Situational Affairs: Is There Ever a Time When Having a Concealed or Open Affair Is the Right Thing to Do?

Situational Affairs: Is There Ever a Time When Having a Concealed or Open Affair Is the Right Thing to Do? January 11, 2016

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It has been have argued that a concealed affair can save one’s marriage and that an open sexual relationship may enhance one’s marital union. See for example the video “Is It Ever Okay to Cheat?”, an interview with Dan Savage, and the article by Mel Robbins “What’s Inside an Open Marriage?”. You can find both pieces at the following link.

In his interview with Sanjay Gupta for “Colorful Conversations” at CNN, Savage offers the example of a marriage where one of the spouses is no longer willing or able to engage in sexual activity. What is the other spouse whose sexual desires are unfulfilled to do? One may contend that the spouse whose sexual advances in marriage are thwarted must remain true to their marital vows no matter what. But has not a spouse who is able to engage in sexual activity but who has rejected their partner’s advances already compromised their union? After all, for most marriages, both parties understand that their marriage involves the expectation that they will seek to meet one another’s sexual needs and desires.

Now, I should pause to add here that some expectations are unfair, and no expectations should be imposed, which may constitute rape within marriage; mutual consent is critical. Moreover, one should not use one’s spouse as a play thing to fulfill one’s sexual fantasies. Nor should one use sex as a tool or weapon to manipulate a spouse to do one’s bidding elsewhere outside of the marriage bed. These qualifying remarks call to mind the previous post in this series on extramarital sex titled “Monogamous Sex Makes Good Sense to Reason, or Does It?” There I reflect upon Immanuel Kant’s claim that we should always engage one another not simply as means, but also as ends. We must guard against the objectification and degradation of one another as humans. The examples noted here in my qualifying remarks in this paragraph are instances of such objectification.

Now back to Savage. So, what is the spouse whose passions are placed in constant check by an unwilling marriage partner to do? Should he or she break off the marriage? In a similar way, the same question would arise for the spouse whose mate is no longer able to engage in sexual activity because of a particular physical disability or impairment. While Savage does not take marital unfaithfulness lightly, he believes that such situations warrant the spouse with unmet sexual needs secretly engaging in an affair to meet those needs in order to preserve the marriage; the only other option for the jilted spouse would be to seek a divorce.

So, let’s say the concealed affair takes place. How long can the concealment last? What if a disease is contracted, no matter how careful one tries to be? (and Savage encourages caution in engaging in extramarital sexual activity to guard against sexual diseases) Let’s say that one still contracts a sexual disease. While one may no longer be having sexual relations with one’s spouse, the disease can still impact the marriage; anytime there is an illness within a family circle, it leaves its impression in some manner. So, too, physical sexual relations come with emotional and psychological ties. The affair may very well lead to the termination of the marriage anyway because the sexual bonds in the concealed affair can prove very strong and undo any remaining intimacy in the existing marriage. Beyond what is discussed in the interview, I would assume that Savage engages a variety of related concerns and concludes that no course of action is full-proof, but that he advocates for minimizing the various potential risks and for proceeding with what he deems the lesser of two evils: the concealed affair may prove more advantageous and beneficial than terminating the marriage.

Let’s consider another closely related item. Whether concealed as in the case of having an extramarital affair, or open as in an open relationship, the other party is present, whether physically present to the household or not. As Mel Robbins argues in “What’s Inside an Open Marriage?”, one’s lover resides with one’s family in an open relationship, whether physically present or not. Robbins shares how she and her husband, although initially quite interested in entertaining an open marriage, chose against it. Here are factors that alarmed them:

        You may think, like I did, that an open marriage means you are simply open to having sex with other partners. But as we dug deeper into the reality, the desires and the fears that come with the territory — we realized it is not that simple.

When you step outside your marriage and into another person’s bed you may say its “just sex” — but in reality you just invited that person to step into your whole life, and they probably will. You’ll be in your kitchen, with your spouse, when the texts appear on your phone. Are you free Saturday? You’ll be driving in your car with your kids, when the song that reminds you of your lover plays. And suddenly, they are right there in the car with you.

