Sunday, 24 May 2015

Can marriage survive an adultery?

When a friend recently challenged me with this question, “why can’t a man love two women at the same time? he started me thinking about whether it is possible to mentally compartmentalize monogamy and adultery so that they co-exist in a state of enduring marital bliss. Can we be faithful to two women without being unfaithful to anyone of them? Can modern marriages appreciate "multiple monogamous liaisons" without resorting to such judgmental labels like “He cheats” or “He's unfaithful” or "He can't be trusted"?

The reality is that my friend can’t leave his mistress. Or he can’t live without her.  At the same time, he can’t leave his wife either. He is in a bind. He's mentally torn. And to live without one is as good as to live without the other. He is haunted by the marriage vows and his own conscience of betrayal. So, he starts to re-shuffle the cards of marital morality, to justify his horned dilemma.

In a Playboy magazine interview in 1976, former President Jimmy Carter once made this very candid admission: “I try not to commit a deliberate sin. I recognize that I’m going to do it anyhow, because I’m human and I’m tempted. And Christ set some almost impossible standards for us. Christ said, “I tell you that anyone who looks on a woman with lust has in his heart already committed adultery…I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times. This is something that God recognizes I will do – and I have done it – and God forgives me for it.

Are the two key words in that unembellished confession “I'm human?” And are we being un-human when we project the image that we (men and women) are 100% faithful when the same is an “almost impossible standards for us”? I always wonder, are some of us living in delusional monogamy? Aren't we at some point in our marriage guilty of emotional or mental betrayal (putting physical adultery aside)?

I read that some cheating spouses even go out of their way to religiously placate their conscience by engaging in contorted definitions of adultery. To them, it is not adultery if you are doing it on a holiday or if it is a beach fling. Or if it happens when two strangers meet on a road trip or in a conference overseas. What happens in the conference stays in the conference right? It is not infidelity if the sex is driven by pure lust (as a dispassionate outlet) and no profession of love is involved during the act; or if it is paid for after an arm's length negotiation for a fair price or it is a toilet or hotel quickie. For Bill Clinton, it is not sex if there's no intercourse; so, the legal impeachment charge should fail on a technicality.

Neither is it adultery when you engage in some harmless flirting in Second Life or sign up in a social medial platform as a wife/mistress to some stranger-friend in a country whose name you can’t even pronounce. Some may even say that sexual fantasies do not count even when you are having wet dreams on the same bed where your wife sleeps. There is no physical penetration – “It’s all in the mind!” For the same reason, masturbating in the bathroom to the humping of your secretary on your office table doesn’t count too. It is all meaningless mind-sex to release some male hormonal angst, that’s all. Be open minded please!

There is even a wayward couple I read about who would undress themselves and sleep on the same bed with no physical contact just so that they could tell themselves that they are not an adulterous pair. Of course, it was only a matter of time when the no-touch rule turned into a touch-but-no-intercourse rule and then it became a touch-and-intercourse-but-must-confess-your-sin rule. And if such illicit liaisons are done with repeated regularity, the confession part becomes a form of ritual cleansing to whitewash one’s conscience so that the guilty pair can return to their self-righteous world of judgment and admonishment.

A psychoanalytic psychotherapist Brett Kahr once made this observation – the truth of which would be too taboo-ed to be admitted in public: “Many people are secretly aroused by the fact that there has been or is a third person in the bedroom. From clinical practice I know that many people will masturbate to thoughts of their spouse with the other partner and that has a multitude of meanings depending on their particular biographical histories. Some have complicated contra-sexual identifications with the male spouse, say, being excited by the idea of another penis being in his wife’s body. That can be an unconscious means of engaging in homosexual behavior, knowing that your penis and his penis were very close by in the same location.” 

Isn’t that part about “aroused by…a third person in the bedroom” some bizarre form of being faithful (having sex with your spouse) by being unfaithful (but fantasizing about another at the same time)? Alas, there is always an exception to the penalty of adultery, and that exception is the one committing the act.

