Just before Christmas in 2011, an Italian man named Antonio was looking through an old chest of drawers, and found a series of letters his wife Rosa had exchanged with her lover. He confronted her, she confessed, and he filed for divorce. This sort of thing, unfortunately, happens every day. What makes this case unusual is that the couple were both ninety-nine years old. They had been married for seventy-seven years. The affair took place in the 1940s. As this case shows, infidelity is a difficult thing to forgive.
If you found out your partner had cheated on you, would you be upset? I’m guessing the answer is yes. So why do you think you would you be angry? Let me try to guess . . . Because they made a promise to be faithful, and they broke their promise. And because they lied to you. A healthy relationship is based on trust, and it can’t survive without it. Dr Simon Longstaff of the St James Ethics Centre in Australia insists that the pain of infidelity results from broken trust rather than any particular physical act. “It comes down to a question of promise keeping,” he says.
Now let me tell you another story. (It’s true.) A man in Britain made a pact with his wife. They were both trying to lose weight, so they each pledged they would give up their favourite cookies so long as the other did the same. But he cheated. He continued to buy the cookies he loved, and ate them secretely, in the car outside the grocery store. However, one of the cookie packages had a contest for a free trip for two to the Bahamas, and he couldn’t resist entering. And he won. The company called his house to tell him the good news, and his wife answered. So they told her instead. And so she learned the whole truth.
He broke his promise, and he lied about it, just like the wife of the ninety-nine-year-old Italian man did. But in this case, she forgave him. The couple went on the trip together.
Now maybe some of you wouldn’t have been so forgiving. Because he had broken his promise and deceived you, you would have left him then and there. But I’m guessing most of you would have laughed it off, indeed probably even have been happy about it all because you came out ahead, with a free trip. And, if it happened to a friend, you’d think it was a bit odd if she did end an otherwise-happy marriage over an incident like that. The fact is, people break promises in relationships all the time. They pledge that they will work less hard and travel less, and then suddenly they get offered a a promotion and they accept it, even though it means longer hours and more travel. They also tell lies to their partner – about how much money they spent on their new golf clubs, for instance. These sorts of things may cause arguments, but they generally do much less damage than cheating does. Infidelity is the leading reason why couples separate. As the case of Antonio and Rosa shows, the sense of betrayal can be hard to overcome even after decades have passed. Even when the relationship survives, it is usually at the cost of much pain.
I’d like to make a bold suggestion. Whatever they may claim, what upsets most people about infidelity isn’t the broken promises or the lying. It’s the sex. In our society, we expect a sexual monopoly over our partner’s bodies, as the precondition for a lasting relationship. That’s a cold way of putting it. But I think it’s accurate, and I am somewhat puzzled why so many people seem to convince themselves of what we might call the contract theory of fidelity. On this theory, we should be faithful because we promised to be. But the contract theory can’t explain why sexual infidelity causes more pain than other forms of promise-breaking. And it presumes that the contract itself makes sense. Imagine we have a friend who loves classical music. He begins dating someone who is also passionate about it. Now imagine he declares to us that he has stopped listening to classical music since he has been in the relationship. When we ask why, he tells us that because his partner loves music as much as he does, they have agreed that each of them would stop listening so long as the other does. Such a pact would seem utterly insane.
I am not arguing that infidelity is no big deal. But I do think that we need some better account of the harm it causes than the contract one provides.
Note: I heard the story of the British couple and their cookies years ago on the CBC programme As It Happens, and now I am unable to find any specifics about it. If anyone has any more details, please let me know.
Image: Jan Massys, David and Bathsheba (1562)