Key to a Successful Marriage...an Affair?

This last week The Huffington Post ran a brief article on an upcoming book by social scientist Catherine Hakim. In it she suggests that having extramarital affairs might actually make for a better relationship. I have not yet read the book, but I did read the excerpt printed in The Telegraph. While we may view this position as extreme, I would argue that the assumptions upon which it is based (at least from what I read in the excerpt) are what I see subtly permeating our culture, our conversations and the attitudes of many my age (20–30 year olds). While this could become a long article or perhaps a series (now there’s an idea!), I’ll do my best to keep it to the three biggest false assumptions.

  1. The problem is marriage as it is currently set up. 

    Like other arguments being put forth against marriage as it is currently defined, Hakim shifts the burden of responsibility from the individuals in the relationship to the institution. Specifically, she argues that the rigid view of fidelity in marriage, particularly in the US and Britain, leads to dismal marriages and therefore the high divorce rates. If men and women were allowed more freedom to engage in outside sexual relationships, without the social stigma of ‘cheating,’ marriages would last longer.If this is true as a general rule, then people who have had, or currently have multiple partners should be the happiest. A cursory look at the research shows a different picture. Women engaged in casual sex were left feeling vulnerable and anxious. Multiple partners only exacerbated the feelings, even among those with a liberal sexual morality. But I don’t have to look any further than my own friends and acquaintances to see this is true. I don’t know a single couple that would do better if one of them started to have an affair. Look at your own circle of friends and tell me if you see it to be different.The problem isn’t marriage itself. As Hakim points out, low or no sex in a marriage is a primary cause for what she calls ‘marriage dating.’ The problem is with the two individuals in that marriage who have stopped investing in the sexual, emotional and physical health of that relationship.

  2. Marriage and sexual passion will inevitably come to be mutually exclusive

    The allure of affairs, according to Hakim, is that they offer, “excitement, being alive, seduction, flirtation, love, affection, sexual bliss, lust, caution, eroticism, fantasy, danger, adventure, exploration and the determined refusal to grow old gracefully.” With the exception of a couple of those adjectives ( I don’t need my marriage to be dangerous thank you), why is it assumed that marriages are not and could not possibly be about that? Isn’t that in part why most of us got married or want to get married?We’ve been conditioned to subconsciously accept that marriage will inevitably mean a diminishing of pleasure, that we’re trading in excitement for stability, and ‘settling down.’ Against that backdrop, an affair sounds not only appealing but logical. It’s everything we had when we first got married-passion, anticipation, sexual fulfillment and adventure-but have let go of over the years. But it isn’t marriage that kills that. It happens when two people let the busyness of life push aside spontaneous afternoon sex, when little annoyances are left to become great chasms and in general, when both people stop giving 100% into the relationship.

    Is marriage difficult? Hell yes! Does it take work to keep things exciting and passionate? Every day. Will there be seasons of difficulty and seasons where the chemistry is great? That is to be expected over the course of 50+ years. But that does not mean that marriage as an institution fails, or that this is somehow limited to marriage only. Relationships ebb and flow. And any relationship that is neglected is going to fall apart.

  3. Sex has no greater moral significance than other basic desires

    Hakin reasons since, “Sex is no more a moral issue than eating a good meal,” and we share those meals at restaurants with people other than our spouse, why not sex? Yet in practically the same breath, she points out that the ground rule of adultery is, “…never in your own back yard.” If there’s no moral difference between a shared meal and sex, why should I not be equally open with my spouse about both? Because going to dinner with another person is not the same as getting physically naked. We know instinctively that a great meal won’t wound our spouse or haunt our memories in the same way that an affair will.In calling sex, “a leisure activity in a consumer society,” Hakin sums up the cornerstone assumption to much of this. If sex is just about me and what I can get from it, than it makes sense that as soon as my needs aren’t being met, I take the easiest route to remedy that. This both demeans the value of the other person and the value of sex in our relationships. You and your partner are not animals subject to your basic instincts, but free thinking human beings capable of reasoning, giving up if necessary what is good in the moment for what is best in the long. You were made to be known, to be loved, to experience physical and emotional intimacy. When both individuals invest in the relationship, focusing on what they can give rather than what they can get. And when they do, an amazing thing happens. Sex is elevated from a purely ‘leisure’ activity (like tennis or golf?) to the passion, love, exploration and seduction we crave.

This is only scratching the surface, I know. But don’t worry, there will be more! If you have the time, I’d encourage you to read the article and book excerpt and then add your thoughts to the comment section below.

What do you think of Hakim’s claims that marriage as we know it actually prevents it from being successful? Are we focused on symptoms or the root of the problem?