Infidelity and Moral Outrage

Lawrence Josephs, Ph.D.

Three years ago, I published an op-ed piece in the New York Times called “When the Best Sex is Extra-Marital.” I told the story of a patient of mine, a married woman, who came for therapy to help her grieve when her married lover died suddenly of a heart attack. She had been having better sex with her lover than with her husband. Yet after grieving her loss, she was able to work out a satisfactory relationship with her husband to start a family. As a therapist, my aim with patients is to help them explore their thoughts and feelings and see what their practical options might be for constructively moving forward in their lives. I try to avoid judgment or imposing my own values to the degree possible. I was surprised to see that my op-ed piece generated over 700 comments. About half of the commentators criticized me for promoting infidelity, while the other half criticized me for promoting monogamy. Only a small minority appreciated that I was trying not to take sides and allow the patient to find her own way.

Initially, I felt hurt, angry, and even a little frightened to be the object of such intense moral indignation. I felt misunderstood and unfairly criticized. But ultimately, I learned to not take the criticism so personally when I saw that I was being criticized with absolute certitude for opposite and mutually contradictory reasons. That paradox piqued my scientific curiosity. Why does discussing the psychology of infidelity provoke such moralizing and polarizing discourse? Unfaithful partners are scorned as “cheaters” that should have to wear a scarlet letter for adulterer for the rest of their lives. Affair partners are shamed as “home-wreckers.” Betrayed partners, if men, are belittled as “cuckolds” — an emasculated man who couldn’t sexually satisfy his wife. Betrayed women might be mocked for being “prudish” if they make too big a deal of their husbands getting an occasional “lap dance” at a bachelor party. Are unfaithful partners and their affair partners “bad” people, because they have broken the rules governing sexually exclusive relationships and lied about it? Are the betrayed partners “bad” people whose sexually withholding and/or emotionally abusive behavior drove their unfaithful partners to infidelity?

Maybe if humans aren’t meant to be monogamous, we shouldn’t judge individuals who can’t uphold a marital arrangement that goes against human nature. Instead, we should judge the people who try to enforce an unnatural arrangement and make others feel unreasonably guilt-ridden for their failure to conform to an inherently oppressive arrangement. Yet others may believe that monogamy is the natural, if not God-given, arrangement, so that people who fail to honor their monogamous commitments and lie about it should be judged harshly. People have strong infidelity beliefs, if not convictions, so that moral outrage is evoked when their core infidelity beliefs are questioned. If you believe monogamy is unnatural, you might judge the people who try to promote and enforce it. If you think monogamy is natural, you might judge the people who seem to question and undermine its legitimacy. And of course, we might be judgmental of judgmental people of any persuasion, because harsh judgment of any kind can make others feel bad about themselves.

Categories Psychology Society

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