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?


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  • Toni Myers June 8, 2013 at 7:40 pm

    The why in the name of sisterhood got me. I’ve never been unfaithful to a committed relationship, but have been in sketchy situations in the long ago, after which I thought I should have known better.
    I recoiled at the piece, thinking I have never lived such a pure and simple life. I am in total agreement about commitment. I would do nothing without a partner’s complete awareness. But to me it came across as sanctimonious and judgmental.
    My current partner and I are not married; rather I’m in a domestic partnership (which sounds like a cat breed). I would consider it probably over if either of us was sexually involved with another person. Yet, I believe in forgiveness. I don’t like it when we point fingers at others. I have done plenty of it. Life is too short and too full of unusual circumstances. I think marriage is worth mocking at times, especially when people speak of its sanctity. Marriage is whatever people make of it. It’s a great place in which to raise children, except when it’s awful. It does make our world safer to have people living in strong relationships. And, yes, I must be a relativist.
    There are so many stories.

  • Sharon May 30, 2013 at 5:59 am

    Diane and all (the few) who responded: I did respond, the minute that I saw this article (I think I was the first one to do so). Oddly, my response is missing, so I’ll add it again (as best I can remember):

    “Are you kidding? Is this a trick question? Whatever the situation, whatever the provocation, a promise and a commitment are still just that: a promise and a commitment. People do things for all sorts of reasons, and they are in all sorts of situations, but regardless of that they have still given their word – and that should mean something. Less than that makes a mockery of the act of marriage, and the reality of a married relationship.

  • Eleanore Wells May 29, 2013 at 11:15 am

    Really, Tanta? I can’t believe women would be reluctant to express an honest thought about infidelity…either for or against or with parameters. Never occurred to me, but that’s as valid a reason as any, I guess.

  • tanta jackson May 29, 2013 at 10:13 am

    I have an easier answer – with an essay on a topic as delicate as this, who wants to respond honestly when their name (required) has to be attached? Think about it.

  • Eleanore Wells May 27, 2013 at 10:32 am

    @Judy: t suppose the easy answer is that the women probably aren’t feeling very sisterly toward the wife.

  • Eleanore Wells May 26, 2013 at 9:33 pm

    Diane: I, too, am surprised that there were no responses. I, too, checked it daily in anticipation of what I’d find. I was sure that the resulting conversation would be loud and strong. I couldn’t have been more wrong…but I must admit, I don’t get the silence.

  • Judy Caouette May 26, 2013 at 11:43 am

    In the name of Sisterhood, why would any woman get involved with a Sister’s husband?

  • diane burgess May 25, 2013 at 4:35 pm

    I find it fascinating that no one in this community responded to this provocative post. I have checked in daily for three days now and decided to be the first. Adultry is a major cause of divorce which results in divided co-parenting at best. If adults choose to get married and reproduce, it seems that they should be capable of moral committments to the family they have chosen to create at least until the children are adults themselves.

    We live in a time where topics like morality/right and wrong are viewed primarily through the lens of moral relativism, fueled by all forms of media salaciousness. Just because the Hollywood and Washington crowds do it, does that mean that having affairs is the right thing to do? If I want another woman’s diamond necklace, is it morally acceptable for me to steal it?

    Looking forward to hearing from this liberal crowd.


    Someone is always the other woman or the other man, Eleanore.
    Someone’s life is always ruined by the free love choice of others. Marriages and legal co-habitations of various sorts are difficult at times. If poachers choose to use these difficult interludes in a relationship to seduce a potential partner, how can it be moral?