Could you forgive your spouse for having an extramarital affair? When it comes to relationships, it's hard to think of a more perennial question. When I was in college, my friends and I -– most of us children of divorced parents -– would argue with high emotion about whether any committed monogamous relationship could or should survive sexual betrayal. We invariably came to the only possible conclusion, which was that whatever we imagined we might do if we were the betrayed spouse, we couldn't judge others for their choices, whether they decided to stay or leave. It was too easy to make a strong case on either side.
The question of forgiveness, however, tends to get muddled up with the question of whether an extramarital affair is ever justifiable. When famous men cheat the degree to which their infidelity is excusable in the public eye depends — with depressing and utterly predictable regularity — on the perceived hotness differential between the betrayed wife/girlfriend and the "other woman." This unhappy calculus is what led to such bewilderment when Hugh Grant stepped out on Elizabeth Hurley with Divine Brown –- and to predictable nods of understanding when David Petraeus cheated on a wife who had "let herself go" with Paula Broadwell.
One place where we don't expect to find that reflexive excusing of bad male behavior is in the New York Times' iconic Sunday Modern Love column. Last weekend's offering, however, led to a firestorm of debate on the Facebook walls of dozens of my friends. In After the Affair, Judy Wachs described her own reaction to her husband's revelation that he'd been having a year-long affair with a much younger waitress:
As hurt as I was, it all made a perverted sort of sense. I understood her attraction to him, a 35-year-old man in a suit and tie with a nice car. And I saw how he would be taken in by an adoring young woman who hung on his every word and read the books he suggested. It was every married man's fantasy, especially a married man who felt unappreciated at home and overwhelmed at work.
Because of that "perverted sort of sense," Wachs forgives her husband, stays with him another 20 years, and then finally leaves her marriage for reasons she insists had nothing to do with his past infidelity.
The reader is left in a difficult position. The Modern Love column isn't the Jerry Springer show; we can't yell "leave the prick" at Wachs when we learn that her husband only confesses the affair when, having been dumped by his young girlfriend, he comes to his wife for comfort. At the same time, the conventional wisdom that "no one knows what really goes on in a marriage save for the two people in it" is pervasive; most of us are reluctant to condemn Wachs' decision as inexplicable or indefensible. The safest course is to shrug, say something to the effect that "she's more forgiving than I'd ever be," applaud her subsequent decision to leave decades later, and turn the page.
The laudable reluctance to judge another person's relationship decisions -– perhaps especially a woman whom one doesn't know in real life –- doesn't mean that we should ignore the reality that the Modern Love column isn't just where we turn to read (mostly) good writing about relationships. By its very name, it's at least in part a forum for debating how we love differently than did our parents and grandparents. The most widely-read weekly column on relationships, it helps us define the limits of what's acceptable behavior from our partners. And without passing judgment on her choice to forgive, we can and should take issue with how Wachs frames her husband's rationale for cheating.
Wachs' suggestion that "every man's fantasy" is to cheat on an "aging" wife (who doesn't appreciate him) with an "adoring younger woman" reframes an individual act of betrayal as an unavoidable male failing. This recasting is comforting. It's a lot more pleasant to believe that your husband is weak than it is to believe that he had the capacity to resist temptation, but made a conscious decision not to do so. This is what makes the "myth of the uncontrollable boner" so seductive; it's preferable to think that a painful betrayal was the result of irresistible evolutionary imperatives rather than choice. "My man is so manly that he gets urges that trump his very real love for me" is ever so much prettier than "In the end, he didn't care about me enough to keep it in his pants."
That Wachs preferred to blame herself for growing older and being insufficiently appreciative of her husband's efforts -– rather than hold him accountable –- is understandable. It's the easier choice to make. But because hers was a choice that (at least as she frames it) was based on a fundamental lie about men's imagined inability to resist the demands of libido and ego, it deserves to be challenged. The waitress' youth and wide-eyed admiration are neither excuses nor explanations –- they're distractions from the real issue, which is that a father and a husband made a conscious decision to be dishonest for over a year. If Wachs wanted to forgive him, that's her concern. If she wants to use the pages of the New York Times to argue the tattered old canard that men stray because they're unable to resist the charms of adoring younger women, that's everyone's business.
Jezebel columnist Hugo Schwyzer teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College and is a nationally-known speaker on sex, masculinity, body image and beauty culture. He also blogs at his eponymous site. Follow him on Twitter: @hugoschwyzer.
Image by Jim Cooke.