Indeed, an open sexual relationship opens one’s whole life and family to the lover. Robbins confesses that though she and her husband first thought an open marriage might add spice to their own relationship, these considerations made her and her spouse do a double take and reconsider. So, too, for others of us considering open marriages, are we really open—all the way? (The reader is encouraged to read this article as well on the subject of monogamy and open relationships).

Beyond the marriage, does one ever ask what a concealed affair or open marriage means for the person with whom one is having a sexual relationship? It is not just about one’s marriage. One should again call to mind Immanuel Kant’s ethical concern noted in the previous post about not objectifying others (or oneself). If one’s ultimate aim is to save or spice up one’s own marriage, how does that benefit the lover? They appear to be mere means to one’s own ends. Now perhaps these lovers are using the affair to save or spice up other relationships. In all such instances, it would appear that the various lovers open themselves up to one another, even in ways that go beyond sexual activity, yet without the long-term openness of being there for one another “until death do us part.” Such long-term openness that is involved in monogamous marital unions sanctioned by law helps to safeguard against objectification, as the post drawing from Kant argued.

One also needs to account for the children, including their emotional states, especially if a concealed affair were to go public somehow, or if one enters into an open marital relationship. And what about the children born out of wedlock? While not the focus of this post, matters become increasingly complex, it would seem, if one goes further and enters into a polygamous marital arrangement, or a polyamorous one (which is not the same thing as an open marriage). What about such matters as inheritance, or legal rights to healthcare through a spouse’s policy, among other things? One needs to keep an open mind and consider all the variables. As one TIME magazine article titled “Polygamy Is Not Next” notes,

        … the entire existing structure of modern marriage is designed for a dyad. DeBoer argues that there were similar practical objections to same-sex marriage—for instance, having to discard marriage license forms with the words “husband” and “wife” and replacing them with ones that list “Spouse 1” and “Spouse 2.” But this onerous task hardly compares to the massive overhaul multi-partner marriage would require: including revising the rules on post-divorce property division or survivor benefits for three, five, or 10 people instead of two; adjusting child custody arrangement for multiple legal parents; and determining who has the legal authority to make decisions for an incapacitated spouse.

It’s not just that sorting this out is difficult. The bottom line is that as a practical matter, it’s simply impossible for plural partners to have the same rights and benefits currently enjoyed by two spouses, gay or straight. It’s likely that every group marriage would essentially have to be customized. This would remove what many advocates have always cited as a major advantage of marriage: a single, simple legal act that creates a standard set of privileges and obligations.

There are many ethical factors and practical items to consider in any and all situations.

Let’s take one more situation that complexifies further the subject matter ethically. In Situation Ethics, Joseph Fletcher shares the example of a German family torn apart by war at the close of WWII. The husband is a prisoner of war in a prison camp in Wales. While scavenging for food for her children on the streets back home in Germany, a Russian patrol picks up the wife and transports her to a prison camp in the Ukraine, unbeknownst to her family. The children are scattered. When the husband is eventually released, he goes about finding the children, while also searching frantically for his missing wife. Someone gets word to her about her family’s perilous state and that they are under great duress without her. However, there are only two options for her at this time to be released from the prison camp. One would be for her to become severely ill, where she would be released to a Soviet hospital for treatment she could not receive in the camp; she could not return to Germany. The other opportunity for release would be for her to become pregnant while in captivity; in that case, she would be returned to Germany as “a liability.” The woman determines to try the second option. She determines to approach a friendly prison guard and ask him to impregnate her so that she can be released and returned to Germany, where she could be reunited with her family. He obliges her request, and she is released to return home. Her family welcomes her with open arms, as well as the child born to her out of wedlock. In fact, they cherish him because his life is the reason for their reunion as a family.[1] What is one to make of this account, which Fletcher titles “Sacrificial Adultery”[2]?

