Sunday, March 01, 2015
Is cheating better than divorce?
On the CBS TV show "Sunday Morning" recently, advice columnist Dan Savage repeated his view of monogamy, which he's shared before in his syndicated column, Savage Love.
He told the interviewer, Erin Moriarty, that he thought "there are times and circumstances under which adultery is OK. ... And cheating may be the more loving thing to do."
During the interview, Savage's argument was that the "standard advice" to a married partner who wants to have a sexual relationship outside of the marriage is to seek a divorce. He noted, however, that divorce can "traumatize your children," and that "between divorce and cheating," he thought "cheating is the least worst option."
A few days after viewing the interview, a reader wrote to tell me about a disagreement he and his wife were having about a book they were both reading. In the story, long-lost loves find each other again and, now in their 70s, decide to have an affair. One is widowed and the other's spouse is still living.
The reader's wife believed the fellow who was still married had an obligation to tell his wife about the affair. My reader wasn't so sure.
What was the right thing for the reunited pair to do?
In the interview with Moriarty, Savage observed that part of his issue with monogamy is that "we're told that if we're in love, we won't want to sleep with anybody else." But he doesn't believe that's quite accurate. "The truth is, if we're in love and make a monogamous commitment, that means we will refrain from sleeping with other people. (However), we (may) still want to sleep with other people."
I'm not convinced that Savage truly knows what all people want once they commit to a monogamous marriage. But for years, research has seemed to support his observation that some people still want to sleep with other people and do so after marriage. In a journal article written 40 years ago, Shirley Glass and Thomas Wright, of the Catholic University of America, reported their findings that 34 percent of women and 56 percent of men who'd had affairs said they were happy in their marriages.
However, such findings don't tell us much about the happiness of the partner who finds out his or her spouse has been having an affair.
I'm not a relationship counselor, so I don't delve into issues of what may drive someone's desires to remain faithful in a relationship or not. From an ethical standpoint, though, if someone enters into a relationship agreeing to be monogamous, then the right thing to do is to be monogamous.
Savage may be correct that there are times when divorce is worse than infidelity, but if that's the case, I believe the partners owe it to one another not to "cheat," but instead to be forthcoming, preferably before the union begins. Such honesty might result in the other partner feeling betrayed or wanting out of the relationship -- or it might not.
For a relationship to last, it strikes me that trust should be at its heart.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin
Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.