends traditional morality, but because deceit is unhelpful in the pursuit of happiness – one’s own and that of other people (the two are, after all, completely entwined). It reminds me of those school posters that said “cheating is cheating yourself”, and that’s what adultery is: cheating others, but also cheating oneself of the chance to develop and be whole and confront life’s challenges head on. Happiness, as you so rightly implied in your post, is not the fulfilment of desire, but a quite different structure in which one’s desires can move and breathe without sending the self spinning completely off kilter.

    I feel perhaps that I should add that I’m a woman. But I don’t really believe it is a question of gender.

  6. Harvestbird – what a wonderful comment from you – so very rich and with so much to think about. I have to begin by saying that your remarks on Le morte d’Arthur are fabulous and most pertinent. I think that is what I’m trying to grope my way towards, this sense that adultery is a symptom of dysfunction. But as you so rightly say, how that dysfunction plays out is wrapped up in the myriad details of the relationship and bound up with the deep selves of the individuals concerned. That’s what fascinates me about marriage – it is such a swamp of indeterminacy, full of so many unidentifiable things that bump about just under the surface. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.

    Pete – oh what an amazing quote by Adam Phillips! You see, I had this suspicion I was leaving a few essential details out! I have his book on monogamy but it’s in college and I haven’t been there for a while – I really ought to have made the effort to dig it out. But thanks to you for posting that thought, and for the Dorothy Parker, so entertaining as always.

    Name Witheld – well thank you so much for such a courageous and articulate comment. I think you describe your experience extremely well. It is so hard to find the positive in difficult experiences and never more so than when we feel at fault – well, that’s certainly true for me. If I decide I’ve been cowardly, or foolish or thoughtless then it becomes all I can see, and what’s really useful in the process gets lost. I think you’ve done marvellously well to get such perspective on the experience and to see your own actions in a clearer light. And most important of all, it seems clear to me that you’ve taken every opportunity to clear up the confusion and uncertainty it represented. So few people do that! I admire you immensely for having found the courage. I’m so pleased you had the support you needed and that you managed to get the outcome you wanted. I do believe that relationships are amazingly flexible and can carry all sorts of events within them if both partners are willing to undertake the real acts of understanding they demand. I also think they are much stronger for having been tested. And I really like your definition of happiness. The very best of luck to you as you move forward now – it seems to me you have a solid foundation of insight on which to do so.

  7. Another thoughtful post, and one I will come back to visit a few more times, if you don’t mind. It awakens many ideas I’m not sure I can share, but I will say this: it is wrong to assume one “seriously failed to meet the spouse’s needs” when he/she is unfaithful, thus blaming oneself. The cheater is hoping the spouse will feel that way. People choose to be unfaithful. It has nothing to do with needs not being met. It has everything to do with that person caring only about his/her momentary need. I agree with your husband: “Men are very quiet about adultery because they know it’s in their natures.” There are men/women who simply don’t care as much about risking their marriages as they do gratifying an itch, and some who do it deliberately to build up an erroneous idea of themselves as desirable. And I agree about the self esteem, which has to be sadly lacking.

    It’s always interested me about literature that vilifies the female adulterer. In the end she usually dies or is poverty-stricken, or banished, or…..etc. Morality tales. But seldom do we see the same thing happen to male adulterers. I’m sure you know of more than I do!

  8. I’ve been trying to understand adultery all my life (parental reasons), which is why your beautifully written post sparked the necessity of a written response in me, and why I feel like I could write screeds more responding to each of the delicate threads of your discussion, not to mention your other readers’ evocative comments. However for fear of getting too mired down and neglecting my work I’ll confine myself to thanking you for a thought-provoking, (and rather brave, I think) post, and an extremely generous and gentle response to my comment. Thank you!

  9. This insightful line of yours really strikes me, Litlove, as exactly where so many human struggles have their root – “the uncomfortable fissure between the ideals of self-control and the down-to-earth view of human desire”. We are constantly negotiating a tense back and forth between the realms of intellect and feeling, aren’t we?

  10. Reb – I’ve been wracking my brains to see if I can come up with a male adulterer who suffers but alas, I cannot think of one! Men in literature tend to suffer when they don’t get the girl – The Sorrows of Young Werther probably setting this train in motion. Otherwise it’s pretty much always the woman who carries the blame, even up to the present (I’m thinking of the film ‘Fatal Attraction’, for instance). I will also readily admit that my real life experience is limited. The people I know to whom it has happened were all good people in muddles, but experience is full of infinite variety and I’m sure there are many examples of the kind of thoughtlessness you talk about. Which is really sad, isn’t it?
    Name Witheld – You are more than welcome! And good luck with your work.
    Verbivore – oh yes indeed. Spending so long in academics I am constantly surprised by the void between what we are capable of figuring out and then what we are capable of achieving in reality. It was the problem that dogged Freud throughout his career and continues to inform all psychotherapy. It’s sort of depressing but at the same time, quite fascinating.

  11. “It’s sort of depressing but at the same time, quite fascinating.”
    I couldn’t agree more. Why do we have such conflicting capabilities? Aristotle talks about this in his Ethics, too – when we know what we should do but fail to do it, a self-defining human weakness.

  12. Your point about self-validation makes perfect sense to me — and also your point about marriage providing for many of our needs but not all of them, so we have an institution that is good in so many ways, but fails to take care of everything, and what it fails to take care of is incredibly tricky.

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