“One is unavoidably faithful to the dead body growing inside one.”
– Adam Phillips
The concept of infidelity depends upon the assumption that it is possible for us to be faithful to anyone or anything at all. The idea of faithfulness itself is tricky, carrying with it implications of duty, adherence to a set of rules, being true to one’s word and consistent in aspects of one’s behaviour in relation to specific commitments. The etymology of the word fidelity seems to imply that it did not relate primarily to one’s conduct within a romantic relationship, but instead applied to the relationship a person had with God. Remaining faithful historically had little to do with sexual commitment to one’s partner, and more to do with spiritual commitment to the divine and the word of one’s religion.
The philosopher Kierkegaard suggested that there is a relationship between our sense of meaning and purpose and our willingness to take a ‘leap of faith’ and commit to belief in a God, which reason cannot lead us to. For Kierkegaard, commitment to an aesthetic way of being, where we focus on ourselves and satisfaction of our our own pleasures, will always be hollow as it dooms us to live in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction, constantly pursuing our next fleeting moment of pleasure. Even the ethical mode of existence (in which we commit ourselves to the humanitarian enterprise of meeting the needs of others) remains unsatisfactory, as dedication to such a way of life leads us to negate our needs as individuals. Accordingly, Kierkegaard proposed that it is only in the religious mode of existence, where we commit to something greater than ourselves and outside ourselves, that we can have a sense of personal satisfaction, whilst clinging onto the idea that we are part of something more meaningful than anything we could achieve individually.
It seems that, in increasingly secular societies, the role of the faithful couple has replaced the role of God in allowing us to take a ‘leap of faith’ and commit ourselves to an enterprise that often has little basis in reason. We enter into romantic relationships on the basis of desire and love, taking a ‘leap of faith’ on the foundations of our emotional and physiological responses to entwine our lives with that of another. The construct of the couple allows us to commit ourselves to something that is greater than what we have as individuals, whilst at the same time affording us the opportunity to pursue our own ends to some degree. Commitment to the couple dictates that we must change our lives and our behaviour, adhering to a set of rules (explicit or implicit) about how we must act in relation to our beloved, and how we must not act in relation to others. It usually necessitates an element of asceticism, not for the attainment of spiritual goals, but for the maintenance of the relationship.
Humanist philosopher Piers Benn identifies that the purpose of commitment involves the recognition that the act of committing in itself gives us a sense of meaning and purpose, which is fundamental to an emotionally healthy existence. It may be that the specifics of our commitment do not always benefit us in the short term, but it is the act of committing itself that affords us access to a sense of meaning and belonging that we otherwise lack. Our fidelity paradoxically becomes less about our commitment to another person, and more about our commitment to achieving a sense of meaning and purpose by dedicating ourselves to something other than ourselves. It is the selfish act of selflessness.
How, then, are we to reconcile our fidelity to ourselves with our fidelity to our commitments to others? Is it ever possible to remain totally faithful to ourselves and the freedom that lies at the centre of our existence, if part of our commitment to our own sense of meaning necessitates that we commit to others? What happens when we’re faithful to them to be faithful to ourselves, except that being faithful to ourselves doesn’t always mean being faithful to them? What must we sacrifice in order to contain this paradox?