Tag Archives: fidelity


Once, unless you were rich, there was but one way to become a fully paid-up member of society: get hitched.  

Today marriage is a free choice.  Daddy can’t make you.  Employers don’t demand it.  The word ‘spinster’ has lost its sting, sex, its stigma, and nobody calls a lovechild a bastard.  So what’s the point of marriage?

It’s an obvious question.  Yet for me it misses the point.   Now marriage is no longer compulsory, and the roles of husband and wife have shed their starch, we have an opportunity to custom-fit the marital commitment, to suit ourselves as never before.  

Marriage is no more than a pledge.  To put ‘we’ before ‘I’, and face the future as a three-legged race conjoined by a tie called wedlock.  How you run the race is up to you.  But one fact never varies.  To exalt a relationship, call it a marriage, invites couples to ponder what they’re doing together.  The value of this is obvious, isn’t it?

This ancient ritual works psychological magic too.  For men, more than women, research finds, the very public step of re-labelling a partner ‘a spouse’ alters your feelings towards them and your self-image.  And married couples must also think hard before changing their mind, given the costs of splitting.

Marriage has been accused of many crimes, but can be convicted only of suiting a host of lifestyles.  History shows it can knot us into almost any social formation – nuclear, feudal, or pharaonic.  The custom survived for millennia not by being dated but flexible.  This elderly institution remains fresh because every couple strikes their own deal, so it’s always personal.  

However, the tug of tradition has weakened.  Asking her hand in marriage is no longer the ‘thing to do’ after you’ve run out of conversation.  Perhaps today’s couples need to be reminded why this leap of faith into the unknown is worth making. 

Well, there’s the vast evidence that married couples are richer, healthier, and their children thrive.  Not just because happy, healthy people marry.  To say ‘we’ is more important than ‘I’ has practical power.  After all, for society’s greatest rewards, long-term tactics are necessary.  With a spouse who has sworn to support you, it’s easier to take decisions that are difficult in the short run. To step back from a job, start a family, or further your education. Secure in the knowledge that one day you will do the same for your spouse. 

Married couples can find it easier to widen each others’ worlds and reap the benefits of shared meaning and memories. They’re also shored up by the respect society offers those who trouble to state, publicly, their relationship’s importance. And if the obstacle race works out, at the end, if they’re lucky, they approach the finish with somebody to remind them where they left their spare teeth.

But magic only works if you believe in it.   If you don’t simply work at marriage, but play at and relish it.  Studies find that the more optimistic your expectations, the greater your demands, the more marriage will give you.  

If you seek the best, keep noticing each other, complain well but criticise less, and don’t let leisure slide.  (Although husbands tend to enjoy more free time, according to latest research, wives’ pleasures have greater impact on whether a union is happy.)  Try a psychological trick called ‘positive-sentiment override’.  If your beloved snaps at you, don’t snap back or take it personally.  No, they’re having a bad day.

With care, luck and selective attention, the ball and chain can weigh lighter than ever.  

As seen and heard on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme


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Is sexual liberation over? You may think so, reading Jealousy, the sequel to The Sexual Life of Catherine M. In it, lusty Parisian academic Catherine Millet, who hung out with the whores in the Bois de Boulogne, reveals something controversial: a heart. When her man slept around, she went barmy.  

Hypocrisy is the most logical attitude to infidelity, as it fuses many issues, and beliefs about it formed in a world very different to our own.  It has a religious dimension.  As an infidel betrays God, so infidelity betrays the faith between two people.  The assumption is that loyalty in body, mind and spirit are interchangeable.  But arguably, people began disapproving of infidelity for a more practical reasons, to stop rows about property.  

Avid debauchee Alexandre ‘Three Musketeers’ Dumas lamented, ‘Why is what was called cuckoldry in the seventeenth century called adultery in the nineteenth?’  His answer was inheritance law.  Once, first-born sons got it all, then the law changed, giving every child a portion of the estate.  So husbands who once worried only about the paternity of their heir grew to fear every cuckoo in the nest.  And society grew fiercer about female infidelity, while in men a mistress remained a badge of success.   

Female sluts got it in the neck since Eve bit the apple.  Katie Price is slated for cavorting with her cage fighter.  But male sluts are less tolerated than before.  The court of public opinion is still out on randy Ashley Cole, while Cheryl is a latter-day saint for fighting for her love.  But for those whose private lives are private, now we have DNA-testing, good contraception, fidelity seems less relevant.  With the internet and the liar’s friend, the mobile phone, slipping the marital leash is ever easier.  Why can’t we act on passing fancies without breaching emotional loyalty? 

I understand infidelity’s fans.  Yet I believe monogamy, with the right person, is the least-worst path through life. Even empty sex threatens a relationship, as nobody can guarantee it will not come to mean more.  This belief is less old-fashioned than imagining that mind rules body, like 17th-century rationalist, René Descartes.  On the contrary, scientists have found neurochemicals released in sex, vasopressin and oxytocin, mean that where lust leads, territorial feelings often follow.  Love and sex, mind and body, are as interchangeable as ever.


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Did greedy doctors invent sex addiction to grab a piece of the divorce lawyers’ action?  I only ask because commitment anxiety is rising, and not just adultery is being diagnosed as a disease.   Fidelity, too, is suspect.  Are you married, cohabiting, eyes for no other?  Might you be – whisper it – co-dependent?


I am married and I am independent.  Or so I thought.  However, my spouse and I depend on each other.  So the increasingly common term ‘co-dependence’ worried me. It sounds vague.  But my dictionary says that a co-dependent couple features one who is an addict, and another who is addicted to their relationship with the addict.  So me and my husband are okay.  But then it struck me the definition is slippery.  What if the addict is addicted to the relationship?  And what if a co-dependency therapist had advised Victorian poet Robert Browning? Would he have eloped with ageing, invalid opium addict Elizabeth Barrett?  Would we have their great love story?


‘In a codependent society,’ warns therapist Robert Burney, ‘everyone has to have someone to look down on, in order to feel good about themselves.’  Sounds like human nature.  By this measure, love between any two imperfect or unequal individuals is unhealthy, and caring is suspect (caring could be ‘looking down’ in disguise).  Is there such a thing as a relationship without any power imbalance?  Isn’t one of the benefits of a relationship that you don’t have to be best at everything?


Burney is not the first to view love with a surgeon’s suspicion.  ‘My love is as a fever, longing still/For that which longer nurseth the disease.’  In this sonnet Shakespeare described a disorder called romance, which traditionally occurred outside dull marriage (which was for babies, money, and dynasties).  Only in the seventeenth century did married love come to be regarded the summit of human fulfilment.  In our crowded world, such a belief is less tenable.  


Twenty-first century romantics must commit to their job, friends, home, kids.  Even had we the time, it is harder to be confident about prioritising one relationship.  Fear of monotony, worry about monogamy, have increased our faith in other people’s right to talk us through our lives, and tell us how to live them.  But if we over-diagnose our emotions, our love stories may end before they’ve begun.



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