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By Michele Scheinkman
Infidelity Has Different Meanings In Different Cultures
I can still recall that late afternoon in an outdoor cafe in Paris 10 years ago, when, after I'd given a workshop on couples therapy, my host—a French family therapist—expressed his horror at my observations about how therapy is done here. I'd explained that, in the United States, intimacy is often equated with transparency and truth-telling, especially with couples who come in for therapy when one of them has had an affair. My Parisian colleague was shocked to learn that American therapists typically encourage couples not only to confess their affairs, but also to share the details.
Shaking his head in disbelief, he said, "Mystery is an essential ingredient in maintaining interest in our partner over time. To keep my marriage enlivened, I must feel there's always more to my wife than what I already know." Then, with a dramatic flair, he picked up a pen and drew two intersecting circles on a paper napkin, each representing a marital partner. "In France," he said, "when we think about the relationship,' there's rarely more than one-third of each circle that overlaps. Married people here are not only entitled to their privacy, they must have private lives to remain interesting and alluring to each other."
It wasn't the only time I've heard colleagues and clients from other countries express views about intimacy and fidelity that differ sharply from North American views. I've repeatedly heard my Latin American and European friends and clients say things like, "Infidelity is part of our human condition, but if my partner is having an affair, I don't want to know about it." With a booming laugh, one of my Brazilian clients once told me, "I'm not naive enough to think my husband will never be attracted to another woman or that he'll never stray, but he'd better know how to manage his feelings, because if I find out about it, I'll break everything in the house!"