Monday, August 24, 2015

Romantic Idealization, Betrayal, and the Free Rider Problem

The hackers who craved a more just sexual universe have finally published their stolen Ashley Madison data.  I suppose we should acknowledge their public service not only in defense of marital fidelity, but in demonstration of the eternal principle that our on-line privacy is entirely illusory.  Corporations and the NSA are not the boogeyfolk anymore.  Anyone can re-purpose our data.  Out is the new normal.

Josh Duggar (right) and Mike Huckabee (left) in happier times.

Among those outed is perennial anti-gay activist, reality TV star, and fundamentalist Christian advocate Josh Duggar, whose discomfort might evoke schadenfreude in even the most self-restrained for his perennial railing against healthy sexuality.  Hypocritical sexual adventurism does seem over the top for a scion of the Family Research Council who have consistently claimed that gays’ ability to marry would lead to the downfall of Western Civilization.  But Josh’s professional sex negativity took a gothic tone earlier this year with circulation of the story of his sexual abuse of several under aged girls, including some of his younger sisters, back in his mid-adolescence.  For this he was essentially untreated, aside from a stern conversation with a state trooper who later was embroiled in charges of inappropriate sexual behavior of his own.  One can only imagine the mental states Josh’s erotophobic parents, whose fear of the media exposure must have been acute.  Suffice it to say, whatever interventions they used then do not appear to have solved Josh’s difficulties reconciling his actual behavior with his professed doctrine.

An Io moth, an example of mimicry in nature.  Those startling eyes may give a predator pause, an evolutionary demonstration of the free rider in action

As bad as all this personal drama is, the exaltation of marital fidelity, reliance on the term ‘cheating’ and rage at cheaters are demonstrations of a universal human struggle with the free rider problem.  Fundamentalist Christians and fallible moral entrepreneurs are not the only folk who deplore free riders.  Originally derived from hobos who jumped freight trains and subway users who jumped turnstiles, free riders are a perennial problem in human organization, and in nature.  Mimicry, parasitism, and intraspecific completion all provide abundant examples from evolution to demonstrate the interspecific benefits of getting one organism to pay the full cost for another’s useful adaptation.  Monkeys and dogs have been shown in the lab to quit work they have already been trained and rewarded for doing if they see another animal receiving a better reward for the same work.  We humans can’t stand to see non-union members get the same pay we had to pay union dues and go on strike to achieve.  So resentment that cheaters might masquerade as faithful spouses arouses envy and resentment in those of us who identify as faithful in the face of myriad temptations.
All of which is just a little ironic for the founders of Ashley Madison, who invented the site as not only a powerful source of revenue, but marketed it as an alternative to, you guessed it, the free rider problem.  On many dating sites, married people claimed the social advantages of being single, leading to disappointments, dissatisfactions, and failed dating relationships for singles and married alike.  Ashley Madison provided an opportunity to start an ‘honest’ relationship with a married partner who presumably would understand not only the lures of extramarital affairs, but their costs.  Even Ashley Madison subscribers who had no illusions that their partners were deceiving their spouses, could dream of zipless affairs where the burdens of hiding the relationship would be mutually understood, and they would not have to face the opprobrium of being free riders on ordinary dating sites.

All of which makes our lust to purge free riders look a little like the mirrors in my childhood barbershop which covered walls directly across from one another and led to infinite recursive reflections of the shop and my newly shorn head receding into infinity.  The free rider problem never ends.  Justice in one context is injustice in the next.

I will add my voice to the minority chorus that decries the exposure of Josh Duggar and all his ilk in the interest of reasserting the primacy of sexual shame as a deterrent to bad behavior.  Not because he is not justly served with his own treachery, but because achieving a sexually healthier world cannot be achieved by a simple shuffling and redistribution of the same old social controls.  Yesterday its gays, today its cheaters, tomorrow, prostitutes, and next week, sex robots.  We are seduced by the romantic illusion of stamping out the free riders.  While struggling to check our privilege, we would do well to check our chronic fear that someone is getting a better deal than we are.

The Marquis de Sade (1740-1814)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

Romantic illusion, of course, has been the target of a fair amount of criticism dating at least as far back as the writings of the Marquis de Sade.  Outraged by religion and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s defense of innate human goodness, the Divine Marquis lived his life in continual confrontation with idealization.  Never mind that Christianity’s reliance on the doctrine of original sin was overdue for serious deconstruction, de Sade both argued and illustrated that our internal contents, physical, mental and emotional, did not merit idealization.  For de Sade, they are gross, base, self-centered, sexual and aggressive.  But de Sade, who in many ways was a terrible writer who many of us would love to forget, remains uncomfortably relevant because of our Freudian wish to overcome the crass realities of social life with our fondest wishes for a better world.  We can always imagine a better world than we can achieve.  We periodically need to be reminded by de Sade, Freud and Bretton that we can always dream a little better than we achieve, and our dreams may not look very pretty to others.  And that such fantasies also lead many of us to Ashley Madison and to extra-marital affairs.

Esther Perel

This is one of Esther Perel’s great insights about infidelity.  Our sense of entitlement to the imaginary trumps our commitment to the real, and this compels us to fly to ills we know not of rather than bear those that we have!  Nor are our fantasies of better always disappointing.  Extramarital affairs can fulfill unmet needs.  Aftr all, all of the world’s great philosophies and inventions began as dreams.  
The discovery of an affair may be curtains for a bad relationship, but can be the painful beginning of transformation for valued relationships that are merely imperfect.  In the shock of shattered idealization, you may not be in a very good place to begin to learn from the discovery of an affair.  But the potential for learning something is present.

