American Culture

New phone 'apps' make it easier for pols to stray

Sanford case shines a spotlight on the central paradox of marriage.

South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford not only played fast and loose with the institution of marriage, but with email. However, help keeping affairs secret has arrived for not only politicians, but all of us. just released apps for mobile phones and the Blackberry. Jeremy Caplan reports for Time that because they’re “loaded up from phones’ browsers, they leave no electronic trail.”

For those unfamiliar with it, AshleyMadison is a matchmaking service for married individuals. That’s right: It facilitates affairs. To summarize the statement of a woman Caplan quotes who consults in the online dating field, AshleyMadison is infidelity “rebranded” and made “monetizable.” Though Ashley Madison has signed up over one million users since going online in 2001, she seems concerned that it harms the online dating business for singles.

As has been noted, the Sanford case is unlike other Republican sex scandals. It’s devoid of sex with prostitutes (to which prominent Democrats, like Eliot Spitzer, are also prone), drooling over congressional pages, soliciting sex in a public rest room, or pursuing an aide’s wife. Sanford was simply a man who fell in love with another woman who wasn’t much younger than he.

As the spiritual counselor to the Sanfords and their circle, Warren Culbertson, said in a Huffington Post article:

. . . the only thing holding his friends’ marriage together right now is “their vow to God.”

“Because it’s not feelings — it’s not emotions. … For most Christians, at some point in your marriage, if you’re married long enough, you do it because that’s what we’re called to do — out of obedience instead of out of passion.”

You can almost hear the strains of a psaltery in the background. Apparently Sanford, despite his faith (not fundamentalist, actually, but Episcopal), was unable to adhere to a view of marriage as starkly medieval as Culbertson’s.

It’s not just religious principles, but romantic ideals about marriage — however strange bedfellows — that are stern taskmasters. Entering marriage, neither the man nor the woman typically understands each other’s sexuality. (Thus strengthening the case for gay marriage.)

Male needs are cyclic, like hunger or urination. Women, on the other hand, tend to be episodic. Not only don’t religion and romance acknowledge the problem this might pose, they make no provisions for when a partner (the aged aside) spurns sex entirely.

Causes most commonly cited include stress and fatigue. Compounding those, the partner suffering from one or both of those symptoms — at the risk of gender-typing, usually the wife — may resent the other for helping to cause them by not holding up his or her end of the chores or child-rearing.

Other reasons include — today especially — loss of self-respect if one loses job and, of course, weight gain. The husband blows up and turns off the wife or she packs on the pounds and no longer feels attractive.

Divorce may not be an alternative because resuming the solo life, especially with kids, isn’t feasible for most in today’s economy. Also, the person denied sex may still care deeply for his or her spouse.

Nevertheless, a life without physical intimacy is unthinkable for many. Is an affair the answer? Even if not sniffed out by the spouse, it may end the marriage. The unfaithful spouse may, a la Sanford, link up with the fabled “soul mate,” which seems to make abandoning one’s family understandable in the eyes of God. (Funny how those soul-mate sensations have a way of fading once the cheating spouse divorces and then marries his or her paramour.)

On the other hand, as hollow as married life becomes without intimacy, in lying and deception lay the path to true misery. Of course, like Sanford, the cheater can admit to the affair on the theory that confession is good for the soul. It’s just that any benefit that might accrue to the sinner comes at the expense of the one sinned against.

We invite our readers to respond to the following questions in the comments section:

  • Is cheating a viable alternative to a sexless marriage?
  • Do “emotional affairs” (which stop short of sex) help or make the situation worse?
  • What’s the best way for the partner denied sex to deal with lack of physical intimacy in a marriage?

12 replies »

  1. Is cheating a viable alternative to a sexless marriage? It depends on your definition of cheating. If secrecy is involved, no. If both people agree and are open about it…if it makes them happy, then yes.

    Emotional affair? Is that like having friends? I agree with Ann. (As usual) If you’re keeping it a secret, it’s a problem.

    If either or neither partner is comfortable with going outside the marriage, masturbation or divorce.

  2. Perhaps what needs to be re-thought is how viable a concept monogamy is in the first place, in a lengthy marriage. Maybe we as a society need to question the legitimacy of those romantic ideals that are so defining in the first place. How realistic is it, in most situations, that a single individual will meet a person’s every need over 50 or 60 years? Is monogamy essential for a solid, enduring marriage? The ebbs & flows discussed in this post are inevitable. Maybe the French are just more honest. At any rate, it’s a conversation worth having, yet it remains a verboten topic for most, wrapped in language of shame (“cheating,” “unfaithful,” etc. And no, I’m not making any defense here personally; just interesting social norms to analyze & critique.) There is an unusually candid and provocative article in the latest issue of Atlantic that discusses just these topics:

  3. Ann and JThompson have answered all three questions as well as they can be answered. Wendy’s pushing it deeper, and i think her question deserves closer scrutiny. Our closest relatives have a very different social structure, yet it has plenty of depth and commitment between individuals. Our ancestors didn’t behave much differently and it’s easy to see how the primate social cohesion would be deepened (and personalized) with the development of language. Marriage/monogamy is a very recent development if we start the time line at c. 5 million years ago to coincide with our split from the hairy cousins.

