Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Should You Confess to Adultery?

Last week a man wrote to advice columnist Belladonna Rogers to confess his adultery.

He was so burdened with his guilt that he had to tell someone. Apparently, no one else was available.

Strictly speaking, he asked whether he should apologize. We all know that he is really asking whether or not he should confess. You don’t apologize for your sins; you confess them and do penance.

Wisely, Rogers tells him that he should not confess. Most of those who are in the advice business would concur. They have learned, often through bitter experience, that openness and honesty in these situations inflicts unnecessary pain on one’s spouse.

It’s bad enough to have cheated, Rogers explains, but confessing will compound the problem.

Try looking at it this way. When you confess to adultery your spouse will start asking herself why you needed to tell her.

There is no good answer to this question. She might think that you did it to hurt her, because surely the information is doing that. She might think that you are trying to make her feel inadequate or avenging a slight.

Worse, she might think that you are planning to leave her, thus that you are threatening her home and family. Or she might think that your lover is about to go public with the information, thus humiliating her and your children.

Of course, if you have been caught in the act or if you have contracted an infectious disease or if you have produced a child you will need to share the bad news with your wife.

But then, there’s adultery and there’s adultery. There are one-night stands and there are long term love affairs.

If the man who wrote to Rogers had a brief hookup and feels badly about it, he probably wishes that it never happened. If so, he would do best to act as though it had never happened.

If he tells his wife, his one-night-stand will become a central element in their marriage… forever.

It's too high a price to pay for a mistake.

For some people all forms of adultery are grievous sins, to be condemned and punished. For nearly all of human history, however, marriage has been an arrangement and true romantic love has been confined to the shadows, that is, to adulterous relationships.

Only recently have people believed that people must marry for love and stay married forever. Still, this is still very far from being a worldwide cultural norm.

Worse yet, adultery has co-existed with the marital estate from the beginning, and many adulterous affairs, strangely enough, have occurred with the consent of the “offended” spouse.

Think of the famous American politician who has notably been involved in numerous adulterous affairs, while remaining married to the same wife, also a politician, for nearly three decades.

I think it fair to assume that the woman in question is fully complicit with her husband’s adultery.

For all I know she was thinking: better them than me.

If she finds the situation disturbing, it might be because her husband has been notably indiscreet. But that does not mean that she has not tacitly or explicitly approved his behavior.

On the other hand, moral codes consistently condemn adultery, for two reasons.

First, a woman who commits adultery might well trick her husband into providing for another man’s child.

Second, a man who commits adultery might sire a child with another woman, thus reducing the resources available for his first family.

Third, any adultery increases the risk of being infected with an STD.

This much said, it is also fair to mention that modern contraception reduces many of the risks traditionally associated with adultery.

It has a more limited effect on the emotional component of sexual behavior.

This much being said, when a spouse strays it is too facile to say that it is all his or her fault.

Marriages have many moving parts. It is not helpful to place the blame entirely on the shoulders of the adulterer and to assume that the aggrieved spouse is perfectly and purely innocent.

When the question was: should a man confess to his adultery? I agreed with Rogers wholeheartedly.

Here the issue is more complicated. Exactly what does it mean to be a good spouse? If we are asking whether someone who cheated once will never cheat again, then the possibility certainly exists.  If we are talking about being trustworthy and loyal, the answer is clearly yes.

Cheating once does not make you a fundamentally flawed human being. It does not even make you an awful spouse. Cheating over and over again while promising never to do it again does.

To address the question of whether a chastened adulterer can be a good spouse Rogers wrote a column that made her sound like a shill for psychotherapy. She suggested that psychotherapy can cure the wish to commit adultery.  

I am sorry to have to say it, but her presentation here becomes rather muddled, at best.

Why do we consider adultery a form or sign of mental illness? At worst, it is a moral flaw. Whatever makes anyone think that psychotherapy should be in the business of treating moral flaws?

Making a mistake does not mean that you are sick. Unless therapists are trying to drum up business, they should not be pathologizing human failings.

In real life, more than a few serial adulterers who enter psychotherapy continue to commit adultery. Only now, they explain away their bad behavior by saying that they are working on their issues in therapy.

