In her new book ‘The New Rules: Internet Dating, Playfairs and Erotic Power’, sociologist Catherine Hakim takes a radical stand against the monotony of monogamy. “I have always been baffled by the sour and rigid English view of affairs,” she declares. “In France an affair is dubbed an adventure, free of insinuations of betrayal.” Hakim advises married couples to stop being so “puritanical” and look to the French for inspiration. Pop philosopher Alain de Botton agrees. In his book ‘How To Think More About Sex’ de Botton suggests that the problem with modern marriage is that we view it as the perfect answer to all our hopes for love, sex and family. When disappointment or frustration sets in, we convince ourselves that we can “somehow magically rearrange the shortcomings of our marriage through an adventure on the side’.
De Botton just about saves himself by acknowledging that it is impossible to sleep with someone outside of marriage and not spoil the things that we care about inside it, but essentially he argues that we need to be more realistic about our expectations when ti comes to marriage. Instead of the fairytale of ‘happily ever after’, he suggests that a vow more along the lines of “I have surveyed the different options for unhappiness, and it is you I have chosen to commit myself to” might be more appropriate.
Hakim and De Botton are not the first to question the feasibility of fidelity. Evolutionary theorists like Christopher Ryan, for example, argue that it is part of our DNA and therefore inevitable. And certainly, if you were to judge the feasibility of monogamy based on the lifestyles of celebrities and politicians you would be hard pressed not to agree. And yet, despite the tabloid shenanigans of the young, the famous, and the elected, attitudes against adultery are becoming increasingly conservative. In the UK for example, 84.4% men and 88.7% women describe a married person having sex with a partner other than their spouse as just plain “wrong” (NATSAL).
When you consider how prevalent infidelity seems to be, those ‘ideals’ seem just a touch hypocritical, but actually, if you look at reliable statistics, it turns out that a woman has as much chance of encountering cancer (one in four), as she has of enduring marital infidelity. Establishing valid data for a ‘secret’ behaviour is obviously challenging, but I’ve been running my own anonymous survey of sexual behaviour at www.moresexdaily.com for more than a year now. My current totals suggest that 27.8% of men (less than one third) and 17.2% of women (less than one fifth) have been unfaithful. My data correlate pretty well with figures from the highly respected US General Social Survey which show that about 20% of men and 15% of women under 35 have ‘ever’ been unfaithful, and lifetime rates of infidelity for men and women over sixty, are 28 % and 15% respectively.
To be able to measure rates for infidelity, and to find that it is much less prevalent than one might imagine, is very reassuring. It reminds us all that the majority of men and women who make a commitment to each other, still do so with an expectation of fidelity, and it also goes some way to explaining why the revelation, or discovery, of infidelity elicits such a primitive response. Betrayal unleashes the basest instincts; anger, fear, denial, tear stained, snot nosed desperation, and although relationship counsellors must resist the temptation to judge the unfaithful because infidelity is viewed as a symptom of a troubled relationship, most victims of infidelity want blood, not a mutual acceptance of responsibility.
The strength of emotion felt by those who have been betrayed by their partners is so very difficult to diffuse that only 31% of marriages survive an affair and experts agree that a couple’s ability to recover is almost entirely predicated on the strength of their relationships before the affair happened. Most couples are actually terrified by the idea of splitting up, so they will often try to patch things up with counselling, however if one partner is furious and the other is yo-yoing in and out of an affair, it is almost certainly futile.
There is a profound difference between ‘staying together’ and true reconciliation. To repair trust and rebuild a relationship after infidelity takes time – one to two years minimum – and it requires a great deal of patience, self awareness and maturity… which probably explains why married couples under the age of thirty have the highest rate of marital breakdown.
Fortunately, most of those young divorcees, will eventually get a second chance. They come out of their first marriage a bit bruised and battered, but then they meet someone nice and the pair bonding instinct rides rough shod over all their fears and apprehensions. Though the failure rate for second marriages is even higher than it is for first marriages, couples will always be willing to take a risk for love because ultimately, we all recognise that there are no guarantees in life, and the only way to completely avoid the pain of relationship breakdown, is to avoid ever having a relationship. And that is definitely not part of our DNA.