On the afternoon of Oct. 13, 1980, Judith Stowell got into a van with a man who was not her husband. They drove down a dirt road to a secluded, wooded area, near a factory in Worcester. There was no one around, save a boy on a bicycle, soon out of sight. The couple got into the rear of the van and began having sex.
Minutes later, two police officers knocked on the van’s door. That was probably a surprise to Stowell and her partner, but not nearly as much as what happened next: After they admitted that they were married, just not to each other, both were charged with adultery.
Adultery was then and is still now illegal under Massachusetts General Law, Title 1, Chapter 272, Section 14 — “A married person who has sexual intercourse with a person not his spouse or an unmarried person who has sexual intercourse with a married person shall be guilty of adultery and shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for not more than three years or in jail for not more than two years or by a fine of not more than five hundred dollars.” Stowell and her partner in crime got off lightly — they were fined $50 each; the court does not record what happened to either’s marriage. This was the last time anyone in the state was prosecuted for the felony crime of adultery. We only know Stowell’s name and not her partner’s because she appealed the conviction and the case went before a Worcester judge. The judge upheld the conviction. The statute remains on the books.
Massachusetts law and the Ten Commandments — “thou shalt not commit adultery” — leave no wiggle room for cheaters. Current public attitudes are barely more forgiving. According to a 2014 Pew study, five out of six Americans say that extramarital sex is morally unacceptable. A 2015 Gallup poll found that though they disagreed on the moral acceptability of pornography and suicide, American young adults and seniors were united on just how bad infidelity is. The narrative, in every clickbait article about cheating spouses and public revenge or “Dr. Phil” episode or film like “Girls Trip,” is that cheating is very, very, very wrong, and should always result in a breakup.
And yet, people cheat. The prevalence of infidelity, according to some evidence, has remained largely the same since the 1920s, standing at around a quarter of married people. (Self-reported data, even from anonymous surveys, should, of course, be taken with a grain of salt. People don’t like to come forward about infidelity.) But, significantly, it’s remained about the same, despite tectonic changes to the social landscape, including the birth control pill — removing one of the most obvious consequences of infidelity, an unwanted pregnancy — and the increasing acceptance of divorce.
Meanwhile, advancing technology and changes in the workplace have created new ways to be unfaithful — emotional cheating, the work husband or work wife, sexting and Internet porn, swiping right, and the latest, “micro-cheating,” which lives in the area of not being entirely open with your partner at all times. So the chances are very good that you know someone who has cheated or is cheating right now. Perhaps you’ve been cheated on, or cheated yourself.
The public discussion of sexual morality is increasingly dominated by therapists, sociologists, and sexologists — many of whom explicitly reject the notion that an affair is necessarily a nuclear bomb for a relationship. In “State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity,” couples therapist Esther Perel argues that unfaithful partners aren’t always villains and that the fallout shouldn’t always be divorce. Her book, which made the New York Times bestseller list, looks for nuances and gray areas — for example, is it still cheating if the “injured party” has Alzheimer’s, lives in a nursing home, and can no longer recognise her husband? What should happen if, after one spouse swears off sex for good, the other seeks it elsewhere? Perel maintains that infidelity has a “tenacity that marriage can only envy” and suggests that we need to understand it better.
So, ultimately, why do people cheat? Why does it bother us — both the partner of a cheating spouse and society at large — so much if they do? Should it? Divorce and premarital sex, which many Western societies once treated as shameful, have become commonplace. Might these same societies, at least in some cases, take a more forgiving view of adultery?
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One reason infidelity exists is that, in some sense, humans are designed for it. Evolutionary psychology has long posited that in a Darwinian paradigm, it makes sense that ancient man would seek out sex with multiple partners to ensure that his genes are passed on (for generations, this handy justification explained the seeming inequality between the rates of men who cheat versus women). But women also cheat. More recently, anthropologists have suggested that ancient woman had sex with multiple partners for protection and sustenance — more lovers may have meant more resources from disparate sources — or to ensure genetic variation among her offspring. It’s also possible that women wanted multiple sexual partners for the same reason female chimpanzees do: To make and keep male friends so that they would not pose a threat to her children.
The dawn of the neuroscience age has also offered more plausible explanations. Helen Fisher is a leading biological anthropologist; you may have seen her TED talks on love and infidelity, or on love and technology, or perhaps read her book, “Anatomy of Love.” Some of her most headline-grabbing work has to do with what our brains look like on love: Awash in dopamine, the same brain-tickling neurochemical released when humans have sex, exercise, use drugs, or jump out of planes. (Another side-effect of falling in love: Brain regions involved in decision-making become less active.)