For reasons that escape me Rogers seems to have placed her faith and trust in psychotherapy. She explains that a chastened adulterer can become a good spouse: “With serious introspection — if at all possible aided by serious psychotherapy with a licensed, qualified, and, in a best case scenario, a highly experienced therapist — yes.”

It is not clear what Rogers means by introspection here. She might be talking on the kind of psychoanalytically oriented therapy that uses introspection to get at the root causes of a problem, whether a childhood trauma, bad parenting, or unresolved issues.

Yet, at another point in her article Rogers suggests that psychotherapy be used to help a potential adulterer examine the “inner triggers” that might cause him to stray:

To change his ways, the adulterous husband must examine the inner triggers that have led him into adultery, be it once or serially.

Some may sneer that the “inner triggers” require no advanced degrees to decipher. The triggers consist of nothing more complex than an appealing cleavage, a lively smile, gorgeous legs, an attractive posterior, or a suggestive come-hither gaze across a crowded room.


Such enticements are almost everywhere.  Why is a man prone to respond to one temptation, but not to all?

Through serious therapy, an individual can discover clues to when and why the urge to wander occurs. When is he most vulnerable? It may seem like a no-brainer that the reason the urge occurs is that temptation has suddenly reared its head, but the question remains: why was one vulnerable then?  Or, if always vulnerable, why is one constantly at risk?

As I say, this is muddled.

Therapy that identifies “inner triggers” is cognitive, not psychoanalytic, in its inspiration and origin. It has nothing to do with resolving your issues, remembering the past, or helping you to figure out why you are doing what you are doing.

Rogers has also deftly avoided the question she was supposedly addressing. Being a good husband requires much more than not committing adultery. Yet, the “inner triggers” approach limits itself to the task of resisting temptation, that is, not breaking marital vows.

Perhaps you cannot be a cheater and a good husband at the same time, but the fact that you are not a cheater does not necessarily make you a good husband.

If you had thought that Rogers was directing people toward more cognitive forms of treatment, she makes clear in another passage that she is promoting the kind of issues-oriented self-awareness therapy that has consistently been shown to be of very limited value.

Rogers defends therapy in these terms:

Everyone can benefit from greater knowledge of his inner life.  Without the clarity of vision that the hard work of therapy entails, one is fated to make the same errors, and fall into the same traps, again and again and again, leaving untold destruction in one’s wake, and doing untold damage to oneself. One can pretend otherwise, but pretending won’t make it so.

Many people go to therapy and go so thoroughly absorbed in their inner mental life that they abrogate their responsibilities to other people. Getting lost in your mind is not going to make you a better spouse.

The form of therapy that Rogers is advocating comes down to us from Freud and it tries to control bad behavior by sending patients on an extended guilt trip. Once the patient has gotten fully in touch with his guilt over his sin, he will be shown ways to do penance for it, usually by extended bouts of self-criticism.

To call this knowledge of your inner mind is silly. It is really showing people how to live their lives in terms of Freudian myths.

As for the effectiveness of a guilt/confession/penance/forgiveness model of behavior control, it was not a new idea with Freud. He may have created a secular version of it, but its source lies in religious institutions, especially the Roman Catholic Church.

Historically, cultures that use this model have not stamped out adultery. In fact, they have been among its leading practitioners.

If that is not enough confusion for one column, Rogers concludes by showing us what good therapy looks like. Strangely enough she does not offer us a picture of hours logged on the couch or of a journey into some neurotic’s inner mental sanctum. For all her talk about highly qualified credentialed licensed therapists, she chooses someone who is not a trained therapist, who has no license and no credentials. 

She trots out a recent movie, The King’s Speech, where King George VI’s speech impediment was cured by working with a speech coach. Not only is Lionel Logue not a “speech therapist,” but the movie states explicitly that he has no credentials.

Lionel Logue is, however, an excellent speech coach. His method involves repetitive training exercises and practice sessions. 

Rogers is promoting psychotherapy so she does not see it this way. She imagines that the King’s ability to recall some incident from his childhood cured his speech impediment.

