So it's finally come to this: one way or another, you're convinced your partner is having an affair. What now?
In "Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality," Cacilda Jethá, my coauthor (and wife) and I argue that there's a good reason long-term sexual monogamy is hard for human beings. The evidence we present in the book shows that til death do us part may be a wonderful ideal, but it's anything but an easy (or natural) path for most human beings. Yes, we are moral beings (most of us) with the capacity to override our evolved predispositions to some extent, but maybe, just maybe, an occasional slip on that long and arduous path is to be expected.
Or maybe not. Such notions of tolerance are actively discouraged in America. As Pamela Druckerman explains in "Lust in Translation," her survey of global attitudes toward infidelity, "It has come to seem obvious to Americans that the discovery of infidelity leads to a confrontation, followed by counseling, perhaps other forms of support, and a long period of discussion and recovery (sometimes in perpetuity)." Druckerman argues that this "scripted response" to infidelity is promoted by the marriage-industrial complex. She writes, "Just as the military-industrial complex needs wars, the marriage-industrial complex needs adulterous couples to believe they require help from professionals." And she's just talking about the couples who are trying to stay together. Those who decide to throw in the towel engage the even more expensive divorce-industrial complex.
So, with both human evolution and global variations in response to infidelity in mind, let's consider a few things an affair may not mean:
1. Your marriage sucks.
Maybe it does; maybe it doesn't. But let's be honest: all marriages suck sometimes. If you don't know that, you haven't been married very long or you haven't been paying attention. Sartre said, "Hell is other people." Sometimes, that other person is your spouse. But that's not the only reason people have affairs. The main reason people have affairs is that they can. Or at least they think they can. If you accept the premise of "Sex at Dawn" (and please, at least consider reading it before rejecting it), it's utterly normal for all of us to yearn for a little "strange" every once in a while. It's quite possible that the affair is not a reaction to you or rejection of your marriage at all.
2. Your marriage is over.
Look, if she slept with your best man on your wedding night, yeah, you might want to consider asking for a refund on the tux, changing your name and moving to Tasmania. But forget about the sex for a moment (I know, easier said than done, but still). How bad was the behavior--apart from the sex? Did she (or he) humiliate you publicly? Was there a lot of complicated lying going on? Did the affair or indiscretion threaten your career? Would you have been open to a heart-to-heart conversation about the natural appetite for sexual novelty if she (or he) had had the courage to initiate it? Do your kids really need to suffer over this? Can you see any way to turn this into an opportunity to get closer to each other, to break through the accumulated dailyness of life and talk about the eternal passions that brought you together in the first place?
3. He/she doesn't love you.
Most of the men who admit to having affairs report being happier in their marriages than men who claim they've never had an affair. Sure, they could be lying (again), but maybe they're not. Maybe, like a dog with room to run, they're happy to come home in a way a dog chained to a tree can't imagine (or, more likely, can't stop imagining). Many of the women who report having affairs talk about feeling wanted and desired in a way they just don't feel at home anymore. It's not that the other guy is better than you, he just yearns for her more than you do--or so she feels at the moment. But desire isn't love and ravenous hunger doesn't last long once you start eating. Let's all keep that in mind.
4. It's your fault.
No, it's not your fault that your partner feels the call of the wild occasionally. It's not an indictment of you, your partner or your marriage. It's just a predictable consequence of the fact that you're both Homo sapiens. Nothing shameful in that (Unless you buy into original sin, in which case, there's shame in everything.)
5. Your partner is sick.
Not necessarily. Your partner is a human being--a creature with millions of years of casual, promiscuous libido flowing through his/her veins. In some cases, an affair may be abusive or insanely stupid (John Edwards, I'm talking to you), but in others, it may be nothing more than a momentary lapse in judgment. If the latter, maybe we should consider cutting each other some slack as a way to hold our most important relationships together rather than insisting on a zero-tolerance policy that often results in greater suffering for everyone concerned.