While many in our culture believe contemporary folks wallow in sin, merely from the fact that women in our culture expect greater respect than they might have expected fifty or one hundred years ago makes me believe that the amount of male infidelity is actually declining over time. The multiple and long-term affairs of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John Fitzgerald Kennedy were much smaller news stories in their time than those of William Jefferson Clinton were in his. And one gets the sense that Michelle Obama would snap her husband in two if he strayed.
The acceptance of male infidelity has gone way down the past fifty years, while other cultures continue to regard occasional male straying as normal. Meanwhile the divorce rate has gone way up–before stabilizing recently. I ponder whether the two might be partially linked and, if they are linked, whether the trade off of less acceptance of adultery for more divorce is worthwhile. While adultery is certainly disruptive of family happiness, divorce is often even more disruptive. Though I don’t condone adultery (or expect my spouse to condone it), I have seen marriages in which adultery can act as a safety value in reducing the pressures on an otherwise acceptable marriage. By our refusal to acknowledge that adultery sometimes happens merely because spouses have very mismatched interests in sex, and in blaming the victim for adultery and questioning her (or his) motivations for remaining in the marriage, our culture subtly encourages divorces in cases in which a marriage could be salvaged. And if adultery can make an otherwise acceptable marriage tolerable, especially a marriage in which young children are involved, perhaps our attitude should be one of occasional tolerance or grudging acceptance rather than vehement condemnation.
Of the four fault grounds for divorce in South Carolina [physical cruelty; habitual drunkenness; desertion; adultery], three of them certainly justify divorce. Merely for safety reasons one cannot expect a victim of domestic abuse to remain in a marriage. Being intimately tied to a habitual drunk or drug abuser is to lead a life of no stability. A spouse who has deserted for over a year is clearly uncommitted to the marriage. In contrast, adultery in a marriage, while hurtful and perhaps even devastating, does not by itself signify an irredeemable marriage. I do not suggest that adultery be removed as ground for divorce; I merely suggest that of the four fault grounds for divorce, adultery is the only one in which divorce is not the obvious first-best solution [nor do I think that female adultery, by itself, should lead men to pursue divorce but my experience is that this is a much less common occurrence].
How many cheated-upon wives have left their husbands not because they could not tolerate the adultery but because our culture tells them that they should not tolerate the adultery or that their spouse’s adultery reflects poorly upon them? I’ve always thought that the cheaters’ behavior generally reflects poorly on the cheater and not upon the other spouse. Yet our culture frequently questions the judgment and even the integrity of women who stay with their cheating men (think Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Edwards–maybe not–or Silda Spitzer to focus strictly on the recent high-profile infidelities of Democratic politicians). If we didn’t pressure such women to leave their cheating husbands but simply encouraged them to make the right decision for them and their children while acknowledging that adultery is one of those bad things that sometimes happens, we might have fewer divorces and more stable families.
While I am socially very liberal, I share with cultural conservatives two core beliefs: 1) cultural changes in the past fifty to one hundred years have destabilized marriage and family; 2) many social ills, especially those social ills involving children, would be greatly ameliorated if more children were being raised in stable families. Where I differ with cultural conservatives are which cultural changes that have caused this destabilization. I suspect our lower tolerance of male adultery and our tendency to partially blames wives for their husbands’ adultery actually destabilizes families.