A few years ago, my Aunt Esther, the family historian, finally told me about a rumor that had fluttered around the edges of my family when I was a small child. It had been whispered at the time that my grandfather, a tall, exuberant, turn-of-the-century Russian immigrant who’d succeeded as a traveling salesman “had women” on his business trips. Nearly 60 years after the fact, a small thrill of scandalized shock went through me as I belatedly heard this news.
Of course, growing up in that now-lost world of the 1950s Bronx, it had been absolutely inconceivable that anybody in my family or anybody I knew or ever would know would ever be unfaithful. After all, even the idea that any of the adults I knew had sex with their spouses was unthinkable!
In those days, everybody assumed that normal, God-fearing, clean-living Americans didn’t do adultery, no matter what that pervert Alfred Kinsey said (his groundbreaking studies, undertaken in the ’40s and ’50s, indicated that 36 percent of husbands and 25 percent of wives reported being unfaithful at some point in their marriages). If famous or eminent people had affairs, by and large nobody knew about it. Nobody knew that FDR had had a “mistress,” as did Ike, and JFK’s many now-notorious liaisons were carried on completely below the radar screen.
When did it all change? When did infidelity start to become as American as apple pie? Was it during the ’60s and ’70s, when, as an adjunct to the “sexual revolution,” we also got evangelizers of “open marriage,” arguing single-mindedly and sometimes dementedly that you could have your cake (safe domesticity) and eat it, too (bring erotic adventure home to your own fireside!)? Was it when the shenanigans of various high-flying politicos first became a media growth industry? Of course, the spigot really opened fully with Bill Clinton’s compulsive philandering, each unedifying detail of which seemed to co-opt all other news for month after month of 1998 and 1999.
Now, in a world of voracious, 24/7 media, no married aspiring politician from Nowheresville or megachurch preacher can get away with so much as a lustful glance in the wrong direction without the inevitable video being picked up on YouTube or The Huffington Post. But by now, most of us, however titillated, have grown overly familiar with hearing the same plotline—secret infidelity, public disclosure, media censure, grudging admission of guilt, display of remorse, breakup of marriage (or not, as the case may be). In the end, all we’ve really learned is that the plot is a repetitious, tedious, unenlightening soap opera. Could it finally be time that, instead of staring at this parade of indiscretions, we grow up and begin thinking in more mature and serious ways about the nature of marriage and infidelity? The therapists describing their own work in this issue certainly think so.
They’re asking us to consider new ways of thinking about monogamy and fidelity. None of them remotely suggests that couples should now become wildly libidinous, spouse-swapping swingers or join the “if it feels good, do it” school of relationship. But all question the moralistic and judgmental attitudes about infidelity that still shadow couples therapy in this country. All explore the meaning of affairs in the context of particular marriages, involving distinct and individual human beings—they present no cookie-cutter marriages or infidelity stories.
Above all, this issue’s authors are asking us to question facile clinical formulations that assign a single meaning to the incident of an affair. As practitioners, we might prefer things to be neater and simpler when a troubled couple confronting an affair appears in our offices. Instead, this issue’s authors are telling us that we need to be alive to individual differences and nuance, and suspicious of easy answers and glib clinical formulas. As Esther Perel puts it succinctly, “People stray for many reasons—tainted love, revenge, unfulfilled longings, and plain old lust.” Frequently, it’s all these things at once.
Richard Simon, PhD, founded Psychotherapy Networker and served as the editor for more than 40 years. He received every major magazine industry honor, including the National Magazine Award. Rich passed away November 2020, and we honor his memory and contributions to the field every day.