In my years of writing relationship columns, many couples have come to me and some have written for counselling on the issue of infidelity. Two recent cases clearly illustrate the right and wrong ways to handle these potential marital crises. Dokun and Alice are a conventional married couple. He is a young computer expert, she is a well-educated woman who manages a department store. They live very comfortably, sharing their joint income. At work, they inevitably met other people who attracted them. Dokun eventually began an affair with one of his office secretaries and grew to feel terribly guilty about it.
Alice had no idea of his involvement until she accidentally discovered it. She was shattered by the knowledge, then furious. She had been faithful and unsuspecting. She felt terribly betrayed. Her husband was full of guilt, anxiety and remorse. He didn’t want to leave Alice, whom he really loved and they eventually went to see their pastor for counselling after which she agreed to give him another chance. When Alice came to seek my opinion. I tried hard to make her see the difference between extramarital sex and fidelity but her strict religious background forbade her acceptance of the idea. The only way she would stay married to Dokun was if he renounced any sexual life outside marriage. Yet already, the breach of trust was so great that their future looked doubtful. The past could not be erased; this was no longer a happy marriage.
On the other hand, are Chuks and Agatha – a comparable case in both incomes and lifestyle. When Agatha felt compelled to confess that she had sex with someone else after Chuks spoke out on his suspicion, he readily admitted that he had strayed too. Talking it over, they agreed that their marriage was vital to both of them, that they loved each other, and that maybe they should take a different view of their marriage. They both wanted guidelines for what looked like their ‘open marriage’ arrangement. I pointed out to them the problems that might arise and how they could deal with them. Their marriage should always be their focal point – not giving in to temptation, but when temptation did arise, their love should be strong enough to sustain the marriage.
A few months later, Chuks called me up to say that he and Agatha have never been happier, and that they feel more fulfilled – sexually and personally -than they had ever felt before. They expect their second child in a few months’ time. Dokun and Alice, unfortunately, found themselves at the mercy of the anxiety, fear and anger that often destroy marriages when clandestine affairs are discovered. Chuks and Agatha, on the other hand, have forged a new and healthy understanding through which their natural sexual urges are satisfied, with no damage to their deep love for one another. Fidelity trust – is still the bedrock of their marriage.
There’s no hiding from the fact that we are now a widely polygamous society. Many couples have sexual relations outside marriage even though monogamy is still the accepted norm. So what does infidelity really mean? Webster’s dictionary tells us that infidelity means ‘marital unfaithfulness’, a definition which most people understand as sexual unfaithfulness. After all, marriage vows usually implied the promise to ‘cleave only to one another’. But Webster also gives a second more vital definition: ‘breach of trust’. Trust is the real cornerstone of marriage and it is the issue of trust that must be tackled if we are to understand what fidelity means today.
“Relationships between men and women have changed dramatically over the past few decades,” observed a seasoned marital counsellor. “We raised an entire generation of young men and women who do not ‘cleave’ to a single individual before marriage, and who balk at ‘cleaving’ afterwards. For these young people, the promise to “cleave only” went out the window with the promise to “obey”. That is why sex therapists today are giving serious attention to this phenomenon. Defying the traditional marriage contract today seems almost common place, even though there are civil, religious and emotional penalties for such “violations’. Obviously many people think it is worth the risk.
‘The real issue in this matter is not extramarital sex at all, but the terms of the marriage contract. For most religious people, of course, terms are clear. But even the sincerely devout may face circumstances in their lives, which lead them to break that promise, causing great guilt and unhappiness…”