Is infidelity good or bad for relationships?

Updated Wednesday, 12th September 2012
Meg Barker takes the arguments for infidelity one step further.

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Even elephants must confront the 'elephant in the room' Is infidelity good for relationships? The question comes off the back of the publication of a couple of recent books which make the argument that affairs can be very positive experiences for those who have them, and that it is our cultural attitude about infidelity that is the problem, rather than infidelity itself.

For example, in his latest book How to Think More About Sex, philosopher Alain de Botton argues that we must not underestimate how tempting and exhilarating affairs can be, nor how difficult it is to stay with one partner over our increasingly long life-spans. This is especially tough with all the (historically recent) pressure for genuine love and passionate sex to last through illness, children, conflicts, and all the other challenges that long term relationships face. Alain de Botton argues that: “spouses should not blame each other for occasional infidelities; instead they should feel proud that, for the most part, they have managed to remain committed to their union”.

He suggests that it takes immense patience and kindness not to sleep around and also not to end up hating one another.

In sociologist Catherine Hakim’s latest book The New Rules, she argues that high rates of marital breakdown can be linked to puritanical approaches to infidelity. She suggests that internet dating and ‘playfairs’ (recreational sex) could actually be a path to happier relationships, and certainly should not inevitably lead to break-up.

But what about honesty?

There is a lot to commend the fact that de Botton and Hakim are questioning the taken-for-granted rules which people have applied to relationships, pointing out the historical and cultural shifts which have left us with the current attitudes we have towards infidelity: that it is a terrible thing and should inevitably result in the end of the relationship.

However I’m surprised, when reading extracts from these books, that both authors seem content to accept, as taken-for-granted, that people must get married and that any additional relationship must take the form of a (sexual) affair. They question whether infidelity should always be viewed so negatively, but they don’t seem to seriously question whether there might be other ways of doing relationships which offer alternatives to the marriage plus secret affairs model.

As I mentioned on the programme, my major concern about infidelity is not the sex outside marriage/relationship issue, but rather the deception, secrecy and dishonesty involved. Occasionally affairs can be ‘good for relationships’, making them stronger. But when this happens it is generally because the affair forces the couple to start communicating about what they want, perhaps respecting that they each have some needs that can’t be met in a single relationship.

It seems to me that, rather than encouraging a more positive attitude to affairs, it would be better to encourage more open communication throughout the relationship, about all aspects of it.

Beyond monogamy

Such open communication would help because problems don’t only arise in relation to obvious infidelities (sexual relationships with other people). Research has demonstrated that most people in monogamous relationships do not talk up front about what they mean by monogamy, and that there are often quite major differences in their assumptions, which can cause serious problems when they come to light. For example, one person might be very close to an ex partner, and the other might think this is not okay. Or one person may feel that cybersex is not ‘real’ sex, whilst their partner thinks that it definitely is. There may be disagreements also around flirty behaviour or close friendships.

Of course there are also many groups now who are explicitly negotiating the rules around monogamy in their relationships. For example, in swinging, open relationships, polyamory, and in the ‘new monogamy’ or ‘monogamish’ relationships (which are somewhat open to emotional or sexual connections with people beyond a main couple). Some of these relationships involve a couple who have other sexual or emotional relationships, and others involve people having multiple relationships which are not couple-based at all.

In my book, Rewriting the Rules, I suggest that, whatever style of relationship people choose, it is useful to have conversations about where they stand on continua of emotional monogamy (from only having one close person in their lives to many) and sexual monogamy (for only have one sexual partner to having many).

Of course such conversations don’t stop people changing through their relationship, or making other connections which alter their feelings on these matters. The monogamy conversation (like the sex conversation, and the ‘what we want out of life’ conversation, and many others) needs to be an ongoing conversation throughout all our relationships.

This blog post is part of Society Matters. The blog seeks to inform, stimulate and challenge our understanding of this changing world and of our humbling role within it. Find out more about the blog and the team.
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Please note: The opinions expressed in Society Matters posts are those of the individual authors, and do not represent the views of The Open University.




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