If you cannot have your dear husband for a comfort and delight, for a breadwinner and a crosspatch, for a sofa, chair, or hot water bottle,one can use him as a cross to be borne.
Adultery: democracy applied to love.
—H. L. Mencken
It’s one thing to reflect upon your life and to decide that you would like to have a lover in it. It’s quite another thing to do that when you are already married. A woman’s husband is, theoretically, supposed to eliminate the need or the desire for a lover; unfortunately, very often he doesn’t. The lover of a married woman is by definition an illicit lover, although he may not be a secret one. The special term for illicit lovers of either sex is “paramour.” The French par plus amour means “by or through love.” The role of paramour seems to have evolved simultaneously with the roles of husband and wife. In some cultures, the paramour was more blatant than others, but he has always hovered provocatively in the background.
Sexual encounters outside of marriage have such a negative connotation in our culture that it’s difficult even to discuss them in neutral and objective terms.
The technical term “adultery” means sexual intercourse by a married person with someone other than a spouse. It’s often illegal and is generally considered to be a sin as well by most major religious groups. In addition, the term isn’t very precise, for it doesn’t include the wide range of sexual experiences other than conventional intercourse.
The verb “to adulterate” means to debase or to make impure by the addition of inferior materials. It conjures up negative images such as contaminated food. People who have extramarital involvements are said to be unfaithful or to betray their vows or to cheat. The common phrase “sleeping around” implies a very casual and promiscuous behavior, presumably involving more than two beds. “Playing around” has a connotation of something other than serious intent. The most neutral wording to refer to the relationship of a married woman and her paramour, or a married man and his, is simply as an “extramarital relationship,” meaning one which exists in addition to a conjugal one.
Technically, you can only commit adultery if you are legally married. Moreover, if you are legally married, then any sex with anyone other than your spouse is adultery. In the spirit of the law, the relationship inherent in an “extramarital relationship” could be considered the same for any two people who cohabit as husband and wife, whether they are legally married or not. Being unfaithful to a common-law husband is a lot like being unfaithful to a legally married husband, if the couple’s understanding is that they are in fact in a “husband-wife” relationship. “Married but not churched” is how my grandmother would have described it.
The situation is less clear when you have two people who are lovers but are not married or living together as husband and wife. They don’t have the same obligations to each other as would formalized couples that are legally married, living common-law or are registered domestic partners, in that they have not promised to forsake all others forever and ever. They have almost no legal privileges involving the relationship, but they also have almost no obligations. In that context, value-laden words such as “unfaithful” are even less appropriate.
Anyone discussing the virtues and vices of contemporary marriage usually brings up the importance of monogamy. The term “monogamy” does not refer to relationships at all but to a certain kind of marital structure involving one husband and one wife: “mono” for one, “gamy” for marriage. An alternative to monogamy would be bigamy, in which one person has two husbands or two wives, and bigamy is considered illegal everywhere in the Western world. The
person with an extramarital connection is not, usually, a bigamist. He or she has one spouse and one or more other relationships with the opposite sex. Erica Jong does not exactly clarify the issue when she explains, “Bigamy
is having one husband too many. Monogamy is the same.”