June 5, 2005

A wife's reverie about infidelity.

Cristina Nehring writes an interesting review of Diana Shader Smith's "Undressing Infidelity: Why More Wives Are Unfaithful." Read the whole thing -- [subscription to The Atlantic required][try this] -- but let me quote the conclusion:
Unshakable loyalty to a central partner does not preclude passionate responses to other people. If it seems that way, it is only because of the puritanism, the pious emotional parsimony, of our American era.

Diane Shader Smith's book provides, ironically, a perfect example of this. Her introduction is an alarmist confession of her attraction to a man other than her husband. She recounts in detail her nervousness around him, her supposedly dangerous fascination with his charm. She criminalizes her feelings. And so, one might add (albeit more understandably, since she has led the way), does her husband. In a different culture her attraction would be viewed by her readers, herself, and her husband as perfectly natural and even commendable. What sort of a creature would you be if, having once found a human being who stirs your heart (and whom you marry, if you follow Rabbi Boteach's example, by age twenty-one), you were never stirred again?

The key is to incorporate chemistry into our marital lives, not to snuff it out. We are erotic and emotional animals, and when we react most fully to people, we react to them erotically and emotionally. We react this way to teachers and to students; to pop stars and to politicians; to interns, novelists, and waiters; to our elders and our juniors. It is a part of what allows us to relate to human beings across the social, political, and cultural spectrums. To demonize this responsiveness is to truncate our sensibility, our humanity. Better to share our passing fancies with our mates, to turn them like colored glass in the light, lest they become blades in our pockets. For this we need magnanimous partners. And we need an 18-karat commitment to those partners, who over the years will inevitably seem less perfect than those glinting shards of novelty in the corner of our sight.

"To fall in love is to create a religion that has a fallible god," said Jorge Luis Borges. To love truly is to stay in love after the fall. It is to love more gratefully, more potently, because our god has come down to earth: the spirit has been made flesh and now walks—and slips, and flounders, and slouches—among us.

It's a delicate proposition—counterintuitive, presumptuous, heady, unreasonable. And yet therein lies its nobility and, perhaps, its necessity.
Well, that's awfully pretty prose, but something tells me Nehring has not actually played this tricky game. "Colored glass in the light," "glinting shards" -- try juggling with real emotions. Nehring's thought it through, intellectually, but on her own limited terms. She posits a "magnanimous partner" and "an 18-karat commitment." And the attraction to another is conveniently placed at the "passing fancy" level. If everything stays neat and manageable like that, maybe you can keep your marriage and still not "truncate" your "sensibility" and "humanity." It is a "delicate proposition," indeed, but passionate, sexual love is not going to behave itself in real life the way it does in your nice little reverie.

So you long to fulfill yourself through sexual attraction to others and, in doing so, add complex dimension to your marriage in a way that humanity-squelching, emotionally parsimonious Americans dare not? I look forward to reading your well-written essay about how that worked out.

UPDATE: A commenter makes me realize that I've linked to an article that requires a subscription. Magazines should realize that bloggers need to be able to link to them. Why should I read The Atlantic if I can't link to an article for my readers? Ah! The Atlantic has gone way downhill in the last couple years anyway. Way too much one-sided politics. I was going to let my subscription run out anyway, but I was thinking, looking at this new issue, that the back third of the book is worthwhile. But it's a lot less worth my while if I'm not thinking this might be bloggable.


C. Schweitzer said...

What a strange essay. I'm not really sure I "get" exactly what she's suggesting: that we tell our spouses when we're attracted to other people and say "oh, by the way, I sometimes them of him/her" when I'm orgasming with you."

On one level, she's stating the obvious—that we're bound to be attracted to and connected to other people even when we're in a good, satisfying marriage. Marriage wouldn't be much of a commitment if there weren't real temptations, for Pete's sake! It's a vow preceisely because it's difficult to keep.

But, if I were married and my husband told me that he was attracted to someone else and thought about her sexually, I'd be hurt, because it would bring up issues about my body, about sex, about close-ness.

You're precisely right--this essay is all rhetoric--no reality. It's one thing to recognize intellectually that there will be real sexual temptations to your partner, it's quite another to have those temptations in your face.

