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When Playboy Magazine featured pictures of Suzen Johnson, who was alleged to have had an affair with Frank Gifford, former NY Giant football star and Monday Night Football announcer at the time, I called a minister friend and teasingly told him he needed to get the issue and then preach a sermon on “Justifiable Adultery”, because if Gifford, or any other man passed up the supposed sexual overtures of that woman, he should be committed as certifiably crazy. She was extremely beautiful, voluptuous, and sensuous.
I was kidding about the adultery being justified on the basis of beauty and sensuality, since I don’t think that would necessarily or likely justify adultery, though it would explain the strong temptation any man might have felt for such a woman and would seem to excuse in the minds of many, even if mistakenly, his succumbing to it.
However, I do think there is such a thing as “justifiable adultery”, just as the concept of “justifiable homicide” is legitimate. Adultery is justified when sex with one’s spouse would be wrong (because, for example, the he or she did not want to have sex in the marriage) or is more than temporarily bad or insufficient but divorce also would be wrong, and when both adulterers understand and correctly accept the situation, and there is not something that would make sex be wrong between them even if it were not adulterous. What would make sex wrong between them are the same things that would make it wrong for any two people – lack of mutual consent, lack of willingness (and perhaps even just lack of interest) by at least one partner at the time, unwanted or otherwise wrong pregnancy, STD transmission, bad sex, bad emotional outcomes, mistaken expectations about oneself or the other person, “using” the other person, taking advantage of one person’s temporary circumstances or mental state, immaturity of at least one partner whether by age (i.e., a minor) or mental defect, cheating on a person who doesn’t deserve to be cheated on (i.e., mere philandering – and I include in this even cheating on a partner one is not married to but is supposed to be, promised to be, or understood to be sexually exclusive with, or having sex with someone one knows is in such an exclusive relationship with someone else), etc.
According to an entry in Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adultery):
The application of the term to the act appears to arise from the idea that "criminal intercourse with a married woman ... tended to adulterate the issue [children] of an innocent husband ... and to expose him to support and provide for another man's [children]". Thus, the "purity" of the children of a marriage is corrupted, and the inheritance is altered. The law often uses the word "adulterate[d]" to describe contamination of food and the like.
[In case those links to the citations are no longer available, 5 refers to Evans v. Murff, 135 F. Supp. 907, 911 (1955). And 6 refers to “E.g., U.S. Code, Title 21, Chapter 1: Adulterated or Misbranded Foods or Drugs.”]
However, extramarital sex (or cheating on any partner, as I am considering it here) is adultery whether or not it results or even if it cannot possibly result in pregnancy (as in the cases of infertility or kinds of sex that do not include vaginal intercourse). And adultery (or cheating) can result in other harms to the person betrayed as well. It can unfairly expose a faithful partner to STD’s and can cause emotional hurt, if known about, even when it does not result in pregnancy. And with DNA testing today, inheritance and child support laws could be constructed to reflect actual paternity, not just paternity assumed through marriage. Now, I say adultery can unfairly expose a faithful partner to STD’s, to distinguish that from exposure to STD’s from any non-marital sex whereby each person should know that they are taking a risk of contracting an STD if they have sex with the other person. To some extent, even married people should realize there is a risk of contracting an STD from a spouse, but it is perhaps unreasonable or less reasonable to have marital sex with that assumption, thus requiring protection against disease transmission, than with sex outside of an exclusive relationship. Or perhaps it is not unreasonable or less reasonable. At any rate, it seems to me unfair to expose a committed partner to an STD one does not know one has, but not quite so unfair to expose a partner who ought for sure to be taking precautions against it. And if one knows one has an STD, then it is unfair to expose anyone to it.
In Matthew 5:28, Jesus says whoever looks at a woman with lust has committed adultery in his heart. Presumably that would be true of any married woman who lusts after a man as well. But committing adultery in one’s heart seems to be a far cry from committing it in reality, and I will not consider mere lust without actual sex of any sort other than in one’s own fantasy to be adultery here.
Also in Mark 10: 11-12, Jesus says that remarriage after divorce is adultery, but Christianity interprets that in different ways (see http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2000/augustweb-only/48.0c.html) which seem to allow for valid divorce and remarriage or for annulment (in cases that seem tantamount to divorce except in some sort of tortured legalism) and remarriage without its being adultery. I will presume here that there are some legitimate grounds for divorce and remarriage, such as at least serious physical abuse(and possibly consistent emotional abuse) and abandonment (certainly physically in the sense of leaving, but perhaps also even emotionally through lack of communication or other signs of withdrawal) by the other partner.
