Review of Private Lies: Infidelity and the Betrayal of Intimacy

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A Review of Private Lies: Infidelity and the Betrayal of Intimacy

by Frank Pittman

New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Review Copyright © 1989 by William A. Henkin

Originally published in Spectator



My grandfather, who was married to and, as far as I could tell, in love with my grandmother for more than 60 years, used to happily sing a song that claimed "love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage." Judging by the wisdom Frank Pittman has gleaned in three decades as a family psychiatrist, I would guess he agrees with the lyrics my grandfather liked, but not with the inevitability implied by their musical comedy meaning.

Pittman reports that with a great deal of well thought-out and courteous cooperation two people can fashion, from a starting point such as love, a lifelong bond of trust, intimacy, rapport, support, and sexual pleasure. By the same token, with that sort of cooperation they might build a plausible transportation vehicle from one fundamentally wild animal and an inert box on wheels. But even if it's well constructed the yoke between the two may not hold, for there are lots of ways things can go wrong before the happy couple rides off into the sunset in that surrey with the fringe on top. Maybe the fear of that kind of failure is the reason one form of buggy is called a trap. Maybe it's why Frank Sinatra used to sing that "love is the tender trap." Perhaps, too, it's the reason 14 chapters and 274 pages of Private Lies are devoted to the various ways Pittman has seen love betrayed, abused, and overthrown, and a single 20-page chapter to what happens "When Monogamy Works."

Despite the imbalance, Pittman says he, himself, is monogamously satisfied. Married for 28 years to a woman "who has made honesty, intimacy, and thereby fidelity easy," he is a deep believer in the good that comes from those virtues. Although he acknowledges that monogamy is not the only way to live, and that people who do not choose it may still be happy and make great contributions to humanity – "Where would we be today if Christopher Columbus had been so comfortable maritally that he didn't want to leave home?" – Pittman sees from public opinion polls as well as from his clients that monogamy is most people's "ideal for themselves, and particularly for their mates."

Fortunately, monogamy is neither difficult nor dangerous nor dull. It is not even rare. As Pittman observes, "it's practiced by most of the people most of the time, and always has been." Unfortunately, the pitfalls that stand between people and the glories of committed relationships also do not seem difficult, dangerous, dull, or rare, and it is those pitfalls – infidelity in its many forms, and the betrayal of intimacy in its many forms – that introduce into people's lives much of the sorrow, pain, and havoc that lead them into therapy or couples counseling. Then, if they're lucky, they end up with someone like Pittman.

Partly as a result of Pittman's subject matter and partly as a result of the droll, deadpan humor of his writing, Private Lies is one of the most sadly amusing books of common-sense advice available on the great tragi-comedy of love and marriage. In his introductory "Author's Note," Pittman indicates that in his book he will attempt to answer this befuddling question: "Why would otherwise sane people – people who buy insurance, who stop at traffic lights, who brush after every meal – risk everything in their lives for a furtive moment of sex?"

As he offers answers to this puzzle Pittman notes over and over again that infidelity is not necessarily a matter of adultery ("a sexual act outside marriage"), but rather of the dishonesty and secrecy with which most people surround their indiscretions. In other words, Pittman does not see infidelity as a question of morals but of ethics; not a violation of the laws of Church or State, but "a breach of the trust, a betrayal of a relationship, a breaking of an agreement" between freely chosen partners. Though Pittman examines some popular myths and "mistaken notions" about infidelity, discusses the value to honesty and intimacy of small doses of jealousy and guilt, and explores some of the reasons people find intimate relations difficult, the centerpiece of his book is the four patterns of infidelity he describes.

Of the first pattern, "Accidental Infidelity," Pittman says, "People really don't go looking for infidelity, at least not the first time. They stumble upon it. It is nearly always entered into by accident. It just happens." Accidental infidelities do not occur involuntarily, but "carelessly. And they take on significance not because of any important reasons for which they happened, but because the participants, particularly the infidel, can't forget them."