Esther’s other great insight about infidelity is that, with the modern decline of marriage’s role as a primarily economic and political institution for controlling resources and its rise as a celebration of romantic attachment, the meanings of infidelity all serve to defend romantic idealization.  In her TED talk, she explains the new conventional wisdom that a ‘wronged’ partner is crazy to stay in a bad marriage that has been shattered by infidelity.  Such interpretation made no sense in a marriage arranged by family elders, and not expected to be a love nest.  Telling someone who has been cheated on that they should leave doesn’t defend marriage, which after all would be dissolved, but ideal relationships in which there is no conflict.

But Perel does not deny that flawed marriages can be improved to better meet partners’ expectations, even if they are romantically idealized.

Dan Savage

This makes Dan Savage’s potentially wise cautionary advice that you should seriously question whether you really want to know about an affair into a double-edged sword.  Perhaps you spare your imperfect self and imperfect partner a load of unnecessary grief by failing to check the Ashley Madison scroll of shame.  Staying away can sidestep immersing yourself in the poisonous culture of sex shaming.  Surely Dan is correct that armed with the information from so uncertain and imperfect a source, you may easily misjudge your partner’s behavior from a full disclosure of their account activity.  You may not know what is fantasy, what is behavior, and what the narrative you build from it conceals and reveals.  It might be easy to imagine you know things that remain excruciatingly elusive and ambiguous.  Dan warns that looking is no panacea.

But failing to explore the weaknesses and imperfections of your relationship might also spare you loss at the price of failing to improve a valuable marriage.  Not only is the perfect the enemy of the good, but good can effectively contest with the mirage of perfection.  Often we know that it is unloving to demand perfection of our partners.  Robust affection proffers love unmerited.  To love someone, we must tolerate their accurate reflection that we are imperfect images of our own idealizations.  Learning to tolerate these painful insights can improve our relationships.  Love demands forgiveness.

To examine the Ashley Madison core dump is to risk the scourge of betrayal.  There you may discover your partner’s lies, limitations, and hidden desires for someone other than you.  It will be impossible not to imagine that this behavior was not done in reference to you.  How is your damaged sense of self to be repaired after assaults of this kind?

To learn from an affair, it is necessary to discover it, but it is also necessary to get beyond the betrayals of our imperfect partner’s painful reflection of our own inadequacies and limitations.  Identification of the lies; the violated clauses in the broken contract; the selfish points in which our partner who claims to love us put their needs ahead of ours; the ambiguity of the lies told to ‘protect’ us, or merely for the convenience of deception; or even the pleasure of getting the better of us in some nasty contest that appears entirely unloving on its merits, requires tolerating a great deal of loss.  For the potential learning from such a breach in our relationship cannot be achieved by falling back on the same strategies for avoiding loss that made our relationship so vulnerable in the first place.  This kind of differentiation is bound to drive us from our comfort zones.


In the animal world, like the human one, organisms are intolerant of loss.  For every example of community mindedness and sacrifice, there are also stories of competition, rivalry, and self-interest.   Framing a partner’s behavior as betrayal protects us against the loss of realizing that we might not be blameless, that partner’s needs might have gone unrecognized, that we wanted to give more but were not in a position to do so.  That love is sometimes unable to make things better.  That love is not exclusive.  That love is not especially wise, rational, or generous sometimes.  Rather than protecting us from loss, love makes us more vulnerable.  That rather than making conflict go away, love can make it intolerable.

These are disturbing ideas; painful adult elaborations that complicate the loving fairy stories we are taught in childhood.  But if we are to build better relationships from marital infidelity, we must confront our idealizations in the context of a society that is just as loss intolerant as we are and pretty much devoted to defending the fairy tales.  While confronting the most painful truths about yourself, the media will feed you a steady stream of stories about denying them.  If the ball ends differently than you had hoped, you will be sent in search of a lost glass slipper.  And stories will rarely end, ‘and they worked hard together on their intimacy together ever after.’

Salome with the head of John the Baptist' by Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898)  This story is a powerful erotophobic parable from the New Testament

This is why one should pause before the excruciatingly tempting invitation to indulge in the sex shaming attending Ashley Madison’s hack, or Josh Duggar’s pro forma confession.  It is also why the obvious observation that sex obsessed erotophobia cannot provide the basis for protective sex education will not soothe social conservatives at all.  This Ashley Madison narrative is proof for them that sex is dangerous and they had every reason to fear its power. They are defending the romantic idealization of pure Christian love from the depravity of unruly sexual desire.  The more cogent our criticism, the more reflexive their defense.  In this, we have not advanced the discourse very much farther than that bogeyman de Sade.    Our conservative friends are yearning for fairy tales from a very long time ago.  I guess it’s pretty hard to have an original sin, anymore!

Josh is a poor test case anyway.  Although he was deprived of a decent sex education or a reasonable moral framework for making healthier sexual decisions, he was entirely manipulative and hypocritical about the moral framework he did learn.  Rousseau would have argued that Josh would have been fine without the corrupt guidance of society, but Rousseau declined to recognize that humans, like macaques, are born into seething social milieus, not a pastoral Eden.   Rousseau missed free riders in the age before someone built railroads to parasitize.  Josh recapitulated de Sade without ever having to read him.

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