For reasons better not discussed, the subject of marital infidelity has been on my mind lately. It’s something I have an unusually strong intolerance for.
Don’t get me wrong. My objection isn’t about religion and I couldn’t care less about saving anyone’s soul. I went out of the saving business years ago, after the last AMI victim I worked on as an EMT sank into asystole and died. And what happens to your immortal soul is between you and God, and none of my damned business.
But I’ve had two marriages destroyed by infidelity — I was the one cheated on, not the one cheating. Firsthand experience is a great teacher. I know the pain of the betrayal that’s like a knife in your heart. I know the stigma, the feeling when people look at you and whisper, “Well, no wonder.” I know how easy it is to blame yourself. I know the anguish and sisyphean effort required to climb out of that pit and reestablish some semblance of self-esteem. I know how hard it is to heal, to trust, and to love again. So I do harbor a terribly strong intolerance for infidelity, one forged in the fire of lasting pain and hammered into shape by repeated crushing blows to my soul.
A lot of people make what are to me ridiculous excuses for marital infidelity. They cheat because they feel something’s missing. They cheat because they feel ignored or betrayed in other ways. They cheat because their spouse is a jerk, a bum, a deadbeat, or a non-recovering alcoholic. These all strike me as good reasons for an urgent effort to repair a marriage. Some might even justify the end of a marriage. I don’t think any are grounds for betrayal or cheating. You’re either committed or you aren’t. There is no partial commitment.
It occurred to me as I turned things over and over in my mind that a marriage is not unlike a contract, with those vows we recite at the altar being like clauses in that contract. Love, honor, in sickness, in health, forsaking all others … in a marriage we expect all these things of each other.
But many complicated contracts are termed “severable.” I think marriage is kind of like that. I’m not a lawyer, and I have lawyer friends who will probably tell me I’m full of crap, but here’s how I understand that to work. If parties A and B have a severable contract that specifies several responsibilities of each party, and party A breaches one of those responsibilities, the others all remain in force. So if one spouse, for example, stops being a good financial provider, that’s not (at least, as far as I see it) license to go sleep with other people because with money went fidelity.
Why is it so difficult, when one is completely and irreconcilably unhappy in a marriage, to simply do the honorable thing and leave the marriage (get a divorce) before indulging oneself in extramarital affairs? I got kind of incensed a number of years ago by a very public example. Former journalist (I use the term loosely) Paula Zahn’s husband found out about her affair by discovering a book manuscript describing it in lurid detail.
Zahn was already wealthy, and would no doubt have become more so after the divorce. And she could certainly afford a lawyer and her own place to live. So why did she decide to go screw around while still married? I don’t understand how that sort of mind works. I do understand what it feels like to be that husband, though, and to find out the woman you’ve given your heart, soul, and life to has gone out and given her body and heart to someone else, without lifting a finger to do what’s right or utter a word of apology or regret.
Why is the idea of commitment, of honesty, of integrity, of just plain humanity so damned alien now? How do people do this? And — please remember this isn’t about religion or souls to me — but how can people who are trusted worship leaders somehow think that this kind of infidelity is okay, and parade it right out in public as though people should just consider it perfectly proper? Some of the very people who thump the Bible and consign homosexuals and transgender people to hell are the same ones we see having extramarital affairs and daring others to judge them.
And before anyone says it, YES, there are domestic abuse situations and they can be incredibly dangerous and complicated. But in general terms — if one considers it safe to go out and have an affair, shouldn’t it be just as safe, or more so, to leave and seek a divorce (and maybe a restraining order) before one goes looking for some strange? I don’t mean to be insensitive. I’ve known people in these situations.
I even helped a woman escape from an abusive marriage once. I was forced to physically confront a belligerent, angry spouse to prevent him attacking her as she gathered her things and left the home. I wasn’t the aggressor, but I held my ground. Neither of us men looked too good afterward, but she went safely to a women’s shelter, he went to jail, and I went home. And at no time did I become involved with the woman I helped. I sure as hell didn’t sleep with her. I wasn’t even married at the time.
I am fortunate. My wife is faithful to me. Even if I were to turn into the kind of jerk she absolutely couldn’t stand to be near, I have no doubt that she would do the right thing. I won’t find any manuscripts around the house describing her carnal activities with other men. I won’t find out about any affairs by hearing the whispers of complicit friends. I won’t come home to find her talking dirty to someone on the phone. I won’t get any phone calls from restaurants telling me that she left her purse there after her date. I won’t walk in on anything I never want to see. My wife is a caring human being.
Why can’t everyone aspire to that? It really depresses me that people are capable of such inhumanity. I know there are worse examples of man’s inhumanity to man in the world, but this one’s squarely in my discomfort zone.