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Adultery in the Twenty-First Century

Updated on November 26, 2013

A Tale of Three People

Adultery Then and Now

The subject of adultery often comes up historically in religious texts especially from the Bible. In ancient biblical times there wasn't much distinction between religion and the law, one was the same as the other. Moses ascended Mount Sinai and came down with tablets made of stone in which God had written the Ten Commandments. One pertained to adultery. No exceptions were made to the rule.

Not only the ancient Hebrews but many civilizations all through history have condemned adultery. While it was punishable as a crime in olden days, it now comes up most often as evidence in divorce cases. But more important to most people is the fact that their friends, family, and coworkers will think ill of them for committing adultery.

Even the law and the conscience, however, are less important than the acknowledged impact of adultery on domestic violence in which real physical injuries result.

Although most people picture the man as the one who cheats on his wife, a lot of the foundation for adultery's bad reputation consists of the possibility that some other man might be the father of a guy's wife, thereby harming the innocent husband both emotionally and financially as he supports his family. But studies in America in the 1990's show that about twice as many husbands as wives commit adultery. The overall portion of married people who've committed adultery is about one-fourth.

Then there's the concept of "swinging" in a wide open marriage, in which the spouses feel adultery is OK. This would be the current radical fringe on the spectrum of attitudes toward adultery. In the time of Moses, God might have split the earth open under their feet and swallowed them up.

In ancient Western civilizations adultery was punishable against wives but not husbands. But as societies progressed, it became obvious that the emotional hurt could work both ways. Husbands increasingly have been condemned for adultery. It is difficult for us in modern times to realize that women and wives once were considered "property" so that laws on adultery were passed primarily to protect ownership rights of husbands.

We have become a thousand times more liberal modernly on the subject of adultery. Some say it is justified in special circumstances. But those circumstances are rare, and adultery maintains its bad reputation. It does damage to one's spouse. It can destroy a family in which children are growing up. The exception, however, is the marriage where these effects have been mostly eliminated by mutual agreement of the spouses. As evidence of such openness, adultery websites now exist where members can arrange affairs with like-minded liberals. As remarkable as this is, the people participating are still in a very small minority.

The reason adultery hasn't caught on may be that love still exists in most marriages enough to prohibit the partners from doing something so disrespectful as to double-cross the other spouse behind his or her back. When love and respect no longer exist in a marriage, however, one or both spouses could feel justified, no matter how religious they may be, in seeking romance and marriage with a new person. In essence, the marriage dissolves invisibly without any divorce decree, so that finding someone new becomes the only reason to bring the court into play.

In such cases, the unbalanced scenario usually causes hatred and sometimes violence on the part of the disrespected, disrespectful former spouse who still has not found a new love, but must stand by and watch his or her ex-spouse go on a honeymoon with someone new. If only the timing could be perfect so that both ex-spouses find their new loves at the same time, then the stress would be much less for all concerned, including the children.

But cases of mutual disrespect in marriage still are in the minority. Usually a marriage will fail when only one partner weakens.

Adultery is today not so much condemned because it's a religious taboo as it is feared for being strong proof of a marriage headed toward divorce, which usually is a tragic experience that carries the emotional impact of a death in the family.

Open Marriage

Adultery by Agreement

In an open marriage, the couple agrees beforehand that it's OK for each of them to have boyfriends or girlfriends. But just because they don't think they're being unfaithful, does that mean that God will forgive the deliberate adultery. With Freedom of Religion, perhaps anything goes. Most religions, and most people for that matter, aren't that free, however.

There was a 1972 book written by G. & N. O'Neill entitled "Open Marriage." Although the authors mean to say that women and men should be allowed to have friends of the opposite sex, the book also delved into the daring proposition that the friendship might progress to intimacy.

Now, dating singles refer to open relationships in which many boyfriends or girlfriends can be had, or at least more than one at a time.

Still, the majority of all people, whether dating or married, prefer to stick to one at a time. Jealousy is human nature.

As a married couple separates, with or without divorce pending, they generally agree that each is free to date. This might not constitute adultery in the classic sense, and therefore could be considered OK by most people's moral standards.

Jealousy is the key word in open marriage. Avoiding it is almost impossible. The psychological reasons against adultery have endured for at least as long as we have history, going back thousands of years to the earliest known laws of antiquity.

There also are medical reasons for not mixing with too many people intimately. Other people stress that marriage is a promise, a contract, giving each spouse almost property rights in the other.

People who openly advocate open marriage are considered scandalous by most. Very few married couples do have open relationships (estimates say less than 5%). Therefore, adultery, as ancient a taboo as it is, continues to be the rule rather than the exception to the rule in most marriages. Also, very few couples will tolerate cheating at the boyfriend and girlfriend stage. The lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transsexual (LGBT) world is no different in this regard.


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