    We should consider where and how these ideals originate. Were there ulterior social motives for the rise of idealistic monogamy? Why is monogamy beneficial? (If the benefit is in child rearing, can we say that monogamous parents are better at child rearing than the chimpanzee troop?)

    What about the bonobo? They’re the only other species to have sex A. face to face and B. for reasons other than the primal urge to procreate. Not only do they tend to walk upright, but they look very much like us…disturbingly human in person. They have an extremely developed social structure. And if there’s one thing they are not, it’s monogamous.

  4. 1. Cheating is never acceptable in a sexless marriage. It’s a violation of vows, and is dishonorable. This hit me personally when I was unable to make love to my late wife for a few years due to her health. She saw the pain I was going through and urged me to get some on the side, but I stuck by my vows and didn’t step out. I wasn’t even tempted.

    2. Emotional affairs without cheating tread on dangerous ground, and probably end up hurting someone.

    3. When one is denied sex, there is counseling, there is therapy, and in some cases, there is nothing one can do if your partner is terminally ill. Then, you just have to suck it up.


  5. “When one is denied sex, there is counseling, there is therapy… Then, you just have to suck it up.”

    So autofellatio is the answer?

  6. Thanks for responses. Ann shows just how complex the issue is. Credit goes to Jeff for not taking the John Edwards easy way out. Wendy, thanks for article; have just started reading. Thanks also, Lex and JThompson. Mike — you’re incorrigible.

  7. I am always shocked when I hear about a married couple who no longer have sex, and I think that one of them must be going elsewhere, the other one possibly secretly glad. However, I think that a couple should try everything, including therapy, maybe even of an unconventional kind, before they surrender their sexual exclusivity. Intimacy elsewhere probably means the marriage will end in fact if not in name, and, of course, all too often there will be dashed expectations, a bastard child, an incurable STD, even a violent reaction to discovery somewhere in the mix. I might feel differently about a long illness that essentially, if not physically, kills one partner by robbing him/her of mental function and personality. I knew a man once whose wife was in a psychiatric hospital for decades, and he had a lovely, age-appropriate companion. He was a pillar of the church, but everyone knew what was going on. If he had divorced his sick wife, she would have been at the mercy of charity or Medicaid instead of the generous health benefits supplied by his (military) employer.

  8. I’ll bet that 90% or more of men understand that sex, for a woman, is episodic, but less than 10% of women know or care that sex, for a man, is cyclic. Therein is the real problem. Insufficient sexual activity, for an aging male, can lead to prostate congestion, which can lead to eurgenital problems such as prostatitis and possibly even prostate cancer. But try to explain that medical fact to a woman? You might as well declare derision a necessary part of your existence once you even broach the subject, especially when you’re a young man. It’s ironic that a hundred years ago a woman with “soft hands” was admired, but today we’ve forgotten why. Ah, well. At least we have SUVs and diswashers.

  9. No one has mentioned about taxpayers dollars taken for these love trysts. We would be put in jail for this..He should be too..He has paid 3,000 of one 8,000 bill but the 21,000 and more on still on the books. This is not about an affair its about stealing and no just because he pays it back in installments is not acceptable.

  10. Here’s something I always wondered and that I’ve seldom, if ever, seen addressed. Speaking as a man, how come wives who aren’t interested in sex (either at the moment or at all) rarely provide their husbands with manual sex?

    Women may not see the difference between that and a man masturbating himself. But I think most men will agree there’s a huge physical and psychological difference. (For one thing, deep down, many men still think of masturbation as a blot on their manhood because they weren’t able to secure a sex partner.)

    As a male, if the tables were turned and I was unwilling or unable to commit my whole body to the sexual act, I would gladly provide a manual orgasm for my spouse were she so inclined to receive it. Why aren’t women inclined to help out that way? (If many are, please correct me.)

  11. Russ,

    An old joke among Southern Women of a certain level of breeding is that once one is married, the first thing to go is the oral sex… true:)


  12. Ann wrote:

    Maybe it’s one of those things men don’t ask for explicitly?

    Yes, we’re too proud or afraid of the reaction or something.