L. Ron Halfelven said...

The Atlantic won't let me Read The Whole Thing. Was the author's choice of "an 18-karat commitment" (as opposed to a 24-karat commitment) deliberate?

JohnF said...

What this essay overlooks is that a generalized level of sexual frustration is probably what has impelled much of the achievement underlying the American way of life.

Once the population is sexually satisfied, then we will be happier but, in the long run, doomed.

Just kidding. Sort of. Maybe.

Joan said...

I'm not a subscriber, either, but the paragraphs I did read made me wonder if the piece is actually a satire. I mean, really: Women have been told they are helpless and dependent for so long that we have begun to believe it—and to object vociferously when we are not treated as such.

This isn't serious, is it? Reading this it's as if the decades since the 1950s never happened.

On the topic at hand, though, you are dead right that this rhetoric sounds good on paper but in real life will result in nothing but a huge mess. We've all got feelings (hopefully), we all have to learn whether or not to act on them.

Infidelity always results from the conscious decision to satisfy the self rather than honor the commitment, no matter how much the practitioners would argue otherwise. No one has sex by accident. I'd venture to say as well that no one falls in love by accident, either. We allow ourselves to do these things, telling ourselves that the good feelings we get are well worth any negative consequences down the line. Usually, we're just deluded in that thinking.

I do not believe that it is possible to achieve self-fulfillment through sexual expression alone. When sexuality is removed from the context of a committed relationship, it becomes a meaningless search for pleasure, which lasts only as long as each tryst. Seeking pleasure for its own sake isn't a bad thing, but looking for fun while recasting it as fulfillment to justify the downsides is reprehensible.

Jake said...

nless a man has a rock for a brain, he soon learns he not to talk about another woman's attractiveness or sexuality in front a woman.

Women absolutely hate when you do that. I also learned that if you want to hang around with women, don't do things that make them hate you.

It is also called good manners and consideration for others.

Pancho said...

The whole concept is rhetorical for me. I'm blessed. I'm married to the best looking babe I know!

Ann Althouse said...

I'm not sure there's all that much to be gained from reading the whole essay. Nehring wants women to have what men have, it seems, but the part I quoted is what interested me the most. It has this sunny view of communication: That's the core of real marriage. The problem with affairs is the deception, she says at one point in the article, and then in the end she promotes honest communication, but it's not honest communication about actual acts of infidelity, only feelings of attraction to others. The theory seems to be that if couples talk about such things, they'll become more bonded to each other and then they won't have to have affairs. But why would admitting one's attractions to others make affairs less likely as opposed to making them seem more acceptable? And why would this honest expression make the other person feel closer to you as opposed to threatened or angry?

mw said...

I gave up on the Atlantic a while ago, but if you want something bloggable on the same topic, you could try this from 'BitchPhD':

Feminism, (open) marriage, and fucking around: some preliminary thoughts

She doesn't just discuss her attractions with her husband, she acts on them and then recounts her weekend trysts on her blog. Her husband occasionally weighs in as well. Her readers seem to think she is 'brave' and that her husband is great guy.

My reaction? Feminism at its most demented. Stupidity of the sort that takes decades of education to achieve. If it weren't so sad, it'd be funny. Feel sorry for the kid, though.

Joe said...

Nehring sez:

"Unshakable loyalty to a central partner does not preclude passionate responses to other people. If it seems that way, it is only because of the puritanism, the pious emotional parsimony, of our American era."

Not sure if this is a jab at the idea that we are all oppressed by the "theocracy" instituted once GWB gained office. Whateva.

But the idea of loyalty to a spouse precedes any American era. We're talking Old Testament stuff.

Mark Kaplan said...

Why does this article remind me of Jimmy Carter's "lust in my heart many tmes" interview?

Bruce Hayden said...

I never thought ill of Jimmy Carter for confessing that he lusts in his heart for other women. Indeed, I found it positive. To me, it seemed that he was admitting to a sin, and thus, that he was a sinner.

Compare this with Bill Clinton. He, of course, acted on his lusts, to the disadvantage of both his family, and the country. And his confession was mostly that he regretted getting caught.