Now marriage is a serious commitment, and serious commitments should not be broken lightly. But they can be overridden, though determining legitimate overriding criteria requires sound reasoning. In my book The Meaning of Love, I argue that sexual desire is not, or should not be, the main basis for either love or marriage, and I will point out here that bad sex or lack of sex, particularly when either is only temporary, is not sufficient grounds for divorce for a marriage which has other aspects of commitment unrelated to sex – such as raising children or having committed to combined economic interests that would be difficult or too damaging to untangle or having other obligations or a desire to take care of one’s partner’s health and (non-sexual) physical needs. But for those people for whom divorce would be wrong but to whom sex is very important, a marriage vow of fidelity should not then be a contractual consignment to a permanent future of unwanted celibacy or a life sentence to unsatisfactory sex or to physical or emotional mistreatment that is uncivil or abusive to the limits of endurance. Even if divorce based on bad behavior or on no sex or insufficient good sex would be wrong or too difficult, that should not make adultery necessarily wrong, in those cases, as explained above, where the sex itself between the adulterers would not be wrong if it were not adultery. Adultery of course does not make otherwise wrongful sex be right, but it should also not make otherwise rightful sex be wrong. And in the case of a totally or virtually sexless marriage, it seems strange to me even to call an extra-marital sexual affair “adultery” or “cheating”, since one is not in a sexual relationship from which one is straying. It is not clear to me why a spouse should have a right exclusively to sex which they are not having. I don’t see why one has a right to deny a partner sex both inside and outside the marriage; pick one maybe, but not both.
There seem to be only four possible solutions to a marriage that has unsatisfying, insufficient, or no sex: 1) divorce, 2) adultery, 3) enduring a lifetime of unsatisfactory sex or celibacy, or 4) forcing, coercing, or requiring one’s partner to meet one’s sexual needs. The last option would be not only a form of slavery, but would at best serve physical needs of one partner, and not likely providing any emotional intimacy if that were desired. It would seem to be the worst option, and would in many cases be tantamount to rape. Where divorce does little permanent damage to innocent people, it seems to be the best option, but even then it still breaks the wedding vow every bit as much as infidelity does. And if one holds (as some religions do) that the marriage vow ought to be absolutely inviolate, then it is not a viable solution to a sexless marriage. Marriage should then have to be a circumstance where one has made one’s bed to lie in but only to sleep, be ill, or convalesce. It seems hardly fair or right to require people to do without satisfactory sex for sixty or seventy years because they took a vow when they were twenty to have sex only with their spouse, neither knowing nor having any reason to suspect that would not be good and would subject them to a life of misery. It is a naïve, often hormonally aided, vow made without truly or meaningfully fully informed consent. At the very least, it should have a statute of limitations or require periodic renewal or at least mutual acquiescence without which it automatically expires unless one of the partners is in a coma or mentally incapacitated and the other partner wishes to stay married and try to take care of them, particularly if the condition is temporary or might be temporary, and the partner is willing or wanting to wait it out.
While there are many works of fiction that, for different reasons, portray adultery as acceptable or even good, such as Robert Anderson’s Silent Night, Lonely Night, Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, and Bernard Slade’s Same Time Next Year, the story of Jan and Barry Petersen seems to be a real life case. They were both reporters for CBS News, but she developed early-onset Alzheimer’s at a relatively young age, and eventually had to be in assisted living, and he put her in a very nice assisted living facility in Denver. He visited her often and she would talk about her marriage and how wonderful her husband had been, not knowing that is to whom she was talking. She did not recognize him. Eventually he developed a relationship with another woman, while his wife was still alive but was not really the woman he had married and with whom he could not have any real marital relationship other than to be sure she was well cared for. There was no telling how long her life would last in that condition, and when CBS reported his and her story, I could not fault him for having found another woman to be his companion, sometimes, if I recall correctly, going with him to visit his wife as additional company for her.
In The Meaning of Love, I also made a distinction between rational jealousy and irrational jealousy. The former is disappointment and hurt over one’s mate’s spending time or having enjoyment with someone else that s/he should have been spending time or doing with you; and the latter being upset with them over enjoying an activity with someone else that in no way detracts from their relationship with you. I think that adultery can involve either or both rational and irrational jealousy. A classic fictional case of its being irrational is writer and director Agnes Varda’s film Le Bonheur, in which a young, contentedly married carpenter with two small children begins to have an affair with another woman, and it turns out that in his happiness with the affair, he becomes an even better, happier, more attentive husband and father. He wants to share his joy about his lover with his wife but, of course, doesn’t – until she one day comments how wonderful and loving he has been in particular the last few months. And he then tells her his secret, which she seems to accept, but which in fact devastates her. Within a short time she drowns herself. He is heartbroken.
My point here is that even irrational jealousy, let alone rational jealousy, can cause great suffering, so adultery is a real moral concept and issue, not just a legal or religious one. It is easy to see that in days when men (and even women) did not by and large understand female sexuality and men did not likely sexually satisfy women, that for men to have sex with their wives, they had to coerce them in some way into believing it was right for women to have sex with their husbands and with only their husbands. So it is easy to see that insofar as religious rules were selfishly promulgated by men in the name of a God who would punish disobedient wives, that adultery would be forbidden and submission to husbands, required. Similarly, for millennia, wives were essentially legal property of their husband’s without many legal rights or economic ways to survive on their own because of laws that made it almost impossible. However, as just pointed out, male domination of law and religion does not explain away the actual morality of adultery, which can be wrong even when men cheat, though some religions and societies condoned male cheating as long as it is not with a woman who is married to another man. There can be a cost to adultery in purely human terms and physical and emotional consequences even when paternity is not involved.
