Infidelity is a story as old as time: the Greek god Zeus coupling with any woman who caught his fancy, the Bible story of David and Bathsheba that ended in the death of Bathsheba’s husband, Ovid’s early self-help bookon male and female seduction and keeping your mistress/man happy. Emperors, queens, nobility, and common people have always engaged in amorous trysts, and so do we in today’s society.
Image: Katie Tegtmeyer via Flickr
A recent survey by Gallup proves that cheating is the last taboo. Well, one of many last taboos:
Americans are generally accepting of such things as birth control, divorce, embryonic stem cell research, gambling, sex between unmarried men and women, the death penalty, and having a baby outside of marriage. But they still disapprove of married men and women having an affair, cloning humans, polygamy, suicide, pornography, and teenagers having sex.
So if you are a married woman who is in a polygamous relationship while cloning babies and making pornography, most of society hates your very existence and is coming after your head. Congratulations.
To say, cheating is the last taboo is a stretch, especially when you review the list of things people believe are morally wrong. Cheating has never been considered a virtue. It’s been a necessity, a privilege, a luxury, but the shame, hypocrisy, guilt, and blame have lingered over those who stray or helped with the straying, moreso for the woman than the man.
The Atlantic article closes with this: “That cheating has become our most despised sin reflects not only a changed marriage ideal, but a diverse moral universe in which dishonesty is the only vice about which we can all agree.”
Honestly, lying, which was not listed as a behavior oddly, is still the last taboo for society. But it’s more complicated that just the lies from the cheater.
Lies, Lies, and Damned Lies
No one enjoys being on the receiving end of a lie. Deception erodes trust, which is fundamental to communities and relationships. Liars violate the expectations we have and the norms we hold dear. We think we know the liars, the cheaters. But we are lying to ourselves. We can’t easily tell.
Few people (exempting sociopaths) want to lie. But the pressure to conform when your heart wants other things. The dishonesty and the subterfuge, inauthentic nature of cheating that makes it the last taboo. It’s when you make it and keep it a secret. It’s the lying, the being lied to. But also, it is about the lie we tell ourselves about our own relationships and the relationships of others.
Infidelity is defined as action or state of being unfaithful to a sexual partner. Depending on the context and contours of the marriage or relationship, that can mean many things. Some people think that defiling the marital bed constitutes the sole infidelity that a relationship can never rebound from. For some, it’s when the partner is blatant in their affairs that cracks the shell of their marriage or relationship. For others, it’s the emotional cheating, of confiding your secrets into someone else who is not your spouse.
What happens inside of the boundaries of someone’s relationship is privy to those people involved. Erving Goffman, the social psychologist who wrote The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, used the analogy of the front stage and backstage. The kind folks at OrgTheory.org interpreted that analogy as:
[E]very individual is an actor on a stage performing for an audience. The front stage is where the performance takes place, using various impression management tools to articulate particular images to the audience, and the backstage, he argues, is where the protected self resides. Goffman believed that individuals build a strong barrier between the front and backstage, partly because the individual is vulnerable in the backstage but also in order to preserve the authenticity of the front stage performance.
Paul Laurence Dunbar summed it up easiest: “We wear mask that grin and lie.” A lot of the outrage about infidelity isn’t about the action; it is about the secrecy and the disrupting of the front stage identity that one person or two people in the relationship have worked hard to achieve.