Should married people deny themselves illicit trysts? In a new book, Alain de Botton asks if long-term monogamy is an impossible ideal
We are unlikely to be able to get a grip on the notorious subject of adultery if we don't first allow ourselves to acknowledge just how tempting and exhilarating it can be, especially after a few years of marriage and a couple of children. Before we can begin to call it "wrong", we have to concede that it is also very often -- for a time, at least -- profoundly thrilling.
So let us imagine a scenario. Jim is in his office, interviewing candidates for a freelance graphic design job. He has already spent a few hours meeting a succession of young, goatee-bearded men when the final prospect arrives.
Named Rachel, she's 25 (Jim is almost 40) and is wearing a pair of jeans, trainers and a dark-green V-neck jumper over nothing much else, calling attention to her androgynous upper body. They talk of printing costs and fonts -- but, of course, Jim's thoughts are elsewhere. We would have to fear for the state of mind of the man who did not respond to this picture of youth, health and energy.
To describe what Jim wants as "sex" is severely to foreshorten the roots of his excitement. The old English synonym for the noun is unusually apt in this case for, in essence, Rachel is provoking in Jim a longing to know her; know her thighs and ankles and neck, naturally, but also her wardrobe, the titles of the books she has on her shelf, the smell of her hair after a shower, the nature of her character when she was a girl and the confidences she exchanges with her friends.
Several months after Rachel's project with his firm is finished, he is asked to go on an overnight trip to Bristol with one of his clients, staying at a Holiday Inn off the M4. Rachel, he discovers, happens to be there too. Like a first-time murderer who intuitively knows how to distribute stones in a body bag, Jim sends an email to his wife, wishing her and their two children good night and warning that he may not have a chance to call her later because the evening threatens to drag on.
Rachel and Jim have a glass of wine together in the otherwise-deserted bar around midnight. Jim's flirtation is precise and to the point. The boldness displayed by middle-aged married men when they are trying to seduce other women should never be confused with confidence; it is just the fear of death, which breeds an awareness of just how infrequently they are ever going to have the opportunity to sample such moments again.
It is this that gives Jim the energy to press on in ways he never would have dared when he was young and single, when life seemed like a limitless expanse stretching out before him and he could still afford the luxury of feeling shy and self-conscious.
Their first kiss takes place in the corridor leading to the lifts. He presses her up against the wall, next to a poster advertising a discounted rate for a family stay with a free brunch for the kids on Sunday. Her tongue greets his eagerly; her body pushes rhythmically against his. This quickly enters the pantheon of the greatest moments of Jim's life.
After he returns home from Bristol, everything continues as it was. Of course, Jim lies about the whole thing. We live in moralistic times. Our age allows most things to happen before marriage but accepts nothing much thereafter.
The newspapers publish a rolling succession of stories about the sexual indiscretions of footballers and politicians, and readers' comments on these reflect the kind of response Jim's activity could be expected to provoke from most fellow citizens. He would be branded a cheat, a scumbag, a dog and a rat.
Let's take the view, for a moment, that what happened between Jim and Rachel was not especially wrong. For that matter, let's go even farther and venture that, contrary to all public verdicts on adultery, the real fault might consist of the lack of any wish whatsoever to stray. This might be considered not only weird but wrong in the deepest sense of the word, because it is against nature. A blanket refusal to entertain adulterous possibilities would seem to represent a colossal failure of the imagination, a heedless disregard for the glorious fleshy reality of our bodies, a denial of the power that should rightly be wielded over our more rational selves by such erotic triggers as the surreptitious pressing-together of knees at the end of a restaurant meal, by high-heeled shoes and crisp blue shirts, by grey cotton underwear and Lycra shorts, by smooth thighs and muscular calves -- each a sensory high point as worthy of reverence as the tiles of the Alhambra or Bach's 'Mass in B minor'. Wouldn't the rejection of these temptations be itself tantamount to a sort of betrayal? Would it really be possible to trust anyone who never showed any interest at all in being unfaithful?
Society holds that married people who discover that their spouses are having affairs have every right to be furious with them and throw them out of the house, cut up their clothes and massacre their reputations in front of their friends.
But should there really be a need to apologise for a desire that could hardly be more understandable or ordinary?
