Attitudes towards sex and sexual morality have changed dramatically in the past few decades, with ever fewer Westerners clucking over such things as premarital sex or love between two men or two women, but infidelity is still seen as a nuclear no-go zone in relationships. In fact, studies show that even as we have become more permissive about most things involving either sex or marriage – ever ready to accept couples who marry late, divorce early, forgo children or choose not to marry at all – we have grown only more censorious of philanderers. In a survey of public attitudes in 40 countries from the Pew Research Centre, an American think-tank, infidelity was the issue that earned the most opprobrium around the world. A general survey of public views in America , conducted by the University of Chicago since 1972, has found that Americans are more likely to say extramarital sex is always wrong now than they were throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Younger generations can usually be relied upon to push sexual morality in a more permissive direction, but infidelity is the one area where the young and old seem to agree. In this broadly tolerant age, when so many of us have come around to accepting love in all different shapes and sizes, adultery is the one indulgence that remains out of bounds.
“There is no subject that elicits more fear, gossip and fascination in the realm of couples than adultery,” says Perel. Back when divorce was a shameful prospect, couples grappling with an affair typically found a way to muddle through. Now, however, men and women are often made to feel ashamed if they try to move past a partner’s infidelity, instead of “kicking the dog to the kerb”. This view is particularly popular in America, Perel adds, where “cheating” tends to be seen in purely moral terms. Critics of Hillary Clinton, for example, have long seen her tolerance of her husband’s infidelities as a blot on her character, rather than as a sign that she prioritises their strengths together over his personal weaknesses. This is a problem, Perel explains, because we have never been more inclined to stray.
Reliable statistics on infidelity are hard to come by as there are few incentives for candour and definitions vary. Numbers of those in Western countries admitting to some sort of infidelity range from 30% to 75% of men and 20% to 68% of women. Now that more women enjoy financial independence and jobs outside the home, the gap between philandering men and women is narrowing swiftly. “There is not a single other taboo that is universally condemned and universally practised,” says Perel. Basically, cheating is something we don’t want and don’t like, but it is something we do and do often states 1843 Magazine