It is fascinating how a societies’ attitude towards a practice can change over time; from one of abhorrence and revulsion, to one where an act is seen as acceptable, unremarkable and even inevitable. A great many deeds, which in eras past would have been considered heinous by the general population, are now seen as acceptable forms of conduct.
We often call these shifts in attitudes progress, and for the most part, this is what they represent; I feel no compulsion to patrol the seaside in search of anything so obscene as a lone bare ankle for instance.
However when repulsion towards an act is rooted in common sense and logic, and therefore that act can be viewed as unethical, is a such shift in attitudes necessary?
When such an act becomes acceptable, is it a regression or progression which is taking place?
Infidelity has long been frowned upon in our culture because of the obvious pain and suffering it causes. But like many other misdemeanours, attitudes regarding the issue appear to have softened, and it is not viewed in the black and white manner in which it used to be.
Of course not every instance of unfaithfulness is the same and it would foolish and callous to suggest otherwise; empathy is key in understanding the rationale behind any act.
However a worrying level of complacency regarding unfaithful behaviour seems to be all too prevalent. I have met many people who seem to simply not care about the hurt they have caused.
Back in January the Irish Independent ran several stories about everyday people who have had, or are in the middle of having an extra-marital affair (check out the first of the stories here: http://www.independent.ie/lifestyle/relationships/desperately-seeking--someone-nsa-1277059.html) .
What unsettled, and quite frankly depressed me about these articles was not the seemingly large number of people willing to cheat, but the sheer cavalier attitude of the unfaithful spouse’s interviewed.
There was no sense of accountability, duty or responsibility conveyed in any of their explanations for their actions.
What they did was always either no big deal or some one else’s fault. One straying husband described how having a no strings relationship, “suits [him] fine”.
And there is the crux of the matter; a sense of entitlement to pleasure no matter how it is obtained. It is the definition of selfish hedonism.
The fact that few of these people expressed any guilt is quite shocking. There was a time before the crippling feel-good curfew of political correctness was imposed upon us when guilt was recognised as a valid and valuable human feeling. It is often proclaimed proudly in this country how we have shed our Catholic guilt.
Progress, perhaps; but am I alone in thinking that you should feel guilty about doing something wrong? Why shouldn’t you?
Justified guilt is one of the most fundamental checks on human conduct. It separates us from animals.
And unfortunately I personally know of too many examples of such transgressions to put its apparent prevalence solely down to sensationalist reporting.
Now some might say that it is simply unnatural and unfeasible to expect sustained monogamy from humans, who are after all burdened by a biological necessity to reproduce. I would disagree, however whether or not this is the case, reason lifts us above the animal kingdom and therefore we are obligated to do what is within our power to try and make good choices.
And let us make no mistake, to betray a spouse in the way that having an affair does must be a very serious matter.
When we enter a romantic relationship we are at our most vulnerable, because we are forced to remove the various facades and guards we create around ourselves that hide our most innermost thoughts, feelings, fears, desires and hopes.
In a relationship these closed doors are flung open for another person to see - you are reduced to your fundamentals - and this why such a betrayal is so utterly devastating.
As the writer James Baldwin so eloquently put it, “love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within”.
And the anguish and pain felt by wronged spouse is not only damaging aspect of an affair.
Even if the wronged party never finds out, infidelity contributes to a broader culture of mistrust by propagating deception and dishonesty.
Creating an environment where infidelity is seen as commonplace, even acceptable, further disillusions anyone who is cynical about monogamy, and only makes it more difficult to have the confidence to open your self up in a relationship. In an almost comically tragic way, this culture probably adds to isolation and emotional distance among couples, thereby producing more unhappy relationships in which people feel the need to be unfaithful.
Compassion is required when discussing a subject as raw as this and I have no interest in unnecessarily pointing the finger at others. But just condemnation is also a form of compassion, and it must be asked, to what end does circumstance justify an action?
Many will say that if someone is unhappy in a relationship they effectively have no choice but to look elsewhere.
Yet there always is a choice. Infidelity can never be right since there is always another, albeit difficult, option; that is to leave the relationship. Ultimately this usually results in less pain and heartache for all involved and no deception is involved.
One lesson that history has taught us is that one cannot live two different contradictory lifestyles and expect to remain unscathed. In life, making one choice often closes the door to another and having the best of both worlds is not an option. Be it with celebrities, royalty or the working classes, the dangers of spreading oneself too thin in such matters are well-known. There is a reason for this and it is one which we should not forget.