19th-century portrayals of women committing infidelity included cautionary tales like Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary. Both classic novels are still popular today, but the narrative of infidelity has changed in the 21st century.
How Did We Get Here?
Why is infidelity, especially among women, so common today? Famed psychotherapist and author Esther Perel dedicated an entire book to the concept in The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity and attempts to answer this question. The gist of the answer is very vague and up to interpretation, but she summarized it better in her Ted Talk, “It’s never been easier to cheat, and it’s never been more difficult to keep a secret, and never has infidelity taken such a psychological toll.”
It’s never been easier to cheat, and it’s never been more difficult to keep a secret, and never has infidelity taken such a psychological toll.
To fully understand Perel’s analysis and commentary, one needs a quick briefing on the history of marriage. Most marriages prior to the Victorian Era had little to nothing to do with love. There were exceptions, but it was far from the rule. Marriage was about economic security and raising a family. Women stayed home with the kids, and men worked.
Fast-forward to 2019 and women have the same economic power as men. Don’t get me wrong, gender equality is good for everyone, but it has changed the foundation of marriage. Within the past century (and even more so the past few decades), marrying for love has become the norm while marrying for economic stability is a thing of the past (again, a good thing). Judging by the history of marriage, it makes sense why women are having more affairs than ever, but there is more to it.
Why People Cheat
Some of the most common reasons Perel outlines are unrealistic expectations in a spouse, as well as thinking of the possibility of something better being out there. Here’s the harsh truth: nobody, not even the man you are supposed to spend the rest of your life with, is going to fulfill all your wants, needs, and desires. Relationships are hard work, and there is no such thing as a perfect marriage. Ask any elderly couple holding hands at your local grocery store. Every marriage has its ups and downs, and it takes hard work and true love to make a marriage last a lifetime.
Every marriage has its ups and downs, and it takes hard work and true love to make a marriage last a lifetime.
Some young women have the tendency to expect the world out of the man they marry. Impossible expectations always lead to disappointment and regret. This is how many cases of infidelity begin. If we work as a society to change the narrative that marriage is easy and can be ended in a divorce at the first sign of trouble (I’m looking at you, Kim Kardashian), this problem would decrease.
Cosmopolitan recently published a personal essay of a young woman having an extramarital affair. She has no shame, claiming in the tagline of the article, “I know it’s wrong, but it’s the best sex of my life.” Believe it or not, claiming you know something is wrong but still admitting to it doesn’t make it any better.
Believe it or not, claiming you know something is wrong but still admitting to it doesn’t make it any better.
The article comes across as if the message is that this woman was empowered by her choice to cheat on the husband she claims to love and the father of her children. The justification for this empowerment narrative is that men have been doing it for centuries. Karol Markowicz of the New York Post disagrees. She dismissed a book similar to this Cosmopolitan article, writing, “Adulterers in America are often in therapy to work through their cheating. Encouraging women to have outside relationships is one thing but pretending it’s because we let men do it is absurd.”
Infidelity Hurts Others
Lying and being deceitful toward someone you claim to love can hurt them? Who would’ve thought? As Perel mentioned in her Ted Talk, “Never has infidelity taken such a psychological toll.” Since marriage is no longer for economic security, it’s a little harder to push such a betrayal under the rug. A betrayal like an affair can often lead to severe psychological damage.
A 1993 article from Psychology Today highlights this perfectly, and unfortunately hasn’t changed through the tests of time, “Romantic affairs lead to a great many divorces, suicides, homicides, heart attacks, and strokes, but not to very many successful remarriages. No matter how many sacrifices you make to keep the love alive, no matter how many sacrifices your family and children make for this crazy relationship, it will gradually burn itself out when there is nothing more to sacrifice to it. Then you must face..the wreckage of several lives.”
Romantic affairs lead to a great many divorces, suicides, homicides, heart attacks, and strokes, but not to very many successful remarriages.
This goes to show how indecent infidelity truly is. It doesn’t matter what your personal beliefs are. No moral code could possibly justify deceiving and lying to someone you claim to love for a quick thrill.
With infidelity glorified in so many forms of media today, it may seem like an okay, moral, or even empowering thing to do. It doesn’t matter how common it is - it’s wrong, always has been wrong, and always will be wrong.
However, millennials can help end the cycle of infidelity by being open and honest in relationships. It really comes down to what our mothers told us in preschool when we saw kids being bullied on the playground: treat others the way you want to be treated. Unless you want to be cheated on, the answer to this problem is clear as day.