Is an Affair Ever ‘Acceptable’?

The country’s changing values suggest there might be justifiable circumstances

This article originally appeared on WomensVoicesforChange.org

Adulterous affairs have been regarded as wrong throughout the millennia (think: the Seventh Commandment, Henry VIII’s [beheaded] wives numbers 2 and 5, Anna Karenina and all the scandals generated by British and American politicians, one of which generated a famous impeachment trial).

But are some less wrong than others?

The “other woman” has traditionally been the scorned party, a negative force. But is this changing? Is adultery becoming more acceptable?


Love vs. Lust

One of the most popular shows among women aged 25 to 54 on television right now is ABC’s Scandal (new season begins Thurs., Oct. 3 at 10 p.m. ET).

Among its many story lines is the adulterous affair between the lead character, Olivia Pope, and the very married President of the United States, Fitzgerald Grant. This affair is steamy and charged . . . and extremely popular. Social media (#Scandal) is abuzz on Thursday nights with fans rooting for Olivia and Fitz to be together.

Yes, this is television, but even in fiction “the other woman” is usually considered a home wrecker — or worse. And the cheating husband is a scoundrel. But not this time. The love between Olivia and Fitz runs deep and millions of viewers are cheering them on at the expense of the First Lady.

It’s the “cheering on” that intrigues me. What we see on television is often a reflection of what society at large is experiencing. This makes me wonder if adultery is becoming less scandalous. Rather than the entire issue being painting with a broad brush, there now seem to be gradations of “just how wrong is it?”

The declining incidence of marriage, the growing rate of cohabitation and the steadily high divorce rate could lead one to conclude that marriage has become less sacred.

People are acknowledging the reality that “till death do us part” isn’t always realistic in many cases and that sometimes married people fall in love with people who are not their spouses. Studies show that infidelity is on the rise. Perhaps adultery has become less scandalous because we see so much of it in the media.


When Heidi Klum of Project Runway left her husband, Seal, for her bodyguard, with whom she was having an affair, it was almost a non­–news event, despite the perennial coverage of the couple annually renewing their vows during each of the seven years they were married.

Former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, who notoriously claimed to be hiking the Appalachian Trail when he had flown to Argentina to see his mistress, has apparently been forgiven by his constituency. He’s now divorced and recently won a special election for his old House seat — with his then-mistress, now-fiancée, at his side.

And on a personal note, a good friend of mine, who will go unnamed for obvious reasons, fell in love with her contractor. They left their respective spouses, married pretty quickly and are now a “legitimate couple” in their social circle, church and community. She even held on to her seat in the national PTA. People looked askance at them up until it became clear that they were madly in love.

When Cheating Isn’t Okay

But not all adultery is given a pass. Tiger Woods has not regained the public’s affection even though it’s been a few years since his hook-ups with 10+ women were revealed. Today he has a new girlfriend, skier Lindsey Vonn, but his sexcapades during his marriage to Elin Nordegren are still fodder for jokes on the late-night talk-show circuit.

Klum, Sanford, Woods and my friend cheated on their spouses, yet all of them except the golfer have been treated relatively kindly by the public. I think the difference in the reactions has to do with the element of love.

As the Scandal storyline goes, Olivia and Fitz have a deep love for each other; Klum and Sanford (and my friend) are still with the people who helped blow up their marriages. Woods, on the other hand, was on a purely lustful adventure with a multitude of women. When it comes to adultery, rampant “screwing around” is still bad, but it seems that finding new love can be forgiven.

This distinction — between affairs rooted in love as opposed to lust — is a new twist on an old theme. People have, from time to time, looked the other way regarding infidelity, but it’s usually after the fact. Newt Gingrich, for example, wasn’t a well-known public figure during his dalliances and subsequent marriage to his then-mistress in 2000. We only learned of this history of infidelity later.

The Klum, Sanford and Woods situations all took place while they were in the public eye, and we watched those situations unfolding in real time. Yet there was little fallout for Klum (and even Sanford), apparently because the public has accepted that these were genuine love-based relationships, which was obviously not the case for Tiger Woods.

But What Do ‘Regular People’ Think?

I ran this notion by a friend who has been in a “challenged” marriage for 25 years. His matter-of-fact comment was, “I think people recognize that the fundamentals of love sometimes come outside the legal relationship.” For him, breaking up a marriage and family for the sake of a new but real and burning-bright love is a risk worth taking — an understandable and forgivable risk.

Values and social mores change with the times. In this country, at least, once a taboo is lifted, it’s usually for keeps. Which leads me to wonder: Is deconstructing the nuances of infidelity the wave of the future? Is true love an acceptable justification for an adulterous affair? Or are we opening a can of worms?

What do you think?

Eleanore Wells is the head of Golden Door Consulting, a part-time blogger and author of The Spinsterlicious Life: 20 Life Lessons For Living Happily Single and Child-free. Her blog of the same name also explores the joys and curiosities of being single and child-free. 

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