When Trojan Paris beds and steals away Helen, Queen of Sparta and wife to Menelaus, he begets the destruction of Troy and brings mass carnage to the Greeks. Lost in lust for her lover, Aegisthus, Clytemnestra murders her returning husband, Agamemnon, and is in turn murdered by her vengeful children.
We modern mortals are a little more restrained in our vengeance, if not in our passions, than the ever-straying gods and heroes of antiquity—though the recent images of a bowed and shamed Dominique Strauss Kahn in handcuffs did make me wonder . . . The human (and financial) costs of infidelity, it is clear, continue to be high and often rumble through the generations. Nonetheless, like the ancients, we carry on loving in triangles. Some say—though statistics in this area are even less exact than in others—that between 40% to 80% percent of settled couples engage in infidelities.
Intriguingly, an equivalent 80% of us disapprove of infidelity. So why, despite our best moral aspirations, do we breach our bonds?
All the Abrahamic religions are noisy in their prohibition of adultery. Number seven of the Ten Commandments forbids it. The New Testament, ever alert to the importance of policing thoughts, takes the prohibition even further: ' . . .whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart,' Matthew tells us. The slippage between thought and act finds a tantalising echo in French courts today where online 'virtual' betrayals are increasingly cited as grounds for very real divorce.
One might disingenuously ask why so common a human act as adultery is conceived as so fundamentally transgressive. The answer is simple enough. If marriage constitutes our primary social and legal bond creating that unit, the home, through which society regenerates itself, then a breach of that bond is a 'criminal' act which challenges both social order and social cohesion. Adultery, after all, doesn't just mean sex for adults, as the worldly quip would have it. It takes its meaning from 'adulterate', to pollute or contaminate by mixing the wrong combination of things together. In adultery, we not only break the rules of what may be combined, but simultaneously attack those rules' very existence, revealing them to be arbitrary rather than absolute.
Passion has ever had something disruptive, revolutionary, one might even say criminal about it. It's an unruly emotion, allergic to society and settled norms. We accept it on the whole when it tears the young away from their families, at least for a while. But when it threatens an established union, sanction is far harder to give.
This continues to be the case even in our permissive times. Despite early promiscuity, despite the prevalence of prior relationships before the moment of commitment, despite serial unions, no-fault divorce and remarriage, we continue to believe or wish to believe in sexual exclusivity and punish infidelity and adultery. A conviction born out of inner choice and idealisation rather than strict convention, arguably calls for greater blame—as well as guilt and self-and-other flagellation—when a partner strays. The noisy tabloid exposures, the rush to injunction by those minor gods, our celebrities, seems to prove the case. The paradox is that we want to believe in fidelity, want to blame when it lapses, yet also want to stray . . .
The question needs to be asked: why are we so prostrated by a partner's betrayal, when we know the act is so common?
Betrayal calls upon our deepest feelings. It involves deceit, cheating, perfidy, violation of faith and confidence. It may be one of our ordinary vices, but it contains an irreducible experience: desertion. Betrayal brings into play a fundamental childhood anxiety: the fear of abandonment.
Thorny contradictions rumble through our ideals of coupledom. Our marriages and cohabitations are based on a romantic notion of passionate merger forever, an intimacy in which our inner lives are shared. Betrayal brings with it the spectre of the dissolution not only of the couple but of the betrayed partner's very being. Losing the other becomes losing oneself. It is as if we were all babes at breast and had grown no thicker skin or survival skills since.
Simultaneously we live under a cultural order that tells us we're entitled to develop our own individuality and can continue to fulfil our unmet needs, those lacks left over from early childhood, for the entirety of our lives. What more common way of developing our individuality than falling in love or in lust? Would it not be self-betrayal to renounce the passion that promises transformation in the name of a deadening or warring coupledom? In this thicket of inconsistencies, the perils of adultery loom, all the while giving off a sulphurous glow.
While people suffer and harm for their adulteries, they also continue to commit them and adulterate their marriages. We might want to consider whether it's because we grow up in triangles, that we go on to recreate them, sometimes over and over again. Our earliest blissful love, our oneness with mother, first site of our romantic possessiveness, was, after all, shared. Daddy or siblings hovered in the wings. Third parties, real or imagined, continue to shadow our coupledom in a variety of ways. Old lovers or partners linger in the anterooms of our minds. Women or men spied on streets or on Internet sites intrude into our minds. One might even say that the couple only exists as a resistance to the intrusion of the third party.
So we carry on defending against infidelity and succumbing to it. No one ever said love was easy. Luckily for many of us the first intrusion into our coupledom is marked by the arrival of that most welcome of third parties, his majesty, the child.
Lisa Appignanesi is the author of All About Love, published by Virago.