I think that the reality is that almost all males between the ages of, say, 15 and 55, lust quite a bit in their hearts. We do it constantly. Carter was acknowledging this, and that he was weak, like the rest of us.

But the central question is not that sexual passion that naturally comes upon you when you see that attractive woman walk by, but, rather, what you do about it. Or, just as importantly, what you don't do about it.

Jimmy Carter not only presumably did not act on such urges, but apparently tried to minimize them. Instead of partaking in short daydreams about sex with that attractive woman, presumably he would try to be aware of this weakness in him, and think about something else.

But, I think for most, it is probably just enough to just say No.

Bruce Hayden said...

Let me add that with the possible exception of truly open marriages, I cannot see what good could come from screwing around on your mate. In the end, it can't help your relationship with the mate. And is likely to destroy whatever trust you two had with each other.

RPM said...

I've had the same quandary with the Atlantic. One can email an article to friends that gives them a three day permission privilege. Maybe you can email yourself and post the self-destructing link. I may try to do that.

I think the Atlantic is contrarian by nature and is a little tough on the ruling party or its philosophies. Overall, it is still full of interesting and thoughtful pieces.

Ann Althouse said...

RPM: Thanks. I took your suggestion and made a new link in the post. Here it is too.

One reason I'm so hard on The Atlantic is that it used to be so good. It was the best magazine five years ago.

Bruce: I think you're missing Mark Kaplan's point, which, if I get the message, is that the author, like Jimmy Carter, is the sort of virtuous person who isn't going to spoil the marriage and thinks she or he is acknowledging the power of sexual temptation but is not really having a serious encounter with it.

RPM said...

Success! Here is the temporary link to the fidelity article:


The process:

1. Login to the Atlantic
2. Find your article
3. Email it to yourself
4. Copy link from email
5. Post temporary link

Since it goes bad in 3 days I don't think the Atlantic will mind so much

David Manus said...

Well, I can't discourse at length on my rebuttal to the lady's article and her opinions about fidelity. I'd just say succinctly, my opinion is that she's a hobag.

chuck_b said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ginny said...

Does anyone else "of a certain age" feel like we've been there (the sixties), done that (free love, open marriage), and found out that thousands of years of culture were probably put together not to oppress us but to free us: being faithful to one another leaves us open to an intimacy with our mate that comes with trust; this communication can then be on a level the writer of this essay doesn't, really, "get."

Do we really have to go through this crap every other generation? And my God, what kind of a wheel is rediscovered here: we feel sexually attracted to others than our mates! I really like the Atlantic, but this isn't, well, worth the subscription price in terms of insights.

Kirk Parker said...


"I'd venture to say as well that no one falls in love by accident, either."

No kidding. You can understand a lot about the current difficulty our culture seems to be having with "relationships" once you become aware of the dogged insistence on confusing attraction and love.

jult52 said...

This is the theme of Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut."

I agree with Ann's reaction 100%.

Jake said...


"thousands of years of culture were probably put together not to oppress us but to free us"

Excellent. I love that statement. Aristotle would agree with you.

Simon Kenton said...

1) was practicing down at the indoor range with the biathletes - and a tight-bodied fidgety set they are, too - when one of them said, "I was reading an article in the Atlantic about astromomy, and right in the middle of it was a sentence that started, 'George Bush, the worst president we ever had....' I wanted to read about astronomy. Whether George Bush is the worst president we ever had HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH ASTRONOMY. I cancelled my subscription." Since he brought it up, I've seen this in all sorts of odd little publications like the Canyon Country Zephyr and the Mountain Gazette. Every few paragraphs you have to drop an anti-Bush turdlet to establish bona fides, no matter how it destroys your concinnity.

2) Actively loving someone is volitional, and that's hard. The sleep of reason and will is way more seductive.

Tom Kubilius said...

The problem with affairs is much more than the deception.

I agree with the quote above 'thousands of years of culture were probably put together not to oppress us but to free us.'

It is quite sad that some people view any rule or norm that differs from what they want to do in a particular moment as oppression.

If it were easy to be loyal to a partner both physcially and emotionally we would not take such serious vows at the beginning or such a commitment.

For many of us there is a sacramental element to marriage, something bigger than the husband and wife, that they are a part of--the marriage doesn't just serve their needs, it is a part of a much greater whole. To reduce it to just the emotional needs of the two partners is to devalue it.

