3482171164_67bf4a8614Photo by Gregory Jordan via Flickr

“Rather than painting all adultery with a broad brush, it seems we may be now seeing gradations of ‘How wrong is it?’ ”

Adulterous affairs have been seen as wrong throughout the millennia (think the Seventh Commandment, Henry VIII’s [beheaded] Wife Numbers 2 and 5, Anna Karenina, and the scandals generated by the peccadillos of British and American politicians, one of which generated an impeachment trial). But are some less wrong?  The “other woman” has traditionally been the scorned party, a negative force. But is this changing?  Is adultery becoming more acceptable?

One of the most popular shows among women ages 25 to 54 on television right now is ABC’s Scandal. Among the many story lines of this show is the adulterous affair between the lead character—Olivia Pope—and the very married President of the United States, Fitzgerald Grant. This affair is steamy and charged . . . and very popular.  Social media (#Scandal) is alive on Thursday nights with fans rooting for Olivia and Fitz to be together.

Yes, this is fictional television, but even in fiction “the other woman” is usually regarded as a home wrecker or worse. And the cheating husband is a scoundrel. But not this time. The love between Olivia and Fitz runs deep, and the viewers are cheering them on, at the expense of his wife.

This “cheering on” is what intrigues me. What we see on television is often a reflection of what society-at-large is experiencing. This makes me wonder if adultery is becoming less scandalous. I think it might be. Rather than painting all adultery with a broad brush, it seems we may be now seeing gradations of “how wrong is it?”

The declining incidence of marriage, the growing rate of cohabitation, and the steady divorce rate could lead one to conclude that marriage has become less sacred. People may be starting to acknowledge the reality that “till death do us part” is, perhaps, unrealistic in many cases and that sometimes married people fall in love with people who are not their spouses.  Studies show that infidelity is on the rise. Adultery may have become less scandalous because we see so much of it in the media.

So when Heidi Klum of the very popular Project Runway left her husband, Seal, for her bodyguard, with whom she was having an affair, it was almost a non-news event, despite the regular news coverage of Heidi and Seal renewing their wedding vows every year for the seven years they were married.

South Carolina Governor (at the time) Mark Sanford, infamous for claiming to be “hiking the Appalachian Trail” when he had actually flown to Argentina to see his mistress, seems to have been forgiven by many of the people of his state. His divorce is done, and he recently won a special election for his old House seat with his then-mistress, now-fiancée, by his side.

And on a personal note, my good friend, who will go unnamed for obvious reasons, fell in love with her contractor.  They both left their respective spouses pretty quickly, married pretty quickly, and are now a “legitimate couple” in their social circle, church and community. She even held onto her seat in the national PTA. People looked askance at them up until about the time it was clear that they were madly in love.

But not all adultery is given a pass. We still look askance at Tiger Woods even though it’s been a couple of years since his dalliances with 10+ women were revealed.  He now has a new girlfriend in Lindsey Vonn, yet his escapades during his marriage to Elin Nordegren are still fodder for jokes on the late-night talk-show circuit. 

Heidi, Mark, Tiger, and my friend all cheated on their spouses, yet Heidi and Mark (and my friend) seem to have been treated more kindly than Tiger by the public. I think LOVE is the difference in the reactions of others to these four examples.

As the Scandal storyline goes, Olivia and Fitz have a deep love for each other; Heidi and Mark (and my friend) are still with the people who helped blow up their marriages. Tiger, on the other hand, was purely on a lustful adventure with the multitude of women with whom he cheated. When it comes to adultery, it seems that rampant “screwing around” is still bad, but love can be forgiven.

This distinction, between affairs rooted in love versus lust, seems new. The public has, from time to time, looked the other way regarding infidelity, but it’s usually after the fact.  For example, Newt Gingrich wasn’t as well-known a public figure (as he is now) during his dalliances and subsequent marriage to his then-mistress in 2000. We only learned of this history of infidelity later. The Heidi, Mark and Tiger situations all took place while they were in the public eye and we “saw” it unfolding in real time.  And yet there was little fallout for Heidi and Mark, seemingly because the public has accepted that these are genuine love-based relationships, which is obviously, not the case for Tiger Woods.

I ran this notion by a friend who has been in a “challenged” marriage for 25 years. His very matter-of-fact comment was “I think people recognize that the fundamentals of love sometimes come outside the legal relationship.” For him, breaking up a marriage and family for the sake of a new, but real and burning-bright, love is a risk worth taking, an understandable, and forgivable, risk.

Is this the wave of the future, the nuances of infidelity? Is true love the forgivable criterion for an adulterous affair?