On Showtime's hit series The Affair, premiering October 4th for a second season, Dominic West plays Noah Solloway, a man who seems to have it all: Happily (and faithfully) married to his first love Helen (Maura Tierney) for seventeen years; four healthy children; financial stability; a newly published novel; and a noble (if underpaid) career as a high school English teacher. Despite a full house and nearly two decades of familiarity, he and Helen maintain an active sex life and seem to adore and respect one another.
Then he meets and commences an extramarital relationship with Alison (Ruth Wilson), a married woman, on a family vacation in Montauk, New York.
Viewers empathized with Alison because the affair seemed like a form of anesthetization in the wake of her young son's untimely death by drowning. In contrast, audiences and pundits had no sympathy for Noah. Many railed that he had no justifiable reason to break under the weight of an extramarital desire.
In a recent telephone interview, the Affair's co-creator, Sarah Treem laid out the reason she gave Alison a tearjerking backstory: "I was particularly worried Alison's character would be vilified because she's younger and a woman. And because Noah has four kids, I was concerned she'd be viewed as a home wrecker. So we very purposely created this narrative where she's in grief over her child in order to even the stakes a little bit. But it actually moved too much sympathy in her direction. Noah gets much more of people's ire."
The vitriol toward him poured down decisively: A writer for Slate dubbed him "Another male asshole." The Los Angeles Times' TV critic Glenn Whipp called him "a lying, cheating bastard." A Wrap critic pegged him "a rationalizing cad." The excess hate heaped on Noah and sympathy given to Alison inferred a lack of agency on her part and suggested she's not an equal co-conspirator.
The condemnation even extended to Treem. "There were a lot of comments about my naiveté," she said, "but I actually think it's the opposite. Affairs are much more common than we want to admit."
Research compiled by the Kinsey Institute backs her up. Approximately 20-25 percent of men and 10-15 percent of women have sexually strayed, and between 25 and 50 percent of divorcees blame infidelity for the dissolution of their marriages. Mating in Captivity author Esther Perel, a renowned couple's counselor and consultant on The Affair, has placed the stats on "cheating" between 26 and 75 percent, depending on how it's defined.
There's a massive disconnect between the moral outrage toward Noah and the reality of infidelity. We persist in problematizing and morally censuring those involved in extramarital relationships, when the real problem--monogamy itself--goes unchallenged.
The beliefs that underlie all the righteous indignation are faulty and make us feel entitled to our harsh judgments. But the truth is more complex than simplistic reductions like right and wrong--or "asshole" and "bastard": Anyone who's lived long enough knows that it's possible, it's likely, you'll love more than the one you chose to wed; or that romantic affections for one person don't necessarily displace those for another; or that having feelings for someone other than one's spouse doesn't signify a fatal marital flaw, or mean that your partner isn't "enough" or that your character is deficient. When you start probing all the myths and orthodoxies that buttress our assumptions about marriage and monogamy, the wrongness rests on the expectations themselves, not the individuals who fall short of them.
As a formerly closeted queer, I'd go further by arguing that in demanding that we squelch, in word and action, every extraneous longing we have for the rest of our lives or risk losing our marriages, familial security and social approval, "compulsory monogamy" seems just as coercive and damaging--and unethical--as "compulsory heterosexuality."
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