Is Infidelity the New Marriage?

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Stumbling upon a billboard for a business that facilitates adultery ("You invented infidelity. We perfected it!), Will Davies, a Research Fellow at Oxford's Institute for Science, Innovation and Society, begins to muse on the company and phenomenon behind it. That the British Ashley Madison infidelity-focused dating site is so mainstream suggests to him that creative destruction is alive and well. He also suspects "that these expansions in moral possibility are supply-led, rather than demand-led," i.e. that the commercialization of cheating is actually creating more of it.

But the institutionalization of infidelity raises another issue, argues Davies. "Infidelity is as old as fidelity," but "once it is administered and economised ... it must surely become considerably less fun, as its taboo is lifted." Society is making cheating safe. Will that make monogamy seem like the strange, out-of-the-ordinary thing to do?

Will a faithful person simply be someone who hasn't (yet) decided to be unfaithful? Will monogamy soon be like a dial-up internet connection --perfectly normal a few years ago, but now somewhat eccentric and irritating to the liberated?

Perhaps what is happening, he continues, is that the conflict between honoring our commitments, and doing what we want to do, is being resolved in favor of doing as we please.

To be committed to someone will only mean to prefer their company over that of a rationally selected stranger, night after night... or at least for the time being. ... So, lets push this further. If no relationships are permanent or binding beyond the desire that initially created them, presumably I can pull out of my crappy mobile phone contract. ... And maybe, most of all, individuals and nations can cancel their debt, once they retrospectively decide that they didn't want it in the first place. The creative destruction of human bonds has a long way to go yet.

Davies, of course, isn't the first to head down this intellectual path. The line playwright Tom Stoppard put in one of his characters' mouths was this: "There are no commitments, only bargains. And they have to be made again every day."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.