We live in a society that, mostly, values marriage. This is a lesson that we as humans have learned over a long history. It is natural for the young to think their elders are ignorant and can't understand current times.

It is sad when those young grow up to never learn the lessons their elders did, and dedicate themselves to tearing down everything that was built before they came into the world.

I really have trouble seeing how the sharing of illicit fantasies and radom lust could strengethen any marriage.

It seems like an excuse to indulge oneself in fantasies of the new and fascinating over meeting the obligations to which one has committed. This is nothing new or brave. It is the path of least resistance dressed up in fake intellectualism.

jinnmabe said...

Excellent comments, Tom Kay.

peter hoh said...

Well, I have the recent Atlantic in my mail slot. Yawn. Let's be honest -- I'm not going to read the whole thing.

One of my problems with the Atlantic piece -- as excerpted -- is that the most tempting affair partner is not going to be some person who, at first glance, seems sexually attractive. An attractive stranger, while he or she may offer some visual stimulation, is not going to make someone break his or her vows of fidelity. (Exception made for the Bill Clinton model of infidelity, where there is a strong sense of entitlement, along with sexual addiction and/or sexual predation.)

In the interest of full disclosure, let me just say that I was really impressed with the young woman in red shorts riding a bike on Snelling Avenue this afternoon. Ahh, summer.

Shirley Glass had some interesting insights about affairs. Many of her thoughts are captured in a 1998 interview she gave Psychology Today, which is available here:

There's some Clinton context that weighs heavy in the first section, but then it moves on to Glass's ideas about the source of attraction in an affair, the way people get to try out different parts of themselves within an affair, and how couples can rebuild afterward. Much of her thinking runs contrary to conventional wisdom. Her research found that affairs can happen in otherwise happy marriages -- even in marriages where the cheating spouse reports a high level of marital and sexual satisfaction. (Glass died in 2003.)

Often, according to Glass, an affair can happen to people who aren't really looking for an affair: "These start as friendships by people who are not even aware of being dissatisfied with their marriages," she said. "They have found someone they feel a compatibility with, common interests and excitement. Some of these affairs take months and even years to develop. It's insidious." Add sex and secrecy to the mix, and you've got the makings of some powerful intimacy. Of course, it exists in a place where ordinary reality (sick kid in the middle of the night, for instance) never intrudes, and that probably only helps it along.

I was pleased to see that previous comments have mentioned Carter's lust quote. That seems more in line with what the Atlantic piece was getting at -- not the actual case of affairs, but the little attractions that happen. But on the topic of politicians, why is it that Clinton gets flak for his affairs and Giuliani doesn't? Perhaps because Rudy marries his affair partners.

While not condoning the Clinton-style affair, it seems to me that the affair that leads one to conclude that he or she should abandon his or her marriage falls into a much more damaging category. I suspect, however, that most people who enter into affairs experience some temporary insanity that prevents them from clear thinking. Just one of the reasons that affairs thrive in secrecy.

Simon Kenton said...

Mr, Hoh, I don't know as Clinton did take flak for his affairs per se. There was rightly some concern about the level of force involved in some of them; see Hitchens' "No One Left to Lie To," which makes him out a cheery and violent (not savagely violent)rapist. But I suspect I speak for more than a few males in noting that Mrs. Clinton is an extraordinary avatar of the Limp Force; perhaps in public life only Tammy Faye Baker embodies it more powerfully. Cher, Barbara Streisand, are at least 10^-5 as weaker manifestations than the ex-president's wife. So one can perhaps understand the attraction of Ms Lewinsky. It is not so much that man is weak, as that some men seek excuses for infidelity, and with a neutron star of Limp Force at home, perhaps stronger men than he would have broken their vows.

He took the flak, not because of affairs, but because he committed perjury to avoid penalties. I never really could see this as high crimes and misdemeanors, but rather something closer to low dives and music halls. But it wasn't affairs, and the attempt to skate his personal and financial responsibility for harassment was non-trivial, if non-momentous.

Axel Arturo said...

The whole article was reprinted by Powell's, and the link is permanent. You can find it here: