Guilt, stigma are fading in both society and law


June 16, 1991|By Jean Marbella

The scarlet letter may be fading as a badge of shame, with religion, courts and society as a whole working to reconcile the long-cherished ideal of monogamy with the all-too-common reality of adultery.

With estimates that about one-third to one-half of married persons have engaged in extramarital affairs, some say attitudes toward adultery are shifting from outright condemnation to a sort of acceptance, if a rather uneasy one.

* Marriage therapists say they believe couples are more likely today to try to keep their marriages together after an infidelity than head straight for divorce.

* Lawyers say adultery has less shock value in divorce proceedings, although some believe it still plays an outsized role in alimony and child support rulings.

* Sociologists say that even as polls continue to show strong opposition to adultery, the loosening up of sexual attitudes in general over recent decades has given infidelity less of a stigma that it had in the past.

"It's more acceptable and, in some ways, it's almost expected," said sociologist Lillian Rubin. "The mere fact that the Presbyterian commission comes out with a report talking in a responsible matter about . . . relationships outside the context of marriage is an extraordinary shift from anything we would have seen 20 years ago."

The Presbyterian report on sexuality -- the most hotly debated topic of that church's national convention, recently concluded in Baltimore -- did not, of course, come out in favor of adultery. But by acknowledging sexuality beyond the traditional marital relationship -- generally the only one sanctioned by mainstream religion -- the report has led to serious discussion, if not acceptance, of alternatives. Even though the Presbyterian organization ultimately rejected the report's suggestions, observers say, the subject remains open.

"There seems to be a lot of institutions being questioned, and marriage is one of them," said James Patterson, co-author of the recently published book, "The Day America Told the Truth," which gives the results of a national survey on moral attitudes. "You see an awful lot of dissatisfaction out there. You see the depth of miscommunication. This whole country needs a marriage counselor."

But marriage counselors themselves say that infidelity is not necessarily a blow against the institution of marriage. Rather, they say, couples increasingly are realizing that marriage is an imperfect institution, one that requires constant upkeep yet is generally worth upholding even in the face of infidelity.

"People are more willing to take it as a sign to work on the marriage and not just get divorced," said Thomas L. Wright, a Baltimore psychologist. "Instead of saying goodbye, they're more willing to go for help."

"I would say there is less denial than before," said Arthur Schwartz, a professor of family and couples counseling at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. "It's not that people are approving of extramarital affairs, it's that it's no longer hidden."

The increased willingness of people to talk about sexual matters and seek help for them is part of the fruits of the sexual revolution, said Ms. Rubin. People are more sexually experienced entering a marriage today than in the past, and sex is more widely and openly discussed, said the Queens College professor and author of "Erotic Wars: Whatever Happened to the Sexual Revolution."

"The wide range of exposure people have to sex makes it hard to think of forever monogamous relationships," she said. "People have a fair amount of knowledge about sex. They know good sex and bad sex. They know how sexual passion gets muted over a long-term relationship."

Yet while attitudes may be shifting on a broad, societal level, not much may have changed on the personal level. Marriage therapists say extramarital affairs are no less devastating than they ever were.

"The betrayal and the pain and the hurt is very strong and severe," Mr. Wright said. "Many couples can find ways of getting past that and strengthening the relationship. But that doesn't mean it's not hard work."

Katharine Brainard, a Rockville woman whose husband's infidelity led to a divorce that she graphically illustrated in a quilt, said that any society-wide change doesn't have much effect on the individual level.

"It probably hurts as much as it ever did. Having made this quilt, it's opened up a faucet," said Ms. Brainard, whose quilt showed such revenge scenes as a car running over her ex-husband's girlfriend. "Women come up to me and tell me what happened to them.

"It's taboo to talk about it, about him and his affair. I was saying things you weren't supposed to say," she added. "That's why the quilt was so threatening to men. You're not supposed to talk about it, which I think makes it easier for men to have affairs."

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