So, are most of us suffering from delusional monogamy? Maybe the marriage vows - like Christ’s definition of adultery - are “some impossible standards” that are beyond our reach and the only thing forbidden about the forbidden fruit is that we are forbidden to resist it. This gives an ironic twist to the saying, “We help ourselves (to adultery) because we can’t help ourselves.

Putting the fungible self-serving definitions of adultery aside – I mean, whatever floats your love boat right? – I guess there are many reasons why we commit adultery. It is said that adultery is the most creative of sins (Anthony Burgess). One of the oft-repeated reasons is that it allows us to escape from the mundaneness or ennui of marital life (especially at a time when the wife is pregnant for the third time and the intractable children have completed their domestic coup d’-etat of the household). Infidelity allows one to live up his fantasy without limits. It is like being invited to the equivalent of Tomorrowland where you are the author and finisher of whatever that your lust fancies or serves up.

Here are other reasons for adultery as surmised by one author: “While every affair and relationship is unique there do seem to be common triggers. Affairs are often provoked by boredom, loneliness, depression, marital unhappiness and the need to spice up the ordered predictability of life with the exhilarating edge of danger. Infidelity can be motivated by childhood insecurity, anger, hate or revenge for some other marital crime. An affair can be a powerful weapon of abuse or an effective means of injecting distance into a relationship when we feel trapped, failed or unable to meet each other’s every need. We can find it so hard dealing with one person that we decide to complicate things still further by getting involved with two.” (Kate Figes, Our Cheating Hearts)

Just as we are getting more creative in our definition of adultery (thanks to the internet), we are also more intolerant of the commission of the seventh commandment. This is not a good sign trust me. Our intolerance is a result of the ideals of monogamy (the flipside of which is delusional monogamy because no one is ever lust-free). Somehow, a couple enter into holy matrimony with incredibly high expectations. They expect their partner to be unswervingly loyal and to remain that way come hell and high waters. He only has erection for me and no one else! They live their life the same way they live their marriage, planned to the very last detail, well-ordered and neatly formatted, and everything just have to be perfect. Imagine two imperfect individuals coming together in a lifetime marital stitch expecting a perfect mutual fit.

They are so hung up on the concept of soulmate that they have forgotten the humanness of their other half (and themselves). Some are so paranoid and insecure that a whiff of marital disloyalty can derail the best of explanation and intention. Their marriage is built upon the house of cards of unrealistic expectations.

As such, their idea of marriage is not practically armed or equipped to withstand the storm of infidelity. It is too idealistic, pristine and sanitized to allow for even an extramarital stain to destroy the white-washed edifice of monogamy. And should it happen, the indignity and humiliation (and shock) would be so unbearable that they can’t think of anything else but the D-word.

One author, Tim Parks, writes, “In this finely managed, career structured world we’ve worked so hard to build, with its automatic gates and hissing lawns, its comprehensive insurance policies, divorce remains one of the few catastrophes we can reasonably expect to provoke, offering a truly spectacular shipwreck. Oh to do some serious damage at last!” 

Mind you, I am not encouraging adultery here - not even by a long long shot. However, I am dealing with the aftermath of it, that is, "What to do when it happens to you?" (It is definitely not a case of "you should tempt yourself with it").

But the irony is that due to our pornified culture, erotic opportunities abound everywhere you go. Temptation is just an office colleague, a sex-phone call, or a virtual-world pornographic click away. Undoubtedly, the world has become more visually sexualized and modesty like virginity is considered a relic of the past (even frowned upon as prudes). We are seeing more cleavages, exposed thighs, seductive curves, open flirting, promiscuity amongst youths, bedroom scenes in movies, and liberal sexual mores in society (for more satisfying violent sexual gore, watch Game of Thrones). Teenage girls are no longer embarrassed or disgusted with wet kissing, heavy petting and sex scenes on television series or sitcom episodes.

Our liberal values have become more desensitized to sexual immodesty. We are no doubt more enlightened but I can’t say that we are more sure of what is right or wrong anymore. In fact, our modern values are more attuned to serving our individual tastes and satisfaction and the only person we have to please is ourselves.

