My boyfriend's afraid he will cheat

There's lots of infidelity in his family, and he doesn't want to repeat it


Cary Tennis
July 21, 2009 2:16PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

My boyfriend and I have been together for two years, and we've talked about marriage. I come from a background where marriage is very valued, and infidelity and divorce are almost unheard of. His family has two intact marriages, both of which involve substance abuse and at least one of which involves repeated infidelity. His parents' marriage involved repeated infidelity on both sides before a very ugly divorce.

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My boyfriend is the poster boy for stability: put himself through a grueling graduate program, volunteers, is a good son and grandson, helps with chores, supported me both financially and emotionally while I was dealing with some very stressful situations. I can't give out more details because I want to preserve our anonymity, but I can say that he thinks long and hard about decisions to be sure they're both ethical and moral.

But to cut to the chase: He's afraid of getting married because he's afraid he might cheat. If the opportunity presented itself, like with Bill Clinton, some woman pursuing him -- in that moment, would he make the right decision? Then he says, no, no, I'd never do that to you. But we talk some more, and that's his fear.

This is out of my league. We don't know -- does every guy have this fear, and he's just honest about it? I am confident he has no bad intentions. He is a very honest, truthful individual who is harder on himself than anyone else could ever be on him. But we know he's got to work through this before marriage will ever be an option, and neither of us is quite sure how he should proceed to figure this out.

Please don't use my name, so perhaps just sign me,

Not sure how to make sense of this one

Dear Not Sure,

I suggest you say to him, "OK, now we are going to talk about people we are attracted to."

He looks at you blankly.

You say, "You go first."

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"Who I'm attracted to?"

"A name," you say. "Name a person, a woman, that we both know, that you are attracted to."

"You," he says, trying to buy time.

"Very good," you say. "I am indeed attractive. Who else?"

"Oh, but darling, I'm not attracted to anybody else," he says.

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You laugh. You show him some snapshots. "Do you find any of the women in these pictures attractive?"

"Well, yes, she's attractive."

"Very clever. That's me. Who else?"

"But baby," he says.

"But baby," you say. "I have to know what goes on in that little lizard brain of yours."

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He has pretty much laid it out for you: That lizard brain of his is sure to give you trouble in the years to come. You need a way of making the lizard brain talk. If you don't make it talk, it will conspire silently to place him in the warm bed and amorous clutches of some woman he barely even knows he was attracted to.

This matter of men ending up in bed with women we barely knew we were attracted to is of some interest to women, I know, and so here is a sort of gloss on it from someone admittedly older than your man but with some history of the affliction, now lost in the distant mists of youth.

When we men are young, we ourselves often do not know what is going on in that little lizard brain of ours. It's not like we don't know what we want. We know what we want. And we have some idea how we will go about getting it. But actual seductive plotting seems to occur without  conscious direction. You "know where things are headed" and you go there. You do not get out a map and agree on the route you will take. You engage, you link up, you get in sync. Things "just happen." Sometimes these are things that we "didn't mean" to happen.

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When we are single we can enjoy these things that "just happen." But things that "just happen"  wreck marriages. So in a marriage you try to make things more explicit.

Consider this scenario. At dinner, you see an attractive woman touch her hair and lean a flirtatious millimeter closer to him than necessary to reach the butter. When you and he are alone you say to him, "She's flirting with you."

He says "Who?"

"What do you mean, who?! Her! She's attracted to you."

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He says, "I didn't notice."

But you saw his eyes warm to her, you saw his body turn toward her, you saw him brighten at her approach. So you wonder, is he outrageously ignorant or outrageously cunning? Does he even know?

Maybe not. Maybe he doesn't even know. But if you have established, as suggested above, a way of talking about such attractions, then you might be able to ask him, without an undertone of recrimination or accusation, "Are you attracted to her?"

Because the consequences of marrying and divorcing are grave and complex, I suggest you talk about what would happen if he were to have sex with someone else. Would the marriage have to end right there and then? Or could you commit, now, to some sort of reconciliation process if that were to occur? Could you come to an understanding?

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Some contend that monogamy is an unnatural state. That may be so. In civilization we maintain many unnatural states: the state of organized, polite childhood; the state of willing slavery to work; the state of unconflicted patriotism. We maintain a great many fictions in civilized life.

Theoretically we are free to shirk any and all of these conventions. But the consequences can be debilitating: isolation, poverty, recrimination, not to mention legal sanctions -- in the case of, for instance, someone who out of religious conviction refuses to kill, or refuses to support state policies, or is married but decides not to be monogamous and is therefore evicted from the house and forced to make onerous financial payments.

I am generous and optimistic about the human spirit. I believe that most of us want to do the right thing. But I also believe we are insufficiently rigorous in our analysis of exactly how murderously confining our traditions and beliefs are, and how very contrary our traditions and beliefs are to our actual innermost desires, and how many ways those thwarted desires adopt innocuous disguises to achieve distorted purposes. In the 1960s we tried, for a brief time, to figure out if we could live closer to our natural and relaxed state of desire, if we could be more open and less shamed about what we wanted. We tried to stop parroting fictions about the human condition and live more fully within both the difficulty and the joy. We wanted to see if we could be both existentialists and sensualists, if we could both admit our tragic nature and admit that we want to sleep around, and still exist in, or at least on the margins of, mainstream capitalist American society.

People differ on how well that turned out. Let's all go see the upcoming Woodstock movie.

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Anyway, that is a way of saying that you and he do not live in a vacuum. Your problem exists in a continuum of individuals trying to find a place for themselves in the confines of a society that is often freer in word than deed. We try to fit our desires to the forms of human expression available to us. You play by the rules or ignore the rules or change those rules. Would you be willing to change the rules? Does fidelity equal marital success? What does equal marital success? What might happen if you were to get married and he were to find himself unable to stay faithful? What about opening up the marriage? It never seems to work, but, who knows, there's always a first time!

Marriage is nothing if not a long-term project. So, long-term, you both need to learn to talk about your attractions to others.



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What? You want more advice?

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Cary Tennis

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