Cultural notions of what romance is all about fill us all with heady hopes; cheating is an attempt to fulfill those hopes. That, too, is new. It used to be, Perel said, that people outsourced their expectations of happiness to cultural institutions, organized religion chief among them. People found fullness in their lives—all the stuff of the modern-day wedding vow—not just from their spouses, but from community and civic engagement and religious faith. (Or, as Perel put it: “‘Happy’ used to be for the afterlife.”)
But American culture is increasingly secular, and more to the point increasingly self-directed, in a Bowling Alone and Culture of Narcissism kind of way: We will take our happiness here and now, thank you, and we will do whatever we can to get it. Cheating often stems from the psychological manifestation of that cultural attitude: It’s a logic of “I deserve this,” Perel explains. “It would be a betrayal to myself if I didn’t pursue that.”
Perhaps, given all that, it’s time for us to rethink infidelity—and, more to the point, marriage itself. Cheating, Perel said, “has a tenacity that marriage can only envy”; that alone might be a sign that something is amiss. Long-term monogamy can offer all the wonderful things that wedding vow-ers say it does; it is also, however, a social, economic, and political structure, one that has been less defined by human nature than by cultural expectations. And those expectations are, even in this age of delayed marriage and marriage equality, heavier than they have ever been before. Marriage, so inflated with hopes that used to be outsourced to other institutions, it is probably inevitable that some of them, at least, will burst.
It seems we ever lament the isolation of people these days and how we don't talk to each other any more. It seemed decades ago there were plenty of stories about how people were all up in our space and we needed to be free. That was in the last century. I get the feeling lately that the early "modern" classics fretted about the stifling nature of the kind of social community we now miss in the 21st century.
Soren Kierkegaard wrote something earlier in his life where he remarked on how the young man bewails his singleness and the lack of a wife until he gets a wife, whereupon he bewails the loss of the freedoms he had when he wasn't married. This wasn't just some case of "the grass is always greener on the other side", it was more a smart-ass observation that resenting your actual lot in life rather than being grateful was the default position of many a man. We crave the kinds of emotional and relational bonds we feel we lack unless we feel trapped and ensnared by the reality that in those kinds of relationships people actually need us for stuff and we feel we have lost our freedoms or some sense of ourselves. The things we're nostalgic for now in pop cultural criticism seemed to be the things that some earlier generations of writers and artists declared they wanted to be liberated from. We're fretting about ways to recover or discover for ourselves the things that earlier generations of writers and artists and songwriters felt were holding them back.
That balance will never be achieved. You will always be imprisoned with and by those people and things you love. Love that prison. Love those people.
But along the way, if you're not already paired off maybe ask yourself why on earth you would want to be. Years ago a friend was telling me he wasn't gifted for singleness (and it seems every evangelical guy in the north American continent keeps saying this!) and I asked him what it was he thought he was going to get out of married life. Intimacy, he replied. I told him that marriage is like the cave Luke visits in the Empire Strikes Back. Minus the dark side of the force, perhaps. But the point is that when Luke asks "what's in there?" Yoda replies, "only what you take with you." Marriage is like that, it seems. If you want to find intimacy in marriage then bring it with you, don't expect the other person to have brought it along to share it with you if you don't already have it yourself.
Defining down "cheating" in the face of unrealistic expectations made about the romantic pair bond is unconvincing. If the problem has been that we expect too much of the pair in love why would a "solution" to cheating be to define cheating down? What if an alternative would be to propose modes of social identity and cohesion that don't have as a given the sexual bond? As in, it wouldn't be straight, gay, etc pair-bonding but other stuff. Our social lives seem to be defined by work, sex, or hobbies. If religion used to be a unifying variable in the past and is so no longer then what do we come up with as analternative?
To go by journalists who write about TV the alternative narratives that play the civic role religion may have at one time would go by titles such as Mad Men or Game of Thrones. Marxists who believe that capitalism oppresses people may want the unifying narrative to be class warfare and Marxism but Marxists are like fundamentalists who believe in the Rapture, they make their livings by constantly promising an apocalypse we never see coming along. For those of us who are amillenialists we're not looking for a Rapture, wehther the dispensationalist Hal Lindsey style rapture or the class warfare Marxists are into. It could still be the same 19th century postmillennialist hubristic optimism underlying a Marxist critique and a Christian fundamentalist critique of life as it is. Not that it doesn't stink a lot of the tiem, it's just that the only thing worse than life as it is is what life turns into when the people who want us to lvie for better start imposing that on us.