For this reason, the self comes first, whether in our social environment or in the context of marriage.  And pleasure is the name of the game. Thus, good sex has become the hallmark of a good marriage (or a marriage worth holding to). And when the sex between couple has lost its luster, so goes the wandering mind scouring for other more exciting (and fresh) sexual diversions. As such, some men will inevitably stray just as a cotton tweed wore long enough will fray. And when they do, their ideal of marriage comes completely undone. The marital house of cards comes tumbling down – so to speak. In other words, the marriage is too anemic to bounce back up again. It is too pristine to be resilient. It is a one-strike-and-you-are-out mentality and we are too paralyzed to look beyond the betrayal for life after adultery. Can marriage then survive an adultery (esp. when couples are so blinded by the ideals of monogamy)?

At the start of this discussion, I mentioned about a friend of mine who loved two women and can’t live without either. He must have both because they satisfy him in different ways. One of them he adores at work for working so well with him and the other he loves at home for being his marital partner by public acknowledgment. Coincidentally, I knows his wife too. 

I recall that we talked about how she would react to the news of her husband’s infidelity. It was then just a harmless hypothetical discussion. She said that she would leave him. There was not even a moment’s hesitation about it. She said she cannot imagine a future with an unfaithful spouse. “He’s damaged goods,” she said deadpan. I then asked whether it would make any difference if he was repentant and assured her that he would cut off all ties with his mistress. I detected a pregnant pause before she replied, “I can’t see myself forgiving him.”

I guess the situation would be different when the hypothesis becomes heartbreaking reality – especially when there are young children involved and when the marriage is reasonably long and well-established. In the past, I have dealt with many divorces and I realized that the marriage was long dead before they came to me to end it. The emotional divorce (even in the absence of physical adultery) always precedes legal divorce. The point here is this, whether the couple’s sacred union can be saved when both parties still love each other enough to want to save it.

Of course, if the betraying party wants the cake and eat it, then the marriage is effectively over as it takes two to tango. But if one is truly repentant and the other is willing to forgive, I sincerely believe that no effort should be spared to save the union. There is life after adultery and a better life together even. Most times, it takes robust imagination between the parties to see a future together rather than to focus on the unchangeable past or wallow in the unbearable present.

Although every affair needs to be talked about with honesty and understanding, the one forgiving will have to look forward to a fresh new start and the one receiving the forgiveness will have to win the trust back and not expect the recovery to be an overnight affair (pun unintended). The pain will always linger and time doesn’t always completely heal the wound. It only makes it less biting and intense when it comes to its recollection. The memory of it will still bring about a dull ache as time passes on.

In the end, the couple will have to shed the ideals of monogamy (or delusion of monogamy) and be honest with each other. A marriage is about two imperfect lives joined together to confront the unpredictable and unknown – especially considering their weaknesses in the onslaught of temptation - and not two lives hoping for everything to run by some clockwork-precision event-planning. We all have our needs, physical or sexual, and although a marriage is not about having great sex, it is nevertheless about physical closeness for the purpose of intimacy and mutual growth. And this physical closeness can be an enduring kiss, a timely hug, a playful teasing in bed, a long embrace to lull each other to sleep, or a conjugal intertwining. At most times, sex – especially the 50-shades kind – can be so empty and overrated. It is also transient and superficial.

Author, Susan Cheever, once wrote this about great sex, “With a husband…, there is the delicious certainty that pleasure will be both given and received…Sex feels like a series of shared secrets, a passage through a maze leading to the most wonderful feelings available to human beings. With a long term partner, I can relax. He is not surprised by the moles on my back, nor is he self-conscious about the hair on his shoulder.” Lust should therefore bow out for love and not overwhelm love.

So there is definitely life after adultery and many couples grow even stronger after that. Many admit that their sex life is never better. Their passion is more genuine. Their understanding is deepened. Their trust restored. They do not take each other for granted as they now treasure the second chance given by one and received by the other. And it is true that a wound that has healed may leave an ugly scar, but it also tells a beautiful story of personal redemption, enduring hope, and a commitment that is prepared to fall in love with the same person over and over again. This time, it is really for a lifetime. Cheerz.

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