Fisher’s research has also led her to believe that humans have developed three evolutionary brain systems for mating and reproduction, each happening on a deep level: The sex drive, which pushes us to seek out partners for procreation; romantic love, which enables us to focus our energies on a single mate; and attachment, which helps us stay together to raise our offspring. “These brain systems can work together — but they don’t always,” she explained. This disconnect between these three evolutionary systems can cause “the human animal to be madly in love with one person, have sex with lots of people, and feel deep attachment to another person.” In other words, the same architectures that help us safely reproduce and raise our young also facilitate adultery.
There is also, she says, a genetic component to why people might be unfaithful. Recent research has found that women who carried certain variants of the vasopressin receptor gene, which deals with the social bonding hormone vasopressin, were more likely to be sexually unfaithful. Another study, from 2010, found that people who carried a variant of one dopamine receptor subtype that inhibited their ability to bind dopamine — meaning that they operated at a deficit of the hormone — were 50 percent more likely to report having sex outside of their committed relationships. And on the subject of dopamine, considering the fact that the act of cheating, because it is both a novel and thrilling experience, releases a big hit of dopamine, and it’s maybe a wonder that more people don’t cheat.
This is not to say that infidelity is a biological certainty, but rather that the conditions are present. It’s up to acculturation, and our own mental calculus, to tell us how we deal with these biological urges. “We are predisposed,” Fisher said. “We are not hard-wired.”
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Indeed, people’s views on infidelity depend in part on their culture. When Pew Research found in 2014 that 84 percent of Americans found extramarital sex morally unacceptable, pollsters also conducted surveys in dozens of other countries; only 47 percent of French people thought that infidelity was morally unacceptable, while 60 percent of Germans and 76 percent of Britons did.
At several points in recent human history, people have tried to swim against the tide of social control and redefine sexual, romantic relationships in ways that were more open. Oneida may now be more associated with stainless-steel cutlery than sexual freedom, but the multinational company grew out of a 19th century Christian Perfectionist community co-founded by John Humphrey Noyes in central New York state. Noyes is actually credited with coming up with the phrase “free love,” to describe the complex system of open marriages and communal child-rearing his community practiced. In the early 20th century, New York’s Greenwich Village was a haven of free lovers, while politically, anarchists argued that the state and the church had no business imposing a punitive structure on love and passion. These themes were recycled in the counterculture movements of the 1960s and ’70s. In each, “infidelity” was more a betrayal of the rules that each couple or small group had established, than a betrayal of social norms. These are the ideas that underpin modern “relationship anarchy,” which seeks to uncouple human relationships — romantic, sexual, platonic — from societal labels.
Though there is nearly always an undercurrent of movement away from sexual rigidity, any overt defense of infidelity still sounds jarring to most (non-French) people. Actively promoting infidelity as a lifestyle sounds even worse. In 2002, the “discreet encounters” website Ashley Madison launched with the slogan “Life is short. Have an affair.” The site tapped into people who had previously been using dating services but were not always disclosing that they were married; Ashley Madison gave people a place to be honest about their dishonest intentions.
The site was scandalous — and an almost immediate success. In 2015, when hackers breached the site’s lax security, more than 30 million people had signed up. Now, just over two years later, Ruby Life, Ashley Madison’s Canadian parent company, reports 27,000 new users joining each day, bringing membership back up to pre-hack levels. The site is now available in 50 countries and 19 different languages. Each day, active users send 1.5 million messages, flirting, chatting, setting up dates. (In Boston, evidently most of those users are in the Back Bay and the Financial District, according to Ashley Madison.)
In 2008, former CEO Noel Biderman told a Los Angeles radio station that Ashley Madison “preserves more marriages than we break up.” Though Biderman was mocked in the press when he said it, this is a line that Ashley Madison hews to. “The whole idea of divorce, obviously as a society, we’re more comfortable with it. But the economic costs and the social costs of it are far more dramatic than most people realize,” said Paul Keable, Ashley Madison’s vice president for communications. “We’ve been ingrained to see infidelity as negative, as the immoral choice. . . What happens if I love my wife, love my family and my life with her? But if there’s an aspect of our life that she’s not able to provide — do I blow it all up? These are the questions that people who come to Ashley Madison are asking.” Ashley Madison, Keable insisted, is “the greatest marriage counseling service in the world.” Self-serving hyperbole, certainly, but it jibes with what many users report: that having an affair “reinvigorated” their marriage.
Alicia Walker, a Missouri State University sociologist, interviewed 46 women from across the United States, ages 24 to 65, all of whom had conducted affairs through Ashley Madison. She wrote about her findings in “The Secret Life of the Cheating Wife.” She found that most of the women were in marriages in which, they said, sex was nonexistent or deeply unsatisfying. Several tried to address that with their husbands, but to no avail; others had presented the notion of an open marriage to their partners, but were rejected. They felt they had little choice: “It was, ‘Either I have to break up my marriage and my family because I cannot continue to live in a sexual desert, or I have to cheat if I’m going to stay,’” Walker said. “They were really cheating to stay.”
