Unless you've had direct experience with marital infidelity, you may think in stereotypical terms, like the married executive involved with his secretary, the television soap opera diva's on-screen fling with the pool boy, a bodice-ripping romance novel about star- crossed lovers trapped in arranged marriages, or the more modern version found on sleazy 'reality' television shows like 'Cheaters'. Looked at this way, there seems a very bright line dividing fidelity from unfaithfulness.
In these clear cases, there's usually some form of reckoning. The affair ends or is discovered, or the soul-mate lovers run off, the marriage either survives infidelity or ends in divorce. But while it seems easy to separate harmless flirting from cheating and to divide unfaithful behavior between romantic affairs and one-night stands, things are not so simple. This is especially true in a popular culture saturated with sexual references and innuendo.
Much of this muddier water has to do with the changing nature of interaction between men and women during the past half century. In the not too distant past, opportunities for romantic involvement at work might have been easier for male executives and women in the stenographer's pool, or female flight attendants and male crews traveling together for days or weeks at a stretch.
Back then, most men worked with other men, and women labored in the home. Mind you, this was no age of innocence. Men and women managed to find extra-marital companionship with acquaintances, neighbors and members of their social circles. But, perhaps the temptations were a bit further away and the line between fidelity and unfaithfulness seemed far easier to identify back then. The repercussions – or at least the absence of sympathy or a pass for those in extra-martial relationships – seemed more severe back then, too.
Today, unrelated men and women spend time together under more and varied circumstances, beginning in school and continuing in the military and in the workplace, than was the case in generations past. Today, men and women in many professions serve as colleagues, equals and superiors, sometimes spending enormous amounts of time working and traveling together. True and rewarding long-lasting friendships of the kind once enjoyed almost exclusively by members of the same gender often occur. This can only add to the richness and enjoyment of life.
Even socially, men and women mix in different ways today. Gathering at a favorite sports bar or the home of a friend to cheer on the local team is done by single men and women who enjoy each other's company without engaging in romantic or sexual behavior. Community activities, charity work, hobbies and avocations are less segregated by gender these days, as well.
So too, the latitude of what passes for acceptable interaction between men and women has expanded considerably. Set aside the new-found Puritanism of college campus political correctness or the hyper-sensitive workplace vigilance toward sexual harassment. Men and women share more of the same (sometimes off-color) jokes, dress more provocatively in one another's company, banter with one another in more direct fashion and engage more freely in flirtatious behavior. Again, this has taken place in the context of a more sexualized popular culture.
This is not to say human nature has changed or the chemistry between men and women has been completely understood and tamed. Even the most determinedly Platonic relationships can turn unexpectedly into something more – at least, physically, as 'friends with benefits' can attest. So too, friends of the opposite sex may find themselves moving beyond the affections of normal friendship into confusing forms of emotional attachment. Married men and women who are honest with themselves and who accept the prospect of temptation are careful and remain mindful of the human capacity for delusion and error.
So how do you know when you're putting your fidelity in jeopardy in your interactions with members of the opposite sex? Let's take a look:
1. Window shopping: Finding others attractive is a normal human experience, and there's nothing wrong with admiring physical beauty, poise, sense of humor, accomplishment, success, wealth or an entertaining conversationalist. Acknowledging this admiration, even to your spouse if done in a way not intended to provoke jealousy or make comparisons, can be a sign of a person and a couple secure in themselves and their relationship.
But when attention towards others is more than occasional or rare, when it become lascivious or leering, when you find yourself pursuing the company of someone to which you're attracted or when you find the presence of such a person prodding your baser instincts, you 're probably being drawn in the wrong direction.
2. Flirtation: There's nothing particularly wrong or particularly new with flirting, even if today's brand is less circumspect and more risqué. Confidence and compliments can be fun while still being respectful and appropriate. They can give a boost to your ego, or allow you to boost someone else's ego. The key is context and whether there is any other agenda behind the flirting.
What may seem a harmless compliment may cause offense if it's perceived to be overly aggressive. Conversely, your flirtations may be perceived as an invitation or give the wrong impression about your availability. So too, someone flirting with you may be doing so to assess your availability or to make you aware of their availability.
A good rule of thumb for appropriateness of the flirting: you'd feel comfortable doing it in front of your spouse or your flirting partner's spouse. Would he or she understand? Feel threatened or offended? Or enjoy a good laugh? If you'd be embarrassed engaging in or being subjected to this flirting in front of others, then that's a good sign it is inappropriate and could lead to trouble.
3. Time and attention: Having good or even close friends of the opposite sex outside of marriage is more common today than in the past. Like other friendships and relationships, these require time and attention to nurture and grow. But if that time and attention comes at the expense of your spouse – and is not reasonably required by work or professional demands, civic duties or other unusual obligations – then you may have stepped across an important line. Add an increase in affection for this person to the mixture and you may be playing with fire.
Now, this is not a call to avoid the often complicated and fascinating relationships which can grow between members of the opposite sex outside marriage. You may be passing over valuable confidants, mentors and others who can enrich your life, or friends for your spouse will enjoy, as well. This is especially so in an age of global travel and long distance friendships nourished by today's instant communications. That would be overly restrictive and confining. But be aware that the fundamental chemistry between men and women can complicate or get in the way of even a healthy and entirely appropriate relationship.
4. Daydreams and fantasies: Like admiring beauty or having friends of the opposite sex who are not your spouse, occasional daydreams or fantasies can be healthy diversions. Wondering what life would be like under different circumstances can be an interesting mental exercise, more so if it leads you to appreciate the life and the partner you already have. But unless you are unhappy in your marriage, thoughts like these should be fleeting and rare. If you find yourself engaged in repetitive contemplation of alternatives to your spouse, especially if those contemplations lead to longing or yearning for another person, a closer look at yourself and your marriage is warranted.
While physical intimacy is often the defining feature of infidelity, beware of emotional and other forms of involvement which can lead to betrayal. A romance outside marriage can often do far more damage than a drunken one-night stand that passes without further involvement.