Affairs? Politicians? Never! Why does it matter so much to the public when politicians have affairs? Is it because the straying behaviour of those in the public eye draws into relief the temptations faced by people in committed relationships? Are we outraged when other people have affairs — or are we jealous? Why do we ask tough questions of people sprung having affairs — and not of those in apparently stable relationships? Why does infidelity always get framed as a great big mistake? Why has there been such a rise in traffic on dating sites for married people?
You know that awkward silence that can fall after someone asks a lot of curly questions. That’s what happened in the newmatilda.com office when we tried to figure out why pollies having sex drives traffic. So we called in the News Therapist and unfortunately, she seemed to suggest that it’s us, not them…
Adele Carles, after being forced by her party into a public confession of her affair with Troy Buswell, tells us that she and Troy made a "stupid" but consensual adult decision. Why is it that sex outside of a committed relationship is so often described as an error of judgment? Are affairs always a matter of addiction or impulsivity?
Since Bill Clinton’s confession, public apologies for adultery have been characterised by regret; not only about the sexual acts themselves, but about the personal failure to make the "right" decision in the face of temptation. We appear to have an endless fascination with sexual transgression as well as a generally punitive response to those who are caught "cheating". Partly this is an adaptive response to dishonesty. Why should we trust a liar? If they’ve lied to their partners, why shouldn’t we question their integrity?
And yet there is more than just a response to a loss of integrity here. I think we may be compelled by sexual transgression because the "rules" governing our own sexuality are more magical thinking than real lived experience.
When we’re in a monogamous relationship and we meet someone we’re attracted to, someone else, it’s an incredible challenge. On a brain level, neuroscientists have examined temptation and decision-making using MRI technology that allows us to view which areas of the brain are active and in dialogue when we’re making difficult decisions. (See here for clear and interesting descriptions of some of these experiments.)
In part, our ability to resist temptation rests with our capacity to both remember our past experiences and to envision our future goals and desires. This is not a particularly rational process; it involves our dreams, emotions and felt sense as well. Willpower is never more than a momentarily effective strategy, as anyone who has ever kicked an addiction knows.
To resist temptation we also need to be able to bear the feelings that come up when there is no more anaesthetic. To do this we need to know what we are working towards, not just what we are avoiding. This is why that jar you can see the money piling up in can help with the Herculean task of quitting smoking: it reminds you that something bigger and better is on the horizon and that it’s not worth risking for the momentary pleasure of a cigarette.
Our acculturated beliefs about love and commitment can also be severely tested by lust outside of monogamy. If I’m with the right person now, how can I be feeling such a strong attraction? Most of us committed to our partners under circumstances where we had eyes for no other. Maybe when we couldn’t even imagine lusting after anyone else. So when we do, a whole unspoken tenet of that contract comes unravelled. Marriage vows often state commitment "in sickness and in health" — but not "in the face of weak-kneed lust for another person".
A good friend describes this process as the Myth of Genital Morphing. It is the fairytale process that transforms the impassioned and genitally correct bodies of two committed lovers into the smooth beige groins of Barbie and Ken as soon as they cross the magical threshold of the domestic castle.
The challenge presented when we desire another person also poses a challenge to our belief systems about sex, love and romance. We can either take the challenge and face it — or we can run from it, and adjust our lives or the story to fit the old precious beliefs. When we run from this challenge, we tell the world the part of the story about hurt and regret, and we leave out the passion and the feeling of being more alive in the world. We say we were silly, stupid, addicted. We leave out that we were also horny, smitten and loving.
We need to create a meaning for sexuality in our lives and we need to find this ourselves; both alone and with any of our partners. This process of meaning making allows us to make sense of our own sexual and romantic feelings, and to face our own responsibility for sexual pleasure. In monogamous marriages, it also means coming to terms with the fact that as Dossie Easton says in The Ethical Slut, "a ring around the finger does not cause a nerve block to the genitals".
There is a kind of bad faith about many of our justifications for monogamy. I don’t want to be the husband of the woman who says casually to a friend over lunch "I’m so glad I’m not out there dating anymore". Who wants to be the safe bet? I also don’t want to be the wife of a man who sees our relationship as "work" and her affair as "wrong". Why can’t we have some "wrong" in our relationship too? It can be hard to make room for the wilder side of our sexual selves in committed relationships. Too often we get caught up in the pursuit of a kind of safety that is more parental than passionate.
Instead of jumping to the conclusion that an affair means our relationships are in trouble, can we explore the possibility, as polyamorists do, that the expectation to love one person at a time may not be the way forward?
We make a choice when we enter into a commitment to love one person at a time. But sometimes, instead of making active choices, we make passive ones. We may let the explosion of a discovered affair force us to have another go at putting the pieces back together in a different way. Sexuality is still so governed by fear and repression, that like all things we’re afraid of, we want to diagnose and contain it as soon as possible. We close up the boxes of our sexual feelings with labels like "addict" and "fear of commitment", "slut" and "compulsive".
I don’t deny that our sexual behaviour can cause us and those we love enormous pain. Lying, violence and lack of care and respect are all devastating. But our own pain and fear of pain do not give us the right to control another’s behaviour. We can only be as honest as we can about what we desire and what we can bear. As David Schnarch says in his book Passionate Marriage, we can’t simply communicate our way out of sexual trouble in a relationship. Passion is inherently linked to being more who we really are. Compromise is an instant passion killer.
For most of us, the confrontation with our own sexual truth can be liberating and transcendent — but it is not without pain and loss. We may lose a partner to another because they no longer desire us. We may lose respect because our choices are seen as weak or sinful by our communities. I’m about to celebrate my 20th wedding anniversary, which in this culture inspires admiration and celebration. It also means that I need to face the question Is this the last person I’ll ever have sex with? Ouch.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.