Pittman likens accidental infidelities to car accidents, in which ordinarily responsible drivers momentarily become distracted on the road. All of a sudden tires squeal and metal crunches, and "their lives are now outside their control." Accidental infidels may have gotten married as virgins "and forever wonder what they are missing." They may be sexually experienced but endlessly curious about what else they could try after men, women, animals, vegetables, and minerals. They may be so deferentially polite they cannot refuse an inappropriate approach, or so confirmed in low self-esteem that they are incapable of declining unexpected attentions. When offering consolation to an upset friend they may fail to observe the boundary line that separates emotional from erotic intimacy. They themselves may be having a bad day and fall into bed with someone who is providing comfort. They may simply be going along with the other boys or girls in their crowd. They may be in the thrall of some severe episode of mental derangement, such as the manic phase of manic-depression.

What makes all these sorts of accidental infidelities similar is that the infidels


do not consider their behavior appropriate. They don't want to leave their marriage, or threaten it, or necessarily bring about any change in it. Their marriage, like all marriages, is boring sometimes, frustrating sometimes, infuriating sometimes, but not to the point that the infidel has seriously considered getting out.... Accidental infidels ordinarily don't expect to continue the adulterous experiences. They don't feel in love with their affair partner; in fact they may find the whole business very awkward.... they have done something they consider wrong.... And when they try to explain it, they realize "it just happened."


The second pattern Pittman propounds is philandering. There are female philanderers, Pittman says, but most women "seem to lack natural talent" for the endeavor, even though the word itself means "lover of man," and might equally well be interpreted as "lover of mankind" or "lover of masculinity."

Philanderers are very concerned with the stereotypes of gender, and are therefore uncomfortable when prevented from showing off whatever passes for masculine in their minds. Fearful of women and competitive with other men, philanderers regard women as prizes to be won or property to be acquired. They are "most comfortable in those societies that worship masculinity," such as modern Arabia, where a woman is "legally considered to be one-half a man." Sex is a "score" for the pure philanderer, who is unlikely to bother again with a woman he has bedded once. He may be attractive, and women may even pursue him; but according to his value system no woman means more than his masculinity, which is "more important to him than his life."

While some philanderers are charmingly macho, others are friendly, helpful, humble, and "excruciatingly anxious to please... powerful females." Some who achieve reputations as erotic performers are really using sex to overcome their fear of women. Beneath their braggadocio all they want is "to be comfortable with a woman, and not have to donate [their] sexuality to pacifying the bitch goddess."

Heroic philanderers like James Bond court danger with their sex. Psychopathic philanderers may be honorable in their dealings with other men and might even claim to feel guilty about their many seductions, but more likely they would feel unmanned and ashamed of themselves if they were not philandering. Hostile philanderers, "obsessed with female genitals and breasts," may think they are possessed of vast sexual prowess; for such a man, however, the "problem is not that he is oversexed, but that he is overgendered."

Some philanderers merely take on sex as a hobby. A few find wives or girlfriends who are similarly inclined, but most cannot tolerate open marriages or swinging because they can't stand the idea of their wives screwing around. The hobbyist philanderer seeks "victories over women," and arrangements that include female freedom are threatening in their emphasis on sexual equality.

In an apparent attempt to leave no stone unturned, Pittman ranges far afield including borderline philanderers – "men who have the attitudes of a philanderer, but are too civilized, too cautious, too wise, too busy, or just too comfortable" to enter the field – and further yet when he includes in this category the man who is so intent on protecting himself from any sort of personal interaction that he "may in time discover that it is even more efficient and impersonal to stick to masturbation and leave women out altogether." It begins to seem that anyone who fucks outside a marital relationship will show up somewhere in these pages. There is not even recourse in homosexuality, for as Pittman observes, "If the criteria for philandering involve (1) an obsession with masculinity, (2) determination not to come under the control of the opposite' sex, and (3) sexual competitiveness with other men, the ultimate philanderer would be homosexual." His brief essay on the gay philanderer, however, seems motivated chiefly by a desire to clarify that "We are all perfectly capable of having sex successfully with men, women, children, animals, machines, and certain kinds of plants. Which of these we prefer is a matter of taste."

As most philanderers in Pittman's schema seem to be male, so most perpetrators of "Romantic Affairs" are female. In this third of Pittman's patterns, someone who is married decides it is all right to be unfaithful as long as she is "in-love" with the man who is not her mate. While Pittman believes the state of being "in-love" is "a sacred form of insanity," his greater concern is for those true romantics who fall in-love with love itself. Complications arise in an intimate relationship when a romantic affair intrudes because "Falling in-love has little to do with loving, and more to do with romance, which is a form of exotic and narcissistic suffering in which the specialness of a loving relationship gets distorted into an obsession with suffering and sacrifices to keep things intense enough to make the world and reality fade away."