If we flip the coin, seeing marriage as the perfect answer to all our hopes for love, sex and family is naive and misguided, as is believing adultery can be an effective antidote to the disappointments of marriage. What is ultimately "wrong" with the idea of adultery, as with a certain idea of marriage, is its idealism. While it may look at first sight like a cynical and unhopeful activity to engage in, adultery in fact suggests a conviction that we might somehow magically rearrange the shortcomings of our marriage through an adventure on the side. Yet it is impossible to sleep with someone outside of marriage and not spoil the things that we care about inside it -- just as it is impossible to remain faithful in a marriage and not miss out on some of life's greatest and most important sensory pleasures.
There is no answer to the tensions of marriage, if what we mean by an "answer" is a settlement in which no party suffers a loss. Each of the three things we want in this sphere -- love, sex and family -- affects and harms the others in devilish ways.
Loving a person may inhibit our ability to have sex with him or her. Having a secret tryst with someone we don't love but do find attractive can endanger our relationship with the spouse we love but are no longer turned on by. Having children can imperil both love and sex, and yet neglecting the kids to focus on our marriage or our sexual thrills may threaten the health and mental stability of the next generation. Periodically, frustration breeds an impulse to seek a utopian solution to this mess. Perhaps an open marriage would work, we think.
Or a policy of secrets. Or a renegotiation of our contract on a yearly basis. Or more childcare. All such strategies are fated to fail, however, for the simple reason that loss is written into the rules of the situation. If we sleep around, we will put at risk our spouse's love and the psychological health of our children. If we don't sleep around, we will go stale and miss out on the excitement of new relationships.
If we keep an affair secret, it will corrode us inside and stunt our capacity to receive another's love. If we confess to infidelity, our partner will panic and never get over our sexual adventures (even if they meant nothing to us). If we focus all our energies on our children, they will eventually abandon us to pursue their own lives, leaving us wretched and lonely. But if we ignore our children in favour of our own romantic pursuits, we will scar them and earn their unending resentment. Marriage is thus like a bed sheet that can never be straightened: when we seek to perfect or ameliorate one side of it, we may succeed only in wrinkling and disturbing the others.
What more realistic mindset, then, might we take with us into a marriage? What kinds of vows might we need?
Certainly something far more cautionary and downbeat than the usual platitudes would be in order, such as: "I promise to be disappointed by you and you alone. I promise to make you the sole repository of my regrets, rather than to distribute them widely through multiple affairs and a life of sexual Don Juanism. I have surveyed the different options for unhappiness, and it is you I have chosen to commit myself to."
These are the sorts of generously pessimistic and kindly unromantic promises that couples should make to each other at the altar. Thereafter, an affair would be a betrayal only of a reciprocal pledge to be disappointed in a particular way, not of an unrealistic hope.
When the idea of a love-based marriage took hold in the 18th Century, it replaced an older and more prosaic rationale for betrothal, whereby couples got married because they had both reached the proper age, found they could stand the sight of each other, were keen not to offend both sets of parents and their neighbours, had a few assets to protect and wished to raise a family. The bourgeoisie's new philosophy, by contrast, legitimated only one reason for marriage: deep love.
This condition was understood to comprise a variety of hazy but totemic sensations and sentiments, including the lovers' being unable to bear being out of each other's sight, their each being physically aroused by the other's appearance, their being certain that their minds were in perfect tune with each other, their wanting to read poetry to each other by moonlight and their desiring to fuse their souls together into one.
In other words, marriage shifted from being an institution to being the consecration of a feeling, from being an externally sanctioned rite of passage to being an internally motivated response to an emotional state.
This emphasis on achieving congruence between inner and outer selves required strict new qualifications about what a decent marriage would have to entail. To feel only intermittent affection for a spouse, to have mediocre sex six times a year, to keep a marriage going for the wellbeing of the children -- such compromises were considered abdications of any claim to be fully human.
Too many people start off in relationships by putting the moral emphasis in the wrong place, smugly mocking the urge to stray as if it were something disgusting and unthinkable. But in truth, it is the ability to stay that is both wondrous and worthy of honour, though it is too often simply taken for granted and deemed the normal state of affairs.
That a couple should be willing to watch their lives go by from within the cage of marriage, without acting on outside sexual impulses, is a miracle of civilisation and kindness for which both ought to feel grateful every day.
Spouses who remain faithful to each other should recognise the scale of the sacrifice they are making for their love and for their children, and should feel proud of their valour.
© Alain de Botton 2012.
This is an abridged extract from How to Think More About Sex by Alain de Botton (Pan Macmillan, £7.99), one of six new guides from The School of Life. The School of Life tour reaches Dublin's Peppercanister Church on Wednesday. For more info, visit www.theschooloflife.com/Events.