The illusion of fidelity

(I am in Salt Lake City attending the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association. I have attended a lot of seminars and worship services and heard a lot of sermons. Although not an ordained minister, in the spirit of this extraordinary week of learning, I offer my own sermon for your consideration.)

Death and infidelity are in the news. Michael Jackson’s death (whose cause is at this time unknown) has had the effect of directing more traffic to my site, principally to this 2005 post where I said I believed he was a pedophile. A jury subsequently disagreed with me but no one would dispute that Jackson was one odd bird. I am not too surprised he died early. Bizarre people like Jackson often do. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards may be exceptions to the rule. Even I cannot deny Jackson’s talent. He was more of a rubber dancer than Fred Astaire and he oozed talent and creativity.

Also entering immortality is the actress Farrah Fawcett, who burned an indelible impression in the minds of forty or fifty somethings like me. Her swimsuit poster with her toothy grin and cascading blonde tresses was ubiquitous in teenage bedrooms and college dorm rooms in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Fawcett though was something of a surprise, eventually shedding her bimbo image and proving herself an excellent actress in made for TV movies like The Burning Bed (1984). General box office success unfortunately proved more elusive.

Both Jackson and Fawcett are my peers, so their untimely deaths make me wonder if I will draw the short straw from life too. There is no way to know. I have done much to lower the odds of dying in middle age and there is much more I could do. I get enough Buddhism from my wife to know that death is in our nature. At best it can be postponed. We all ultimately return to the stardust from which we came. It is our destiny. We are impermanent. In fact there is nothing permanent except change.

Perhaps the stars are aligning strangely because in the news we have both untimely celebrity deaths and newly revealed cases of infidelity among prominent politicians. Is it just circumstance or could there be a link between these prominent deaths and all the recent episodes of infidelity in the news? I think there is a relationship.

I believe that the animus of infidelity, at least in middle age, are not so much character flaws but aging. As our date with death becomes more real with every passing year, inevitably you have to examine your life and the choices you made and wonder if the fit is still good. I am certainly not the same person at age 52 that I was at age 28 when I married, nor is my wife. Unlike South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and his wife, my wife and I exchanged no traditional pledge of sexual and emotional exclusivity on our wedding day. I was perhaps a bit prescient even then that if I made such a pledge I would eventually prove myself a liar. Perhaps Mark Sanford and his wife would have been smart to do the same thing. It is hard to say for sure but in my case I suspect by not excluding sexual relationships that fooling around lost much of its allure. Of course it is also far easier to avoid infidelity when mindful of the consequences of doing so in this modern age, which could easily be disease and which could potentially be deadly. In my case fear of death helps triumph over the seven year itch.

My wife and I are clearly the exception. For most married people, the idea of keeping the fidelity door even slightly ajar is a ghastly idea. It is not so much an issue among Unitarian Universalists like me. My suspicion is that vows of sexual fidelity are more likely written out of marriages performed in Unitarian Universalist churches than expressly stated. I did promise to love my wife with all the energy I could muster. Based on my experience this may be much harder than traditional vows of sexual and emotional exclusivity. Paying close attention to her feelings and listening to her with an open heart day in and day out for twenty plus years have been at once both a joy and a burden. No fleeting sexual liaison could or should mean as much as this enormous effort of sustained time, attention, caring and concern, which continues nearly twenty four years later.

Most infidelity though is not really about the sex, but about the heart. Affairs that are strictly sexual but lack emotional depth are generally forgivable. Those where cares and concerns move from the spouse to another generally result in divorce. It is clear that Mark Sanford’s affair fell into the latter category, given by his own admission that he spent five days in Argentina crying. Why did he do it? Why did Senator John Ensign, Former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer or Former Senator John Edwards? I have seen pictures of their wives and in each case I think it cannot be because their spouses are ugly hags. Most are exceptionally attractive and personable women. I suspect the infidelity is due to the anxiety of watching sand drop through the hourglass of their lives and wondering, Is this it? I suspect that in most cases they found their relationships with their wives enriching, but not enriching or exciting enough to wholly fill their emotional and sexual needs or to close the gap of anxiety created by their aging.

The honorable thing of course is not to have an affair, but first divorce your spouse and then put yourself on the market. This is nice in theory, but hard to do in practice, particularly if you have children and especially if you are a politician. Politicians rise by selling an image of themselves, and you believe that voters must buy into the image of a superman in order to trust you with their vote. You must be smart, personable, persuasive, a terrific husband, a wonderful father as well as a man of faith, character and deep convictions. This is fine but of course it is almost always an illusion. Almost no one possesses all these gifts. Even if they do for a time, sustaining it for a lifetime is often very hard to do. We have our nature and our mortality working against us.

I hate to break this to all the heartbroken wives (and husbands) out there, but at some point fidelity in a marriage is almost always self delusion. You are most likely to find fidelity in someone who is simpleminded or whose emotional needs are easily satisfied. If you find someone like this, it helps if you are the same way yourself. However, if you marry someone who is ambitious like any politician of stature and they never fall off the wagon, consider yourself exceptionally fortunate.

Men buy into fidelity because it is the price they have to pay to live with a woman. A wife gives a man not only steady sex (a very hard thing for a man to get) but also a social stature and connections that cannot be acquired as a bachelor. Many pledge fidelity with the highest intentions only to discover that they did not know what they were pledging. How could they really, since they had not experienced the reality of a long term marital relationship? In a way, marriage is like giving a new driver the keys to a new and shiny Camaro that he lusted after but requiring them to never drive another car.

Fidelity will always be tentative. It will always be a daily decision by each spouse to continue to be faithful. In reality philanderers like Mark Sanford emotionally left their marriage long before trading furtive emails with distant romantic prospects. Fidelity can perhaps be realized through the application of sufficient doses of societal guilt, but this is a technical fidelity, not fidelity of the heart. Fidelity of the heart, when it is achieved, is realized only through the sustained commitment by both partners to invest enormous amounts of emotional energy (time) in the relationship. It requires daily mindfulness, daily intimate communications and it often gets harder the longer the marriage lasts. Even then there is no guarantee that with the application of regular high dosages of emotional energy that it will succeed. Every day in a marriage offers the potential for infidelity.

Why is this? It is because time changes all things, including people. We buy into marriage and the notion of fidelity because we want to believe that at least one aspect of our life can be unbreakable and unchangeable and endure even beyond death. This is the promise and illusion of love. While love itself is real, it can be realized only through the flawed talents of ordinary people. The nature of the universe of course is just the opposite. Nothing is permanent. Nothing endures forever. The participants in a marriage are going to find that who they are will change over time. Hopefully both will change in ways that will keep the relationship flourishing and engaging. But there are no guarantees and as time progresses the odds are stacked against the spouses.

Perhaps it is better to be like the Buddhists and live in the moment, appreciating the richness of each day with your spouse. When infidelity comes knocking on your door, it is going to pierce your soul like a knife through the heart. What is really dying though is the illusion that you can remake the ways of nature. The pain of infidelity though does not have to last forever. People can and do move beyond its pain all the time. Something will come along to replace the feeling that will be hopeful and more healing. This too is a part of life. Hope, loss, suffering and the rebirth of the spirit come with the territory of being a human.

All souls are adrift on an endless sea. Seas may be calm or stormy but the sea cannot be calm forever. It must churn itself up into a frothy white at some point. So too must souls.

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