You’re working in the modeling industry now? Good thing your wife is both beautiful and tough; that must help you stay faithful.
– a (now deleted) Facebook comment that appeared yesterday on my link to my post about the Perfectly Unperfected Project.
I got that comment just as I read an email from a good friend of mine, who wrote:
I saw Geraldo (Rivera) on Oprah talking about his past as a playboy. He is now married for the fifth time to a gorgeous woman at least 30 years younger than him. He says that he has put an end to his womanizing because she is “all the woman he needs” and that he no longer “needs” to look anywhere else. I’m sure, at least on the surface, his wife takes this as a compliment. But I was disturbed by it. The obvious implication is that his affairs were due at least in part to his previous wives not being “enough” for him
This isn’t a post about Geraldo, or about my new work within the modeling industry. It’s about fidelity.
I am not faithful to my wife merely because she is beautiful. I am not faithful to my wife because I am afraid that she will beat me up (she is a kickboxer) if I cheat. I am not faithful to my wife because I have a reputation to uphold, and I know that my career(s) depend on my living out my professed values in my private life. Make no mistake, I am in awe of my wife’s enduring loveliness; I am keenly aware of her physical strength, and the thought of a divorce makes me shudder. And of course, I know damn well that my work as a mentor, a writer, a public speaker on issues of gender, relationships, sexuality and self-image hinges on my ability to be whom I claim to be. But none of these things are the real reason I’m faithful.
Like Geraldo, I’ve been married several times. Like Geraldo, I was a cheat, chronically unfaithful for many years. My cheating, however, never had anything to do with the beauty or the personalities of the women with whom I was in what was supposed to be a monogamous relationship. I cheated for other reasons, many of them: I cheated because I wanted validation, I cheated because I liked “new skin” (the chimera of everlasting novelty), I cheated because I wanted to prove that I wasn’t the dorky awkward kid I had once been (see Mick Hucknall, whose story reads very familiar to me), I cheated because cheating kept me safe from becoming too dependent on one relationship. I cheated because I was afraid. I cheated because I could.
My infidelity and promiscuity were not the fault of the women to whom I was committed. I didn’t cheat because they were insufficiently beautiful, or because we didn’t have sex often enough (or the right kind of sex.) Nothing — nothing that they did or didn’t do could have kept me from cheating because I was in the throes of a compulsion that I alone had the responsibility to solve.
I learned how to be faithful from my late mentor and Twelve Step sponsor, Jack. Jack had been unfaithful to his wife in his drinking days before coming to AA. In AA, his sponsor told him “You need to start being faithful to your wife.” Jack complained, “But how can I be faithful? I don’t even think I love her!” His sponsor snorted. “Of course you don’t love her. You don’t know what love is yet. But the reason to be faithful isn’t because of her. It’s because you made a promise. You owe it to yourself to be the kind of man who keeps his promises. If you cheat, you cheat on yourself first. And if you know you’re a cheater, you set yourself up to drink.”
“Oh”, Jack said. He told that story to me and to countless other sponsees over the course of his nearly four decades of working a program. And he learned to be faithful to — and to love — that same wife.
Jack’s story and mine were different in many ways. But what he impressed upon me all those years ago has stuck with me ever since. When we make a promise to someone, we make a statement about ourselves. We’re saying that we’re the sort of people who can make promises — and keep them. So when we cheat on a spouse or anyone else with whom we’re in a monogamous relationship, we’re breaking the promise we made to ourselves. As I wrote in another post, we become what we pledged not to be. And we don’t become what we pledged not to be — a liar and a cheater — without doing serious harm to our own self-worth. (Aristotle pointed this out, back in the day.)
I don’t stay faithful to Eira because I love her. I stay faithful because I love myself. That doesn’t mean I don’t love my wife: I do, with all my heart. But the feeling of love waxes and wanes in any marriage. If I am faithful out of love for her, I do what Geraldo did in his Oprah interview: I shift responsibility for my own actions away from myself and on to my wife. It’s not her job to keep me faithful, either by being lovable or by being sexy. If another woman tries to seduce me, that’s poor behavior on her part– but another’s enticement doesn’t absolve an adult man from responsibility for his actions. Men are not so vulnerable individually and collectively that the very fabric of society can only be held together through women’s sexual self-control. That’s the myth of male weakness: the false notion that women are biologically “stronger” than men when it comes to the capacity to resist sexual temptation.
All of my sexual and romantic energy flows towards my wife, not simply because I love her (which I do) but because I believe in what it is that we are accomplishing together. I believe in our partnership, but I also believe in myself. I know myself well enough to know that I am a man of great passion, but also a man who thrives best in a committed, monogamous relationship. (Hence the penchant for marrying early and often.) But I couldn’t really bring what I needed to bring to a monogamous relationship until I grasped that it wasn’t the job of love, or desire, or a woman to keep me faithful. Fidelity was and is all about me, not because I’m a narcissist, but because my capacity to love my wife and my daughter and my students and my business partners and my friends and my family and the whole damn world rests on my capacity to love myself. And if I love myself, I will be the sort of man who honors his commitments when it’s easy, and when it’s tough. I know how painful it is to be a liar and a fraud; that awareness more than anything else drove me to the point of suicide. And I’ve come to know how good it is to live a congruent life, where my words and actions cohere.
I love my wife. But that love is not what keeps me faithful. The love that keeps me faithful is the love for the man whom I was called to be.