The tendency for humans to be jealous, Fisher says, is as deeply rooted as any tendency toward infidelity. And betrayal hurts, it cuts, as Perel notes in her book, to the bone. But it can be healed, experts contend, if society has a social and cultural narrative that enables that healing. “How [many] of the breakages are precipitated by this cultural response that the only way to respond is to blow apart your marriage?” Walker asked. “Maybe [infidelity] doesn’t always mean that they don’t respect you, they don’t love you. . . Nobody likes to be cheated on. I get it. But it might be positive for us as a culture to have a different lens around cheating.”
Typically, we’ve categorized adulterers in narrow terms: as selfish rakes married to spotless victims; as people looking for a pretext to check out of a broken marriage; as people, who, for whatever reason, are incapable of muffling their baser desires. In this spirit, total strangers find it acceptable to expose cheaters; in 2015, the two sisters were roundly applauded for taking pictures of a woman’s texts to her lover over her shoulder at a Braves game and passing a note to the woman’s husband. The popular narrative of infidelity can’t acknowledge that, in certain cases, the “victim” doesn’t actually want to know. The interiors of other people’s relationships are a complex space — one that becomes harder to plumb from the outside as marriage itself evolves.
“I think the biggest change has been the idea that you demand mutual commitment in marriage,” explained Stephanie Coontz, author of “Marriage, a History.” Marriage changed dramatically 200 years ago, with the rise of the love match — marriage was no longer simply a practical solution, or an economic or diplomatic union between two households. But throughout the 20th century, there was a lingering sense that though marriages were meant to be love matches between two people, those two people inhabited separate spheres and did not rely on one another for all of their emotional, physical, and social needs. If men had sexual affairs, women were expected to tolerate them and find intimate friendship elsewhere. (Just friendship, mind you.)
By the end of the 20th century, however, society increasingly recognized the legitimacy of people’s sexual impulses, particularly women’s, and the need for gratification to be mutual, Coontz said. This rubbed uncomfortably against the notion that once you’re married, the only place to satisfy those urges was within the marriage. But at the same time, we had begun to see marriage as a union of soulmates, sufficient to meet all a person’s needs. Coontz believes that we now expect more from marriage than ever before.
Interestingly, as Western societies relaxed their norms about sex, infidelity has become an even stronger taboo: In the early 1970s, only about 70 percent of Americans felt that extramarital sex was always wrong, jumping to 84 percent or more now.
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So what might happen next? “I’m always hesitant to say where I think we’ll go, but I think we’re truly navigating uncharted territory here,” Coontz said. “When a marriage provides the kinds of intimacies and fairness and considerations and passion that we expect, gosh, it works better than people of the past would have ever dared to dream. But most marriages do have period where they’re not providing that. The question is how do we respond to that? How do we respond to when people are emotionally down in a marriage? And that people are tempted to stray or do stray?”
One potential outcome is a shift in the social rules around monogamy in general. Proponents of what some call “ethical non-monogamy” have become more vocal and visible in recent years, while widely syndicated advice columnist Dan Savage has tried to popularize the term “monogamish” as an alternative to “monogamous.” Said Coontz, “I think the good news is that we have more choices and more options, and we’re more accepting of letting couples work this out for themselves.”
Against this backdrop, traditionalists who decried divorce and premarital sex argue: We told you so; we told you that loosening so many rules would normalize perversion. Precisely because people are prone to straying, they say, we need strong social supports to keep them focused on their spouses; the less society punishes adultery, the more people will cheat.
Conservatives can probably rest easy, at least for a little while. “Infidelity is probably the last sexual taboo,” said Keable, the Ashley Madison executive, “and I think it will take a long time to fall away.”
Still, society has been rethinking infidelity for some time — legally, semantically, emotionally, culturally. When New Hampshire moved to repeal its anti-adultery law in 2014, state Representative Tim O’Flaherty, the bill’s sponsor, said during a public hearing, “I don’t think there’s any appetite in New Hampshire to use police powers to enforce a marriage.” He was correct; the legislature repealed the law a month later. While adultery is technically banned in Massachusetts, it is perfectly legal in about 30 other states. Had they been in another state, that couple in the Worcester van might never have faced charges.
In time, the evolution of social norms may prompt a reckoning. After the revelation of an affair, Perel often asks her clients, “Your first marriage is over. Would you like to create a second one together?” In a lot of ways, society is asking itself the same question.Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, a frequent Ideas contributor, is an American freelance writer based in London.