We are not wired to go through the vicissitudes of life alone, we need people we value as physiological and emotional safety nets. The one we have taken our vows with is more important to us than ever. They occupy a far more central place in our emotional, physical, psychological and social make-up than they once did. We lean far too much on them for our sense of balance and wholeness than we once did. And thus, we are faced with a daunting task, to set that bond in cement, make it permanent, impregnable, not just from the outside but from within. We dish out promises by the dozen and lap them up with equal fervor. We do not just commit love and care and togetherness to our partner, we commit love, care and togetherness and exclusivity! We do not just commit what we will feel/unfeel for our partner but also what we will feel/unfeel for any third person in an unknowable future. We do not just promise them our bodies exclusively, we extract a claim on theirs to the exclusion of all others.
No wonder infidelity sucks so much more now. For we have no support system to help us safeguard the continuity of the relationship from fleeting or deeper infidelities vis-à-vis the larger more substantial future we have chalked out for ourselves with our spouse. The one today can, in the heat of the indiscretion, shortsightedly decide to walk away from the marriage and larger responsibilities or alternatively the one betrayed can, in a fit of rage, decide to end the unit without really thinking through of how relevant the indiscretion really is, even for the betrayer. There are no bumps to halt the tumble as hitherto.
Betrayal, in a world where we draw our sense of worth from the one, can seem far more severe, threatening and de-stabilizing. It is not a promise to an institution or a system as it once was; it is a promise, based on love (with romance and sex as its propeller), which two modern individuals make to each other for a lifetime of togetherness. But – alas! – our dreams, future plans and lives (we live so much longer) outlast our desires. Earlier, marriages were never really supposed to be contingent on sex and romance; and if sparks did fly between the couple, it was just a bonus rather than a foundation; and even when sparks did fly, and inevitably died down, there was an army of support that came into play in the family system dynamics. Today it is not so. Impossible promises are exchanged and there is no support system to help with the gaps and loopholes. Earlier, the unit was bigger than the individual, unofficial non-monogamy did not threaten it; today, the individual is supreme, and thus a betrayal of that individuality can make the entire commitment seem suspect.
Perhaps our own malaise has got compounded because of the massive influence of the western world on our own mores and beliefs. A professor I interviewed told me “Western societies are very individualistic. They say ‘This is my opinion’. This individualistic assertion is breaking down the family… You become overly conscious of your individual position… You are actually negotiating with that position in which ‘I’ becomes of central importance. It has no social base; the society is ‘Us’… Marriage systems break down because of the imbalance between individualism and the social aspirations.”
What made being cheated on become so personal, so agonizing, and so sanity-eroding?
First and foremost, willy-nilly, we have all become blind believers of the utopian ideal of ‘eternal fidelity and romance’ as a ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ outcome of a marriage based on love, a union of equals. Not for 2,5, 10 or even 20 years, but till death does us part. The truth is that sexual attraction will wane, romance will cool down, we will find our partners uninteresting, others will excite us and attract. But when any of this happens we assume it to be symptomatic of a failing marriage. Our society, the media, government agencies, religious leaders, all have this fixated and rigid idea of how our sexual, romantic and family lives should unfold. And if it does not, there is a billion dollar industry invested in spicing up things for us. We are constantly told how to sex up our lives or bring the romance back or understand the other and to be alert on if our partners are into ‘relationships’. We have to do our bit to keep up this perfect eternal relationship!
When any one partner succumbs to another outside, it becomes the failure of that individual and thus becomes extremely personal. Either it is about the cheater who is warped, or it is about the victimized spouse who was perhaps not good enough. Either ways it is a personal failure. Because everyone else apparently is not so debauched!
A breaking of vows exchanged so seriously, which others are presumably sticking to, may make our adulterer’s other values too seem suspect. For how can we trust a person to be a good father/mother, politician, businessman, son/daughter etc. if he/she could not have kept such a fundamental promise? And so it follows that how can we be with a person who cannot be a goodanything? Infidelity, even though all data history and sociology show to be a human transgression, in our lives becomes a personal and out-of-the-mill one!