Every country in the world knows that there is such a thing as romantic love, but in the most cultures and throughout history, that is not an emotion that was celebrated especially in conjunction with marriage.
In ancient India falling in love was considered as dangerous, antisocial and a challenge to the family. In ancient China, the traditional word for love, meant an “illness, a socially disapproved relationship”. In the European tradition, most of our conventions about romantic love are inherited from the originators of courtly love in southern France. But their idea of love was something that could not possibly exist within marriage.
Until the 18th Century the word “Love” was used much more often for neighbours, “keen” (to wail in grief for a dead person) and God, than it was used for spouses. It was not until the late 18th century that what we now think about the essence of love in marriage became respectable to encourage people to make their own choices....
The upper class used marriage to seal military alliances, to design peace treaties, to consolidate their wealth and to increase their claim to social power. For the middle classes it was business alliances, and a way of getting connected in-laws, and even for the lower classes it was a way of expanding families.
For thousands of years marriage was just much too important to leave it up to individual choice and especially if it was based on something so irrational as the feeling of love.
People married for property, for status, for legitimate offspring, they didn’t marry for anything as fleeting as luster desires, sexual passion, even love. Men had a spouse that was recognized in law and they had lovers. Adultery was the space for love. Marriage was too merchandised and institutional to seek love in it, so people went outside to find love. Until that time, children that were born outside marriage were often called “love children”.
It was not until the late 18th century that this new radical idea came along. Partly because the idea that the older generation and the state should not dictate the younger generation and part of it because of the individualistic ideas of the revolution era in France and America, with the Declaration of Independence with its claim that people are entitled to the pursuit of happiness. That was meant for personal relationships as well and people are to pursuit happiness in marriage based on love.
So, for centuries, sex within marriage was considered procreational sex; recreational sex was to be had outside of marriage. Now, in the 21st century, that we have brought love into marriage, adultery destroys it.
Marriage was a part of the production economy: you made children and created assets. So nowadays, in this romantic arrangement called “marriage” we have replaced financial security through trust, intimacy and affection. The stigma has also shifted; it used to be divorce and nowadays is infidelity.
So, do we still need marriage? This is a very global question with localized answer: Marriage used to be an economic enterprise, where infidelity was an economic threat. Now marriage or committed relationships are a romantic arrangement and infidelity is a romantic threat.
So, what is nowadays the exact definition of infidelity?
In the past infidelity was clearly defined: Men were betrayed when there was a proof (a child) that a betrayal took place and women where betrayed when he was caught in situ.
Today, even the definition about infidelity is unclear. What is infidelity nowadays? Is it a hook up? A love story? Paid Sex? Is it sexting? Is it a massage with happy-ending? Is it watching porn? Is it reconnecting with the ex whom you have met on Facebook? Is it dating Apps that you continue checking on? Or is it, as psychotherapist Esther Perel says, just as simple as being married to your phone instead of your partner?
The norms are shifting right underneath our feet… So, where do we draw the line? This is the big question about boundaries today. And about language: notice the words that we use to describe the act of infidelity: cheating, betraying, violating trust, being unfaithful, being adulterous, etc… there is no moral neutral language to talk about it.
We give place for early re-wounding, by entering relationship and not being aware or communicating our own definition of infidelity. In the past this was given; nowadays we need to redefine it for ourselves and within the relationship because our partner has probably another definition of it.
Partners need to define each other’s definition of Infidelity in a signed “sexual contract”: Sharing with the partner the myriad of ways that they can feel betrayed. This includes also the level of honesty they demand form their partner, meaning, what do they want ot know and what not. And last but not least, how do they agree to proceed in case that the common rules have been transgressed.
Questions for Reflection
- Do you have a “sexual contract” with your partner? Do you redefine it regularly? How flexible is it?
- What does infidelity mean to you? What are your limits? Do you know your partner's limits?
- Have you defined your point of view with your partner? Or have you waited to do so when there was already a risk of cheating? What fears have prevented you from talking about it before?
- Have you repressed any of your desires/freedoms for fear that your partner will not agree?
- Where did you start to be unfaithful to yourself?
In the next blog article, we will approach the question: Why do we cheat? We will see all kinds of reasons why people commit adultery. We will address the different reasons why we do it and why the current model of infidelity is a model of deficiency.
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Sources / Reading suggestions
- “Marriage, Your Story: How Love Conquered Marriage” - Stephanie Coontz
- “The Dilemma of the Couple: A New Look at Love and Relationships” - Esther Perel