Showtime’s provocative series “The Affair” follows the devastating aftershocks of an adulterous relationship between Noah Solloway (played by Dominic West), a married father of four, and a married waitress, Alison (Ruth Wilson). The mess that extends from their extramarital union includes the demise of two marriages, four troubled and bereft children, an unplanned pregnancy, an accidental homicide and an unjust incarceration.
Maura Tierney, who plays a deeply affecting Helen Solloway, Noah’s abandoned wife, has said of the drama: “My friends who are couples, don’t like to watch it together.” As someone who struggles with sexual jealousy, which I believe is hardwired into us, I get why a couple might not want to preview the ugliness and suffering in store if they fail the expectation of fidelity. (Especially as it plays out on this show!) The thought of sexual betrayal alone can feel unbearable.
In an interview last summer, showrunner Sarah Treem put it this way: “A romantic relationship is like a triangle where both people lean in, creating a structure that holds both of them up. If one person is quote unquote “unfaithful,” she said, “the structure collapses. If your relationship is the primary thing that holds up your house, and for most of us it is, then it’s terrifying.”
Author Dossie Easton, who co-wrote “The Ethical Slut,” a guide to open relationships, has a less pragmatic and more philosophical — and controversial — take. She’s long argued that sexual jealousy is a negative byproduct of the rigid expectations we’ve created around monogamy and marriage. She believes that the family structure would stay intact if we accepted our polyamorous natures and could “unlearn” sexual jealousy.
“Sexual jealousy is supposed to be somehow unconquerable and immovable,” Easton told me. “But that is a myth. It’s really serious emotional work to unlearn jealousy and cultivate other ways to feel secure in a relationship, but it’s possible. I’ve been doing it in my practice for the past 20 years and in my own life since 1969.”
Eminent family historian Stephanie Coontz’s book “Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage“ gives credence to Easton’s claim. Coontz documents how marrying for love and expecting sexual fidelity for life is a fairly modern concept. Her research points to cultures across the globe and time, where people didn’t exhibit signs of sexual jealousy in non-monogamous and non-romantic-love centric family structures. In ancient China, she reports, sisters recruited one another as “back-up” wives for their husbands. In Botswana, co-wives work with rather than against one another and value each other as mutual benefactors. “Among Tibetan brothers who share the same wife,” Coontz writes, “sexual jealousy is rare.”
I wonder, though, whether it’s simply not expressed in ways that are intelligible to Western ethnographers.
Surely, sexual jealousy is a multi-headed beast with origins unique to each individual’s background, but I think the maniacal levels of jealousy many of us reach when romantic trust is threatened or broken is innate, and that it triggers our memory of the primal scene of abandonment — birth — the moment we were permanently severed from the oneness we knew in utero.
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