This is a first of sorts for me. After years of amateur research into Classical Africa to enlighten fellow Trinidadians about the richness of their culture, this is the very first time I’m actually writing on a site based in Africa itself (and hopefully I do not make it the last time, I tend to have that effect). I learned of this website after a debate initiated by a two-part essay I wrote on another website entitled “The Myth of Monogamous Morality.” I read some of the articles here and came across one entitled “Why People Cheat” and I thought I’d offer my views on this very sensitive topic and hopefully link it to another article I read named “The Other Woman.” I liked how the first article featured the views of other people apart from the writer and attempted to go beyond the usual judgemental, religiously-influenced views I normally encounter.
There were, however, some key points that in my opinion were either insufficiently explored or missing altogether in both of them. Like many discussions I have come across and even books written by psychologists and anthropologists, there seems to be an assumption that does not need to be examined that the monogamous model is the moral benchmark for any discussion exploring extramarital/third party sexual interaction (as you will see I try to refrain from using the word “cheat” or as we say in Trinidad, “horning”). That sexual arrangement has been posited as the only moral model for so long, particularly in societies influenced by patriarchal Western Christian values, that many of us give it not even a second thought that that may also hold clues to understanding the problem. This is because even before the existence of Christianity, that was becoming the approved social model among a certain religious group that would later influence Christian thinking. Wherever men and women co-exist there are always matricentric ideas – generally communalistic, open and fluid and patricentric ideas – generally authoritarian, individualistic, possessive and competitive. These ideas informed patterns of behaviour and values though they are by no means restricted to any one gender or sex. But, as I discovered in my research, and I stand to be corrected, there was always a delicate balance between the two principles that were usually irrevocably slanted towards the patriarchal principle in response to some cataclysmic occurrence or series of events such as war, famine and ecological conditions – sometimes all of the above.
How did we even arrive at viewing sex and relationships using monogamy – and closed, exclusive monogamy to be precise – as the moral benchmark? Research has shown that human beings are by no means naturally monogamous, increasingly evidence is showing and confirming that the ideas we have about romance and exclusive emotional attachments are myths, yet that monogamous pairing seems to be an article of faith. A few things should be noted about the monogamous model; in fact they may very well be THE points of departure before one embarks on any discussion on sex and what is morally acceptable. In the Americas our moral ideas prohibiting third-party sexual interaction – along with premarital sex – stems from two main streams that were very strong in the patriarchal mindset of ancient Eurasia and Arabia and had nothing to do with any god. One is that it presented a serious threat to male claims to property rights in ancient cultures where the concept of fatherhood was being developed and linked with paternal inheritance. The other and probably the oldest stream was a belief very strong in many patriarchal cultures that sex was something extremely dangerous, corrupting and was a power held by women. Therefore, it had to be contained along with the women who possessed that “contaminating” power. The chief means by which this was accomplished was by creating and imposing notions of guilt and sin; women were particularly targeted and made to feel ashamed for their bodies, particularly their genitals, and their very sexual selves. In fact, I remember as a child growing up in the 70s and 80s my mother and other women referring to their genitals and breasts as their “shame.”
The interesting thing is that at first monogamy was not the approved social/sexual model; this nonsensical idea that open relationships, swinging, polyamory, friend-with-benefits/sexual friendships, etc, is eroding the “traditional marriage” assumes that monogamy WAS traditional. Most of these other arrangements were “traditional” and existed for thousands of years prior to the imposition of monogamy. In patriarchy, there was a shift towards singular authoritarian models in all aspects of life and men were considered the aggressor in all aspects of life – keep in mind we are looking at the period following the end of the last Ice Age and in the Eurasian region roving, hunter-gatherer, militaristic lifestyle was how a clan functioned in order to survive. And so the more open, fluid arrangements that existed among matricentric cultures were contracted and applied only to men. Sexual fidelity was absolute for women but only relative for men and that thinking carried on through to the rise of the Greek, Roman and Islamic civilisations. It was Christian thinkers who carried it through to the level it is at now in the West and in countries that were colonised by the West, and to a different extent, Islam. Theologians like Tertullian and especially Augustine (who was quite a player in his younger days) advanced ideas that ALL sex was sinful because any interaction with women brought men into intimate contact with a being who was inherently sinful because of her very nature. However, since children were needed, the best way to restrict the “sin” was to confine it to one man with one woman (another expectation was that by encouraging marriage, thus going back on an earlier disapproval of marriage altogether, and by rigidly encouraging monogamy, it would KILL sexual desire, eliminate sex and thus bring about the return of the Christian saviour who had not come in the time frame they had originally anticipated). Part of the influencing ideas came from Greece as well as Levite Judaism; Augustine drew from these sources and developed the doctrine that informs the way we approach sexual relations with each other….to this day.
