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Less adultery = more divorce?

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.

  • Mindy

    Women are usually more readily able to forgive their spouses for adulterous behavior, than men to forgive. Men take it as hurting their egos, and their anatomy. All you have to do is read Shakespeare’s plays , which describes their feelings and their peers’ feelings quite well. There have been many books written about”Male Philandering”, which can be as disturbing as “Habitual Drunkenness”, “Physical Cruelty”, or “Desertion”. Every case of adulterous behavior can’t be put in a “box”. Before people make the decision to divorce, they usually weigh many factors.

  • California observer

    Wonderful ideas–as ideas I mean, not as an excuse (I’m going to be married next fall, to a woman in the Michelle Obama category). How a couple interacts and deals with sex is *supposed* to be their private concern, right? Isn’t sex one of the main reasons for privacy in the first place?

    Your core thesis, that adultery *reduces* divorce below what it would be otherwise, ought to be testable statistically. Like those Freakonomics guys who inferred that abortion reduces criminality: compare nations with different attitudes, states with different attitudes, changes over time, that kind of thing. Get some actual numbers….because if it’s true, it’s really important to know.

    Good job!

  • California observer

    The simplistic “Four Horsemen” division (violence/drugs/abandonment=horrific, adultery=merely unpleasant) picture gets more complicated, as a very perceptive friend just reminded me, if you consider as in comment #1 that some kinds of adultery are really bad, and some kinds of alcoholism or even violence can actually be treated….so whether to stay together in any one case, and whether staying together helps or hurts children, depends hugely on the details of the transgression itself for all four categories.

    And society is just as harsh on women who stay with “abusers” as it is on women who stay with “adulterers”, right? In both cases there *might* be reasons for staying, it’s just that with abuse the offense is more likely to be nasty, less likely to be treatable, and more likely to be ignored or downplayed by the woman herself. So there’s lots of room for nuance.

    • California observer:

      I acknowledge simplifying whether and when fault grounds in a marriage should lead to divorce. Obviously some spouses believe that their partner’s alcoholism or domestic violence are not beyond remedy but those spouses tend not to be seeking divorce and the ones seeking divorce shouldn’t be counseled to stay in their marriage. I still believe that some spouses who come to me seeking divorce due to adultery could possibly salvage their marriage if our culture wasn’t telling them otherwise.

  • Perhaps the reason female adultery is a “much less common occurrence” (in SC at least) is because of the financial realities of the SC statute regarding adultery and alimony (20-3-130A)? While the statute is gender neutral on its face and can therefore pass constitutional muster, the reality is that men typically are not in a financial position to receive alimony in accordance with the other statutory factors and therefore are not subjected to the same financial punishment that women are subjected to in the event adultery is committed. The worst that can come to the men? The court awarding the wife a greater share of equitable distribution and perhaps a bit more spousal support. However, with studies documenting the disparity of the parties’ financial positions years after divorce and with salaries for men and women in the workplace still unequal, the man’s opportunity to recover financially is arguably greater than the woman’s opportunity to do the same. Perhaps if there were an equally effective punishment for men as 20-3-130A is for women, adultery would become a more infrequent occurrence for men as well

  • I would like to see some statistics from studies on this. In relation to divorce I think perhaps adultery has not decreased, it’s just that women are not tolerating it as they used to. Women now are more successful, educated, and strong-willed as perhaps in the 1950’s.

  • TennisHack625

    I’m a man whose wife cheated on him. She acted out after she found out about her father’s affair. Her mother did not divorce therefore his actions were perceived as condoned in my wife’s family. Adultery is like a cancer and spread to our marriage.

    What you suggest, in theory makes sense. Unfortunately, when you are actually going through the pain and rage as the betrayed spouse, divorce is really the only healthy option for you and your children. This is the only true way to stop the cancer.

    A better suggestion is to put the laws back to the way they were prior to 1925 when adultery was a crime. Alienation of affection is a breach of contract and should be punishable. That’s why the divorce rate is so high. There are no laws to protect the marriage contract anymore. In other words, only fools get married in America. In some European countries adultery is 6 to 18 month in prison for both adulterers and the divorce rate is much lower than in America.

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