Of course, this idea of cure by epiphany is a cinematic trope. It does not and never has worked in reality. 

No one who knows anything about therapy would seriously claim that a stutter will vanish once the person recalls a lost memory. It makes for a great fiction, but it is not true.

Janet Malcolm provided us with a more realistic portrayal of how well psychoanalytic therapy works for someone who has a fear of public speaking in her book, The Impossible Profession.

In it she tells the true story of a psychoanalyst she names Aaron Green. Being a trained psychoanalyst Green must have undergone the kind of introspective mind-exploration that Rogers is recommending. When he undertook analysis Green was suffering from a phobia about public speaking. His problem was markedly similar to the one that afflicted King George VI.

Of course, Aaron Green received the best treatment that American psychoanalysis can offer. The result: he still had his speech phobia. He was still terrified of public speaking. 

Even among those precious few who still believe in psychoanalytic therapy no one believes that it can cure phobias or stuttering. And no one believes that the sin of adultery is in any way analogous to a speech impediment.


Scarlett_156 said...

I always like reading these articles. Very insightful!

Jim said...

Stuart, I am always surprised by psychologists who miss the one obvious point when counseling adulterers not to confess. It is virtually impossible these days to carry an affair in secret. Eventually the truth will be found out. Cell phones, credit cards, restaurant and hotel records, video camaras, etc. leave lots of "audit trails" for others to discover. The only way to keep an affair secret is for others to help you cover your tracks. Eventually the spouse will find out. What makes it worse is that when the spouse discovers the "fraud" he/she also discovers that they are the last to find out and that many friends were really enablers of the cheating spouse. That has to be humiliating. Don't you think the wiser course for the cheater would be to confess before the spouse finds out?

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Unfortunately, the articles usually fail to distinguish between different types of adultery. There are the one-night-stands, hookups, and escorts... in principle these are the least likely to be revealed. Then, there are long term adulterous relationships where there is much more of a risk that it be revealed. I see your point and basically I agree that if the mistress is about to announce it all to the world, decorum requires the husband to clue his wife in.

On the other hand, a man who undertakes a long term relationship with a mistress will often have his wife's tacit approval anyway. She will probably be less concerned about the affair than about the disclosure. Even so, unless the couple lives in a culture where these arrangements are commonplace, he is certainly not treating the mistress very well. It is worth adding that men in those situations often lie to their mistresses about their intentions... they claim that they will divorce their wives when they have no intention of doing so.

JP said...

"On the other hand, moral codes consistently condemn adultery, for two reasons.

First, a woman who commits adultery might well trick her husband into providing for another man’s child.

Second, a man who commits adultery might sire a child with another woman, thus reducing the resources available for his first family.

Third, any adultery increases the risk of being infected with an STD."

Interesting. If I had to list "why adultery is wrong" those things would not be on my list.

I just list adultery in to my list of "things that are a priori evil". These reasons seem to shade off into human experience and legal damages.

I generally think about morality independent of experience, anyway.

To me, morality must be independent of the local culture and is always a priori. But then I have a mathematical-idealist approach to the moral order.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Moral codes vary locally, but the laws against adultery are universal. Therefore I find it consistent to say that they are God-given and to say that they have direct correlates in human experience.

After all, isn't natural law also God's law?

JP said...

I just never looked at the issue of adultery though the lens of STDs or "whose child is it?".

Jim said...

Stuart, You are right that short daliances with escorts and prostitutes are easier to cover up but that is becoming more difficult today. A man who confesses a one-night stand is more likely to truly repent and change his ways because he is forcing himself into accountability by confessing. A man who seeks to keep things "under wraps" may be enticed to continue the behavior and risk getting caught. Former Governor Elliot Spitzer would be a good example of this.

For cultures that tolerate husbands having affairs there isn't much to say since the husband is issuing a defacto disclosure by openly committing adultery. I don't think much of wives who tolerate this kind of behavior since it seems that they aren't in to the Biblical concept of "one-flesh" and all that it implies. These kinds of women are using their husbands for other purposes. Hillary Clinton would be a good example of this kind of cynicism. She knew what a dog her husband was yet tolerated him so she could use his influence for her own political ambitions.

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