Love, culture and infidelity
At a time when marriage seems to be losing its appeal and sex is invading the media, what does fidelity really mean in our society? Jean-Marie Sztalryd, psychologist and director of the inter-university diploma in Sex Therapy at the Faculty of Medicine at Bobigny University (Paris XIII), talks to us about the the evolution of the couple and the influence culture has on relationships.
Doctissimo: Is it possible to define fidelity?
Jean Marie Sztalryd: You cannot define fidelity in general terms. People have different perceptions of this idea, depending on their own experiences and mentalities. Furthermore, the perception of fidelity changes with the times. You find all kinds of ideas about fidelity and infidelity, which do not form one moral code. In the Judaeo-Christian world, there is a definite connection between the concept of love and religious beliefs as the union of two people is considered sacred. It is this notion which underpins the sense of guilt felt on having committed adultery. This is why, when someone has been unfaithful, it will often be in a secure arrangement. Many men will set up a double life with a wife on the one hand, and a regular mistress on the other.
Doctissimo: What is the link between being in love and the idea of fidelity?
Jean Marie Sztalryd: The idea of the union of two people being based on love is a recent cultural phenomenon. It was only at the beginning of the century that love between two people became part of the criteria for marriage, and one of the basic requirements. Before, the criteria for marriage were essentially economic in nature. These changing attitudes mean that now everyone is on a frantic search for love. This quest can sometimes end in adultery.
The search for love is often undertaken within an oedipus-like framework. Emotional links with first the mother and then the father are at the heart of the future choice of partner. In particular, a man or woman will unconsciously find a companion who possesses one or many of the characteristics which mirror the image of the mother or father. But this involves a certain idea of imaginary incest. To distance themselves from this risk, men and women will also look for someone who meets their erotic needs. For men, this corresponds to the opposition between the “mother figure (wife) and the whore (a mistress).” For women, this can also become an opposition between father and lover. But women can also consciously separate the idea of the maternal from pleasure: knowing that she plays a maternal role for her partner, a woman will choose to be a woman in terms of the erotic pleasure of her lover.
Doctissimo: Have recent social revolutions had an influence on modern relationships?
Jean Marie Sztalryd: The phenomena of women’s liberation and the pill have allowed love to be validated without marriage needing to take place. Nevertheless, the institution of marriage is now starting to go against this idea of “free” love. A marriage contract like the civil partnership, despite the social advancement it represents, actually refers back to an ancient moral code. It reinforces the traditional schema of the couple, and the contract serves to guarantee the old-fashioned concerns of succession, etc. In the same way as marriage, civil partnerships are therefore primarily an alliance for the sake of social stability and belief in the traditional family set-up.
Doctissimo: With the apparent disappearance of taboo and the increasing representation of sexuality in the media, has our perception of fidelity changed?
Jean Marie Sztalryd: Our culture is based on the idea of the family. The couple is held up as a social ideal everyone should achieve. This idea is still extremely present today. Society may seem to approve of sexual liberty, especially in the media or in cinema, but ultimately, this is more “noise” than a concrete change in social attitudes. Things which are off limits are authorised only to define boundaries more clearly and revive morals. In this way, the most significant representation of sexuality now has not necessarily evolved that much, since it imposes a sexual pleasure which conforms to the norms and must be performed in certain way.
In all cases, it is down to each of us to find our own ways of doing things and come up with arrangements which allow us to live happily either by ourselves or with others. It is about being able to experience desire in a situation of mutual consent, without feeling controlled by what is moral or the norm in our society.
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