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The cheating heart

By Wendy McElroy
web posted February 10, 2003

Adultery is in the news again due to the murder-by-Mercedes trial of Clara Harris, who allegedly ran over her adulterous husband three times after discovering him with another woman.

What is adultery? How many of us "cheat," why is it wrong, and what should be done about it?

These questions can be lost in the blaze of emotions surrounding discussion of adultery. Even staunch advocates of traditional values -- such as "Thou shalt not kill" -- seem to lose their compass. For example, WorldNetDaily's staunchly Christian Joseph Farah writes of Harris: "Free her and let her be an example to every cheating husband and wife in America. There is a price to pay. Sometimes it's the ultimate price."

For most people, the death penalty for adultery sounds too much like Arabic laws that call for stoning scarlet women.

If only because of its impact on families, the issue of adultery is too important to obscure with gut reactions.

What is adultery? Former President Bill Clinton didn't help the definition by convincing the gullible Monica Lewinsky that oral sex wasn't really adultery. Consider another definition. Adultery is consensual sex between a married person and partner other than his or her spouse. It carries an implication of dishonesty because, if the spouse knows, then the correct term to apply is probably "open marriage."

How prevalent is adultery? Who knows? Hard statistics on marriage and divorce are easy to come by because people have to file papers, but no one has to register an affair. Even scientifically conducted studies are speculative because they depend upon subjects being honest about incredibly personal and explosive areas of their lives.

Some reliable studies say that a minority of people "cheat." For example, the Janus Report on Sexual Behavior (1993) found that, "More than one-third of men and one-quarter of women admit having had at least one extramarital sexual experience."

In a sense, it doesn't matter if such estimates are accurate or wildly conservative. Most people have lied or stolen something in their lifetimes. That doesn't make deceit and theft laudable or their lifestyle. All it says is that human beings are fallible and likely to make a few bad mistakes.

Which leads to "What is wrong about adultery?" If everyone involved agrees, including spouses, then affairs may or may not violate morality, but there is no betrayal and, perhaps, no harm.

That scenario doesn't describe most affairs.

Typically, marriage is based on an explicit understanding of monogamy: This means that the deceived spouse is lied to and betrayed.

Such an affair is not merely immoral, it is an act of fraud and a breach of contract. The defrauded spouse acts in the belief that the marriage contract is being honored. He or she makes life-defining decisions and incurs obligations based on the contract: having children, buying a home, taking a particular job, sharing income, making mutual investments. The adulterous spouse reaps the benefits of the marriage contract while violating its terms.

What should be done about adultery?

Legally speaking, it should not merely be grounds for divorce, as it often is now, but also a determining factor in the divorce settlement. Anyone who breaches a contract should pay a penalty.

On a personal level ... don't do it.

If you do commit adultery, then have the courage to be honest about it. Take responsibility and don't hide behind excuses like "it just happened." Ending up naked in a motel room with someone isn't an act cloaked in mystery. Nor does lying about adultery "just happen." These are conscious choices that result from a string of other decisions leading up to the affair, such as flirting, exchanging phone calls and having clandestine meetings. If you don't want sex to "just happen," then don't lay the necessary groundwork.

If a friend is having an affair, try to reason him or her into either breaking it off or coming clean at home. At the very least, express disapproval.

If you find out that a friend of yours is the betrayed party, then tell him or her about the affair, but only after giving the cheating spouse a fair chance to do so first. Don't give your moral sanction and co-operation to an act of fraud by keeping quiet. You wouldn't silently watch as a friend stole money or was stolen from. Don't tolerate the equally vicious dishonesty of adultery.

One of the reasons our society winks at adultery is because we romanticize it as forbidden fruit. Novels such as The Bridges of Madison County throw an idealistic glow around infidelity. Fair-weather friends eagerly ask for "details." Magazines blame the betrayed spouse for not keeping the "spark" alive. But there is nothing romantic about lying, sneaking and betraying trust. There is nothing ideal about destroying families with children.

We should stop winking and look adultery straight in the eye. In doing so, it will be revealed as an ugly phenomenon that good marriages need not fear.

Marriages are not determined by statistics or the surveys found in women's glossy magazines, all of which seem to be entitled "How to Know If He's Wandering." Shut the magazine. You and your spouse are in control, not Cosmopolitan. You are the adults in the family ... the ones upon which your children depend.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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