We’ve all been talking about the marriage of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver. Arnold cheated on Maria with his housekeeper and perhaps other women as well. Why do people like Arnold cheat? He’s rich, famous and has a beautiful wife and family. Isn’t that supposed to be enough?
Maybe it’s not about Maria and Arnold. Maybe it’s about marriage in general. Is there a natural expiration date for monogamy?
Couples today marry for love. They marry someone they desire, and that they believe they will desire for the rest of their lives. But sometimes, love and desire don’t really seem to be a strong enough glue to keep couples together and monogamous. Research varies, but according to some surveys, such as those reported by Joan Atwood and Limor Schwartz in the 2002 Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 55 percent of married women and 65 percent of married men report being unfaithful at some point in their marriage. Up to one-half of married women have at least one lover after they’re married and before the age of 40.
And yet a big reason people marry is to express a meaningful commitment of sexual fidelity to each other, in the eyes of their family, peers, and community. And, in general, we like monogamy. Most of us insist that this is a perk to marriage—knowing your partner won’t cheat because they made a vow. Unfortunately, marriage doesn’t seem to be an inoculation against infidelity.
What does monogamy mean these days? Some of our culture’s inherent and often misconstrued expectations about sex and marriage include beliefs like, “All men cheat,” or “It doesn’t count if it’s online” or “It’s not really a threat to my marriage if I never plan on leaving my wife for her” or “What’s the harm if it’s only a strip club?” or “Paying for sex doesn’t really mean I’m having an affair” or the ultimate excuse: “Marriage kills your sex life.
Monogamy agreements are based on religion, culture, community and family. The implicit monogamy agreement is an individual’s expectation of fidelity—usually never even discussed with a potential mate.
These implicit expectations are often hidden or nonverbal. It is almost as if the couple expects that they should be able to read the other’s mind. It’s the classic illustration of “If you really loved me, you would know what I expect without me having to tell you.”
Infidelity isn’t an accident, it’s a choice. Just like marriage. The trouble is that trouble is fun sometimes. The excitement of the forbidden can be erotic and edgy. And yet to use Sigmund Freud’s definition of integrity, we have a super-ego that helps us control our impulses. Of course lots of things can entice us yet we don’t have to pursue our every urge. Most of us actually can control our sexual impulses.
Does everyone cheat? No. Could they? Sure. But monogamy is a daily choice we make even on those days when we don’t feel like it.