Infidelity is not an 'act of courage' (National Post, March 24, 2004)

Dr. Jean Marmoreo's patients, mature women brimming over with midlife woes and joys, provide the subject matter for her weekly Globe and Mail column. On Feb. 28, using two of her patients' stories as a context, Dr. Marmoreo penned an ode to the merits of late-life infidelity.

Imagine, if you will, confiding to your lawyer that over a long and profitable career in accounting, your zest for your profession has become blunted, your enthusiasm for work dimmed. You confess that in order to alleviate the daily tedium with some much-needed excitement you have finally given in to the temptation to embezzle your oldest client's money, and that the spring in your step and the glow in your cheek come from the adrenalin rush of crisis management.

And now imagine your lawyer responding to this confession with a manly slap on the back and the words, "Well, you're on your way to becoming a hero." You would be shocked, even more so when he explained that your betrayal of your profession's sacred trust was "an act of courage."

For the bored, embezzling accountant substitute a bored, cheating wife, for the lawyer a doctor, and you have the gist (and actual words) of Jean Marmoreo counselling her middle-aged patients. The women presented for consideration in the column are neither abused nor desperate; rather they are in "predictably stable" but sexually becalmed marriages, and have recently embarked on affairs.

While Marmoreo admits an affair involves risk and feelings of guilt, it's worth it for an experience that "sings with adventure and passion and joy." She implies that infidelity is particularly appropriate if children are old enough that the affair's logistical demands don't impinge on Mom's household duties, and is more than justified when children are actually out of the home.

To reinforce her position Marmoreo cites a pop psychology book, The Hero Within: The Six Archetypes We Live By, which identifies women in general as "martyrs" and men as "warriors." Imbued with enthusiasm for author Carol Pearson's hypothesis, Marmoreo paints marital fidelity as a fungible notion, readily subordinate to the greater good of a woman's sexual re-awakening. In the process of becoming a warrior, a woman " ... must be prepared to question her values and social prescripts ... She must be prepared to look into the prospect of abandoning everything she has held inviolate (italics mine)." Marmoreo airily concedes that " ... [her] quest may cut [her] off from family members who are stunned by [her] actions," but that is a small price to pay for what she gains, "a richer, deeper understanding of what she is receiving and what she has to offer in a sexual relationship, if not a partnered one."

"Family members": This delicately neutralizing euphemism elides the reality that these are her patient's husband of 30 years and her children who are "stunned." And to stunned we may well add devastated, betrayed and ashamed.

Dr. Marmoreo, normally sage and sensible, has been unaccountably seduced by empirically based, pernicious psychobabble, which regards a quarter century of cohesive family history as morally equivalent to a transient erotic episode. Marmoreo has clearly -- perhaps unconsciously -- bought into the postmodern value system Anne Kingston outlines in her new book, The Meaning of Wife, in which the single life, providing endless voluptuous pleasure, is the glittering prize, while the traditional paradigm of lifetime fidelity is debased coin.

Marmoreo believes a woman's right to erotic satisfaction trumps maternal obligation, and that the mother-child relationship can be guiltlessly renegotiated once children are grown. It isn't true. Adult children are incredibly sensitive to the behaviour and values of their parents. In constructing their own nests, adult children look to their parents for role models and, if we're lucky, friends.

But don't take my word for it. I e-mailed Marmoreo's column to my married daughter and asked her how she would react if, feeling martyred because my life wasn't always a trip to the moon on gossamer wings, I were to embark on a late-life affair.

She wrote: "It would have a huge impact. It's awful to imagine your parents cheating, and this doctor doesn't even think moms should be ashamed to tell their kids about it! It's basically like she's saying all the values we were taught as kids are just a sham ... The only way this advice could be ethical is if Dr. Marmoreo told her patients upfront that she has no respect (actually disdain is more like it) for the sanctity of marriage/family and she will be doling out advice accordingly."

Why would a woman trade a pearl of great price -- the respect of her family -- for a handful of shiny beads? Why would a counsellor validate such folly? The ancient Hippocratic oath begins: "First do no harm." It was good advice then and it's good advice still.

© National Post 2004