A romantic affair is unlikely to arise between two philanderers, neither of whom is capable of romance. But it may occur as an accidental infidelity, or develop from the meeting of a romantic and a philanderer; it may evolve between two romantics, or with an unsuspecting "affairee" who is used by one member of a couple as a way to shake up the other partner and put some juice back into a tired marriage. Such an affair is one way to get to the "Marital Arrangement,' Pittman's fourth pattern.

The marital arrangement usually involves a third person, but may rather involve a series of third persons or even a wide array of interchangeable alternate persons. Whether an arrangement is a permanent or temporary separation, or a permanent or temporary triangle; a spoken or unspoken agreement between spouses that one or both may play around, or a kind of rescue operation undertaken by one partner who intends to bring love, sex, or something else pleasant to an otherwise unpleasant coupling: in any case, the underlying purpose is generally to create relational stability where little or none exists. Alas, the attempt is almost never successful, because it ordinarily emphasizes or creates distance between the partners that may become insurmountable.

Moreover, a marital arrangement is most likely to hurt the relatively innocent third-party affairee: the man or woman who has been romanced or philandered into thinking that, for example, as soon as the divorce goes through he or she will have the lover permanently. It nearly never turns out that way, because even when a marriage fails the couple may have reasons to remain wed, including children, finances, friendship, or mere convenience. Divorce itself may insufficient to separate people stuck in entanglements such as the arrangement game. "If people hate each other enough," as Pittman observes, "no divorce is strong enough to keep them apart." But more importantly, if the affairee wins the unfaithful trophy the arrangement pattern will probably re-emerge in the new relationship, since it expresses a chronic communication problem.

Pittman claims that


the only affairs that work for the marriage are those marital arrangements that enable people to survive badly flawed marriages that no one wants to fix. And even when the purpose of the affair is to increase distance within the marriage, those affairs that work involve a minimum of secrecy and confusion. People who want distance in their marriage seem frightened of dealing openly and honestly with issues of infidelity. They fear such openness will bring about the marital closeness they are using the affair to avoid. Some people finally try negotiating closeness and distance, and discover that it can be done. Afterward, they may or may not feel a need to go on with the affair, but at least they aren't confusing or torturing anyone with it.


Under any label or denominated pattern, Pittman's experience has led him to believe that all infidelities damage relationships, and that the key to relational success – however a particular couple may define success – is a combination of communication and honesty. Finally, communication and honesty are what this book is about.

In his concluding chapter, "When Monogamy Works," Pittman explains how to deal with crises of infidelity; but first he provides "the best advice I have to offer to those who want to practice monogamy, or even to those who haven't done so and are now wishing they had." The advice comes in ten steps fleshed out by about a page apiece of explanation and example. But the gist of each step carries the author's message clearly.


1. Don't marry people who don't like you.... Marry sane people who like you, who have nonsexual friends of your gender, and who are friends with their own parents.

2. Forget everything you ever thought you knew about the opposite sex.... Everything you need to know about the experience of your partner's gender or sex can and must be learned from your partner.

3. Be clear about the agreement between you and your spouse about what is and what is not an infidelity.... If in doubt, ask your partner.

4. Fidelity is a decision.... Once you decide that you are going to practice fidelity, whether you want to at that moment or not, you may find it easy, comfortable, and rewarding to do so.

5. Honesty is the central factor in intimacy.... There is no truth that is as destructive as any lie.

6. Sharing a secret with someone else, and keeping the secret from your partner, is particularly dangerous.

7. If you're going to do something you feel you should like about, your guilt is telling you to stop doing it.... It's more comfortable to control your activities rather than to try and control other people's awareness of them.

8. The revelation of an infidelity is most shocking and horrifying in those marriages that had seemed "perfect." .... Reveal your human imperfections at home, so you can be understood and loved. You probably weren't going to be worshipped for your perfection anyway, so there's no loss.

9. The purpose of marital conflict should be to understand the issues and the emotions, rather than determine who is the winner.... You can't be right and married at the same time.

10. Know that affairs can happen, can threaten your life, and must be taken seriously.... Infidelity is your partner's nuttiness. Don't take it personally.


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