However, some people do not deserve to have the bad emotional consequences for them count toward making adultery by their partner wrong. In those cases where someone is unjustifiably physically abusive (particularly on more than one occasion or with a propensity toward violence) or is consistently emotionally abusive toward a spouse held captive by legal, economic, or other circumstances beyond their control, and essentially drives their mate into the arms of someone sensitive and caring, the abusive partner has forfeited the right to have his or her hurt feelings weigh against the adultery enough to make it wrong. This is not to say that adultery is therefore right; emotional support does not necessarily require sex. But for those circumstances where sex is important or necessary to provide a stable emotional intimacy that is needed, it is reasonably justifiable, or at least defensible or excusable. No one should have to go through life without love or affection just because they are trapped in a bad relationship from which extrication makes, or would make, their life definitively even worse. Unless there are means available to prevail without affection during a bad marriage, separation and/or after divorce, adultery to fill a significant emotional void should be at least understandable and pardonable, if not simply outright justifiable in the first place. It is not a sign of weakness not to wish for nor accept undeserved self-sacrifice or martyrdom.
Perhaps the more difficult cases are those where one partner is capable of loving more than one person at a time and their mate is not and cannot understand how that is possible. If the mate is a deserving person and has done nothing wrong that justifies cheating on them, that puts the mate who loves someone else along with them in a bind that pits one person’s feelings against another’s and/or that causes a conflict between breaking a vow or denying oneself (or one’s mate) something very important to them. If there were no jealousy or if everyone understood that someone could love more than one person at a time, including sexually, the moral conflict would not arise.
Now clearly 1) people can love more than one person at a time, just as one can love all one’s children or both of one’s parents, and clearly 2) people can love more than one person at different times – serial monogamy. In Aaron Sorkin’s movie The American President, Michael Douglas as Andrew Shepherd, a widower in the eponymous role, says in a moving speech near the end of the film “I've loved two women in my life. I lost one to cancer, and I lost the other 'cause I was so busy keeping my job I forgot to do my job.” He is in part defending his relationship with Sydney Ellen Wade, played by Annette Bening, and in part defending a bill important to her that he is going to send to Congress. The part I am interested in is that in saying he has loved two women in his life, one of whom died long before he met the other, no one thinks ill of him. And in real life, if someone were to say that they have been fortunate enough to have had the love of two wonderful people in their life, one of whom died before the speaker met the other, particularly long before, that is considered beautiful and poignant. However, if a man were to make such a statement at an event honoring him, and point to his wife and to his mistress at the same time, he would probably be considered despicable; similarly if a woman said the same sort of thing about loving two men.
Now surely part of the difference between loving more than one person at a time and loving more than one person but only at different times in one’s life is that in the former case, one has to divide one’s time and energy between (or among) one’s loves unless the relationship is communal or openly bigamous or polygamous, whereas in serial monogamy, one can fully devote one’s time and energy to one’s exclusive partner. But not all relationships require so much time and energy that there is neither to spare for another person. And if neither partner requires exclusivity, the time and energy problem will not likely arise any more than it does for a parent trying to spend time and energy with all his/her children or dividing his or her time among the children and the spouse. There will be occasional conflicts of time and energy, of course, but, if it is psychologically possible, accepting and trying to work around those conflicts in mutually satisfying and beneficial ways seems far more preferable than denying a whole relationship just to avoid the occasional difficulty.
When such acceptance is psychologically impossible, then one is in a bind, or one is putting one’s mate in a bind between honoring loyalty to the first partner and having meaningful sexual experiences in another significant relationship. That is a bind which seems fair only to those who cannot understand having sexual attraction within a loving relationship to more than one person at a time. The ideal solution would be for jealousy not to occur, but human nature thwarts that – and sometimes for good reason, because in many cases, loving a new person will cause alienation of affection toward the first partner. Sometimes people cannot continue loving two people at the same time. In some cases, not all, discreet adultery might be morally justified or excusable; and in some cases, not all, it might be unjustified even if possibly excusable or at least understandable. These are probably the most difficult moral conflicts about adultery or cheating. I don’t have a satisfactory principle for deciding them automatically. But I don’t think it should be assumed that fidelity is always the right character trait to uphold. The fictional stories of Le Bonheur, Doctor Zhivago, Same Time Next Year, and Silent Night, Lonely Night make a good case for adultery, but so do factual cases of the sort they portray, where love is strong toward more than one person, and time and opportunity permit love for both to flourish. Or take the case portrayed in the movie Castaway which depicts a situation that seems to be serial monogamy but turns out to be simultaneous love because the protagonist is not dead. Is the wife’s having to choose between her first and second husband in a situation like that really fair to her?
Finally, it seems to me that sexual mores should not be respected if, or just because, they are promulgated only by people with low libidos. People with no or low sex drives should not be able to set the standards, based only on their own personal lack of interest, for how much sex is right or with whom or under what conditions. That does not mean that philandering libertines have any more right to set the standards either. Sex is an appetite, so its strength at any given time is one factor, but only one, in determining whether sex is right at that time. The overall ethical justification of any sex, including adultery, needs to take into account all morally relevant factors. Most often today that does not occur.