From all that is known about the case in question, the woman’s aim in the extramarital sex with the guard was not pleasure, but reunion with her family. But what was the guard’s aim? Was his aim simply to help the woman get impregnated so that she could return to Germany? Regardless, whether or not it was for pleasure, it would seem that there is still a form of objectification involved from a Kantian perspective, as noted in the previous post. Basically, the woman uses the guard for his sperm to get impregnated and released, and perhaps the guard uses the woman for sexual pleasure, even while assisting her to get home to her family. I cannot imagine Kant affirming this state of affairs as virtuous. Even so, it is not from my vantage point equivalent to having extramarital relations merely for the sake of sexual pleasure, at least in the case of the woman in the story.

Is there a place for hierarchical ethics, wherein one makes allowances for the lesser of two evils, and for a relational good, namely in this case, reunion with one’s family, which is barely surviving without the wife and mother?[3] One might argue from a biblical standpoint that if the woman is a believer, she should pray for God to provide a way out of prison that does not involve her having to engage in extramarital sexual activity to get impregnated and released (See 1 Corinthians 10:13). Perhaps, though, God were to choose to provide a way out from temptation that does not amount to her being released, but where extended family members and/or friends come to her family’s aid, while she remains in prison. Would that prove satisfying to the woman? But then again, should relational satisfaction be the aim, or should it be doing the will of God, no matter what it means for one’s relational longings such as the desire to be reunited with one’s family?

In the situation narrated here, we are told that the family welcomes the woman and child with joy and open arms. (Everyone in the family, including her children through her marriage, is informed of what transpired for her release) But what happens if down the road, her husband and the children from their marriage change their view of the situation? Of course, the woman has no way of knowing what their short-term or long-term responses might be, when she makes her determination from prison. Nor does it seem fair to make her have to sort through all these affairs, as someone who is the victim of circumstances far beyond her control. No matter what one thinks about this particular instance, it would be hoped that there is sympathy and compassion given the woman’s and her family’s extreme duress. Still, this example is far more complex than those accounts noted earlier in this post. Beyond the various scenarios noted in this entry, can you think of other situations with the question in mind that serves as the title for this post: “Situational affairs: is there ever a time when having a concealed or open affair is the right thing to do?”


[1]Joseph Fletcher, Situation Ethics: The New Morality (The Westminster Press, 1966), pages 164-165.

[2]Fletcher, Situation Ethics, page 165. Having engaged Rand and Kant in the two previous posts on the subject, it is worth accounting for what Fletcher says about sex, including sexual relations outside of marriage. Reference his account of this theme within the framework of situation ethics on pages 13-14, 17, 79, 103-104, 117, 124, 126-127, 139, 146, and 163. It is worth noting that for Fletcher, situational ethics is not “antinomian,” nor is it “legalistic” (See page 17). There is never a sense in which situation ethics for Fletcher is about ‘anything goes,’ or that it is about self-gratifying desire (antinomian, as accounted for in his work). Nor does it entail adherence to external, legal codes as ends in themselves. Rather, situation ethics is attitudinal in the sense of the Christian rendering of love as agape, which always has caring concern for God and others in mind (See pages 79-80, 117). Fletcher claims to follow Augustine’s lead: “Love with care and then what you will, do,” not the antinomian “Love with desire and do what you please” (See Fletcher, page 79). His approach also excludes a legalistic orientation which might be rendered, ‘Love laws, even when they discount care for others’ well-being in given situations.’

[3]It is worth noting here that in the Bible allowances appear to be made for polygamous relationships. While monogamy alone is ultimately affirmed, God does not normally require that men divorce additional wives (though in Ezra 9 and 10, it does appear that God requires the men of Israel to send away their foreign wives). While God encourages Abraham to account for Sarah’s wish and send Hagar and Ishmael away, God promises to care for them and make Ishmael great (Genesis 21:8-21). God also makes allowances for divorce in Scripture, due to the people’s hardness of heart, though Jesus allows for only one exception—marital unfaithfulness (Matthew 19:8-9); God’s desire is to protect marital unions, and especially women from being exploited.

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