Ms Darkoa further said in one of the replies in the Comments section that often in spite of the love and attention a woman or man may be given they may still “cheat” and that “cheating is a sign that there is something fundamentally flawed within the relationship.” Now it’s not that Ms Darkoa was wrong in this assertion – there are very few absolutes or either/or perspectives in these topics – the facts show that many an affair started because one person felt neglected or for whatever reason was not happy in the relationship as they once felt. But again, here one sees an assumption posited by patricentrically-influenced ideas and theories that have profound influence in our respective societies. Namely, the notion that only one person (the proverbial “The One” or “Soulmate” as s/he is referred to in the West) can necessarily fulfil all one’s security, emotional, intellectual, sexual and spiritual needs. Thus, if either party becomes emotionally/intimately involved with a third party, then there is necessarily something wrong within the relationship. My research, conversations and even personal experiences have indicated that the main problem lies not so much in the relationship or the person (dey too damn sinful, dey weak, dey is cowards, no discipline!!) but, again, in the closed monogamous model itself and that fallacious belief that one can only be emotionally attached to or hold feelings of love for one partner and one partner alone.
In 1982 Dr Lynn Atwater published a book entitled “The Extramarital Connection” in which she interviewed hundreds of women who had had extramarital relationships. She informs us that many of those she interviewed did not have unhappy marriages or relationships or did not fall out of love with their spouses. A similar study showed the same thing among a high percentage of husbands and boyfriends. Among the common reasons given was that the third element possessed qualities or interests their spouses/SO did not have. If we use Angel’s response in The Other Woman, we see exactly what scholars like Atwater have been saying for years. I myself know of a woman who is married and had a relatively brief relationship with an old schoolmate. She did love her husband, still does, but many of the activities and pursuits that are closest to her he has no interests in while Kerry, her other friend, did. In Kerry she found someone who shared her passions and provided an emotional support that her husband did not and she loved both of them (whether or not the love was “equal” is frankly irrelevant). Needless to say she felt very guilty for a long time and she kept her relationship with Kerry a secret from her husband until they eventually parted.
My point is that I am not arguing for any home-wrecking, certainly not for the dismantling of monogamy – as if such a thing was even possible – in favour of polygamy which in many cases is no less patriarchal, or anything else. What I am saying is that we need to expand and redefine the rules we follow regarding sexual interaction given that the dynamics of travel, work and communication has moved way beyond what was the reality 2, 3, 4000 years ago. Atwater said “We have inherited a repressive set of legal, moral and religious codes that we still use to guide our attitudes, yet these codes were never designed to meet the problems of modern intimacy that confront us today.” I argue that they are not appropriate now, they were not appropriate then, and must now be expanded to create environments where informed, consenting adults can interact with each other intimately – however they choose to define it – without having to hide from their principal partners and especially without having to do so under clouds of guilt and sin because of what some people think the Almighty ordered written in some book.
3 comments On Guest Contributor Corey Gilkes: On Cheating and the Other Wo(man)
Interesting article!! Maybe the make up of the human being is not to stick with one person for ever and ever indeed but its deep!!!
But it does pose a problem of regard or disregard for peoples “feelings”. I doubt everyone would and could accept that they might ultimately have to share someone.
Hmmm, I don’t even know what to say in response to this article. Firstly thank you for sharing such a thorough, thought stimulating piece. As someone who is just embarking on a new relationship you’ve made me think a bit more about what happens if I or my partner meet someone we really fancy…my thought process so far has been “I have no intention of cheating” but with this article in mind I think my new strategy will be to be open about how I feel, if I feel the desire to cheat for e.g. So strategy would be to have an open conversation and take it from there. Thanks Corey!
You’re most welcome Nana and thank you for allowing me the space to write my views.
The “makeup” of most humans is indeed not to be monogamous and certainly not forever and ever (the notion of beig married “till death us do part” is actually relatively recent; the ancients did not necessarily approach marriage in that light and some scholars speculate that the average marriage lasted between 4-7 years [which, as it turns out, is how long the average relationship today goes before numerous changes take place tha may bring couples closer or move them apart]) Having said that, the reality is that many couples CAN remain monogamous and have been ableto do so and remain happy. My issue really is with the idea that that must be the model for all people; the human species is far too complex and diverse. But that diversity is exactly why in patriarchy we have had this one model-for-all imposed; patriarchal ideology is by its very nature singular and authoritarian; it has very little tolerance for diversity because a different view is a potentially threateneing view.
As for the question of feelings and disregard of feelings, this is where communication SHOULD play a part. I’d hasten to point out that that communication should occur before any serious step into the relationship is taken. A lot of the angst stems from the unspoken assumptions of exclusivity; we have had the exclusive, closed model imposed on us since birth so it is assumed that that is how we will be in relationships. The complexities of the human makeup is never properly explained so when we interact with other people (in ways the creators of these ideas never thought imaginable 3000-odd years ago) and find ourselves drawn to them, we have all kinds of turmoil because of the unspoken cultural expectations
One other thing ad this goes particularly of the feelings and discomfort one may have with “sharing” someone. Much of this stems from the mindset patricentrism has created of a somewhat childish sense of possession vs loss. Upon marriage or going steady the spouse/SO ceases to become a person but is now one’s private possession. So anytime a third party enters into the picture, that sense of loss or impending loss of your “property” reflexively kicks in. This is something one has to consciously examine and I have no clear answer; hell, I often state that it may too late for most people and my writings are really for those 21 and under; most of us over that age are incapable of learning anything, the mind is almost completely closed off to new information unless it is to reinforce what we already know and want to believe (of course that could just be me being cynical so be warned)
But the point is that yes, many will have a problem sharing and inasmuch as that comes from being socialised in a certain way, they need to make it clear what they are comfortable with early on in the relationship and not leave it open to assumptions.