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Adultery: In the eye of the beholder?

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By Amanda Barusch, Professor and Associate Dean for Research, College of Social Work, University of Utah

On Valentine’s Day we celebrate the pleasures of romantic love with special outings, flowers, and chocolates. But hand in hand with the wonders of love come disappointment and betrayal. If you haven’t been hurt you haven’t loved. I learned this (and more) during the five years that my students and I studied the experience of romantic love. Over 1,000 adults responded to our Internet survey on love, with more than half saying they had experienced some form of betrayal. The most common, experienced by over 300 people, was sexual infidelity. One of the most poignant questions, posed in several of the letters I have received since the publication of my book, Love Stories of Later Life, is “If I become involved with someone else when my spouse has Alzheimer’s am I committing adultery?”

"Is it OK as long as the spouse never knows?"

The technical answer is yes . . . and no. New York’s penal law (Section 255.17) lists adultery as a class B misdemeanor and states that “A person is guilty of adultery when he engages in sexual intercourse with another person at a time when he has a living spouse, or the other person has a living spouse.” Ancient Hebrews limited adultery to sexual intercourse between a man and a woman who was married. The man’s marital status was irrelevant. Adultery was an offense against the woman’s husband. So a married man who had sex with an unmarried woman would not be committing adultery. On the other hand, some people use an expansive definition. They cite Matthew (5:27-28) to argue that adultery includes impure thoughts. Under this view, nearly all of us have committed adultery!

Rabbi Address, in New York, argues that the biblical concept of pilegesh or concubine can be adapted to this situation. In ancient times, when a woman could not give her husband children, he was entitled to seek a pilegesh or “half a wife,” who had the same legal standing as his wife and could deliver offspring. Several biblical figures, including Abraham, Gideon, David, and Solomon had concubines. Today, under the Rabbi’s argument, a person with advanced Alzheimer’s is not able to fulfill the role of a spouse, which entitles the healthy spouse to take a pilegesh.

Some set aside moral considerations in favor of a pragmatic approach. Alzheimer’s takes a terrible toll on family caregivers, who are themselves at heightened risk of serious illness and even death. In the later stages its victims don’t know who they are, let alone whether their spouses are having extra-marital affairs. It seems a terrible waste to leave the spouse chained to an empty marriage. That only compounds the tragedy of the illness. Doesn’t it?

Could this be a slippery slope? If spouses of Alzheimer’s victims are entitled to a “Get out of jail free!” card, what about spouses of people who are dying of cancer? Or just plain dying? What about spouses of astronauts and submarine pilots who are away for months at a time? Are we really saying that it’s only adultery if the spouse is capable of understanding what’s happening? Is it OK as long as the spouse never knows? Who among the 25 to 50 percent of American men (depending on the survey) who admit to having had extra-marital sex did not figure “What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her.” If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it does it make a sound?

One of the things we learned in our research was that all romantic betrayal, including adultery, is in the eye of the beholder. Respondents to the Internet survey described a huge range of betrayals, from lying and emotional withdrawal to physical abuse and adultery. The vast majority (78%) reported that they had forgiven their betrayers; and most remained in their relationships. Through the course of our lives, most of us learn that bitter moments make the rest of loving all the more sweet.