The way we stray today

Pamela Haag‘s new book “Marriage Confidential” has one of the best subtitles we’ve seen in a long time: “The Post-Romantic Age of Workhorse Wives, Royal Children, Undersexed Spouses, and Rebel Couples Who Are Rewriting the Rules.” That’s a lot to live up to, but the book delivers. And it’s getting good buzz. Below is an excerpt from the section “New Twists on Old Infidelities, Or, The Way We Stray Today”:

….We used to practice a default fidelity in marriage simply because of the expense and inconvenience of an affair (though even with these default obstacles, so many of us still cheated). Now the alignment of access and opportunity on the Web invites an almost default infidelity once you permit yourself that first exploration. Instant messaging, for example, is custom-designed for sexual rogue elements: teenagers and restless married people.

The conventional affair pushes like a tumor against the real life of a marriage. It encroaches on the marriage’s finite, discrete terrain. The new infidelity metaphysic has no boundaries in space or time.

On the one hand, the cheating wife or husband can always be called, always be tracked down through their electronic LoJacks[CE1] . You can actually buy an iPhone “Spouse Tracker” app, for $4.99. The icon shows two gold wedding bands, entwined, and asks, “Is your spouse really at work? At the office party? Where they said they would be? Be 100% sure of your spouse’s location.” The app uses GPS technology to “pinpoint your spouse’s exact location, and sends you an email map of it.” On the other hand, technology creates privacy and possibility across space and on multiple fronts simultaneously; many of us are no longer tethered to the office during the day and the home at night, and we have more potentially free, unaccounted-for time.

The Second Life simulation game, although not at all the exclusive domain of restless married people, allows players to simulate entire identities and relationships through avatars online. “Second life” is an apt term. It’s not an “other” life in a marriage but an added, unobtrusive one, a layer more than a secret. And if one life is added without rippling the surface of the marriage, then why not three, four, or five coexisting lives? It requires only a neophyte’s skills at prevarication, multitasking, compartmentalization, and a few free Yahoo accounts.

Facebook makes this easier still. One of the major social functions of Facebook seems to be the sometimes mawkish, sometimes reckless trip down memory lane for vaguely discontented married people. Its original muse was a quest for dates and girlfriends, and it’s evolved to support pretty much the same agendas, for single and married alike. Facebook seems to legitimate a boldness that spouses wouldn’t otherwise muster. It’s as if the forum allows us to go retro in our own lives, recycling the kitsch and oddities from our amorous pasts and putting them to new use. Just as our man-cave husbands re-create fraternity social life in their garages, wives and husbands regress to their old collegiate and youthful love affairs online. Some of them might first reconnect harmlessly enough through Facebook friending, and then move the correspondence into the virtual private room, and space, of another email account. Facebook is a magical land where past and present lives exist simultaneously and interact with each other, as if time has been suspended or obliterated. In a sense, with Facebook and its kin, we live under a perpetual spell of the uncanny—that eerie, unsettling feeling that overcomes us when something that belongs to another day and world shows up in the here and now.

Facebook blurs the bright line between the illicit and the merely nostalgic and delivers temptation to your door. It slides the marital affair right into normal, online everyday socializing. There was always an either/or metaphysic to infidelity, which the new technologies and online spaces supersede. The either/or choice holds that moments of potential iniquity in a marriage force us to act or not to act, to touch or not to touch, to have sex or not. In the world of email and Facebook reconnects and online communities, no bright-line boundary of touch separates marital fidelity from marital treachery. The world isn’t partitioned cataclysmically into Before and After by a fateful illicit kiss. In the cyber wonderland, infidelity has an almost imperceptibly thin razor’s edge. It’s the difference between a word or two in an email, or a flirtatious exchange that never even involves a touch.

It’s a dramatic departure from the past, when an affair wasn’t something you could just end up doing by accident….

“Marriage Confidential” is available now on