Yesterday a friend of mine asked me why it was that people who are otherwise honest and open have so much trouble around integrity in romantic relationships. Why do good people cheat?
The word "integrity" means "the state of being integrated". And "integrated" means that all the parts sit comfortably together. So integrity means being and behaving in a such a way that all parts hang together. A man who despises the conditions of the factory farm yet eats beef daily has parts within him that do not fit together. In this area of his life he does not have integrity. A man who believes that factory farms are just fine for cows and eats a lot of beef DOES have integrity in this area of his life. (Though he may need to educate himself.)
Now we all have contradictions like this where we behave in ways that contradict our values or what we know is best for us. But it is hard to accept. So we have to rationalize, deny or outright lie to ourselves to keep from seeing the contradiction. Psychologists call it "cognitive dissonance". And we all do it to some degree. But when the issue is serious, then cognitive dissonance is very painful. The man who drinks and does coke a lot knows in one part of his mind that it is unhealthy and dangerous and that it could kill him. And he sort of knows that he is hooked. And he doesn't want to die. But another part of him knows that the only solution is to give up the booze and coke completely. Forever. And there's no way he wants to do that. Because he needs the stuff to feel okay and the thought of life without it is too scary.
So he swears off in the morning during the hangover. And then - in the afternoon when he's jonesing, and a glass of wine would feel just right - he makes the decision to have that glass. But he has to come up with some reason why it's ok to do it and why he isn't really hooked and why it's not really that bad. Sure, a part of him knows he's bullshitting himself. But another part is saying just as loud "No, no. It's fine. Go ahead. What the hell?" That's some serious cognitive dissonance. That's a lack of integrity. And it's painful.
As far as sexual relations go, I think that people have a big problem with integrity because they are not honest with themselves or with others about what they want. The sexual urge can be just as strong as the urge for that bump of coke. Especially if it seems like that urge will not be satisfied.
Let's say you really like being slapped with a codfish at the moment of climax. Or at least you think you probably would. You've never tried it but you fantasize about it all the time. Chances are, you'll probably think to yourself "Wow, that really gets me off but I probably shouldn't mention it to the person I'm dating. Because they'll think its weird and maybe leave."
You've made a few assumptions. The first is that your desire to be fish-slapped is weird and not valid and does not deserve to be satisfied. The second is that your lover will not stick around if they know about the fish thing. The third is that you should try to continue a relationship with a person who would leave if they knew about your hidden desires.
So you keep quiet and marry your lover. You love them. You want to be faithful. But this unrequited fish-slap thing is nagging at you like a bad coke habit. You start surfing the fish-slap sites. Eventually you hire some strapping young fellow down at the docks to work you over with a salmon every second Friday. You tell your spouse that you're working late.
The parts are not integrated. You love your spouse. You value them. You want to be faithful. And yet here you are sneaking around. When you get caught you are truly sorry. You hurt. And you can't really explain why it happened.
It happened because you were not honest about your desires. Not honest with yourself or with your partner. What's more, you didn't honour the fish-slap side of yourself. You didn't listen to it and celebrate it, saying: "Ok, this is beautiful. Let's explore it." You said "Um, this is weird and I don't deserve to have this sort of pleasure." And then later, when the fish-slap side of yourself demanded to be heard, you didn't have the courage to negotiate with your partner - to say "Could you maybe fish-slap me once in a while? Say - once a month? No? OK. What if the guy at the docks does it? I still love you but I need this."
These are tough talks to have. I make my living thinking about this stuff, and I still have trouble with some of these talks. So I have compassion for the cheaters. And for the cuckolds. Because there is still so much shame out there. We are told in a million different ways that if our desires do not conform then we have to keep them very quiet. This is a recipe for dishonesty, cheating and behaving without integrity.
(And then there are folks like Dan Savage who are working tirelessly to make unusual desires seem less unusual, and advocating that we explore them, not hide them. Thanks Dan, and great job on Colbert, by the way.)
I know that I am attracted to many people, and that I would not be happy in a monogamous relationship. The hard part was owning it and celebrating it instead of being ashamed of it. And holding out for a partner who could roll with it and wanted to live in the same way. I believe that we are faithful to each other. Faithful in that we are very honest about what we want and where we're at - even if it's hard to say and hard to hear. Even if it turns out to be a deal-breaker. It's scary, but not as scary as hurting people by sneaking around.