What interests me about the Tiger Woods story is not what seems to interest everyone else. What interests me is our collective reaction to the story of his alleged affairs. So what does this story, and the coverage and reaction to it, really say about reality—about how the world and our culture really function? As you may recall, understanding truth and reality is very much my tortured quest, so I feel like I have to take a shot at drawing a couple lessons from all this. Here is where I’m headed today: we are all to blame for not understanding the real world as it exists, verses the world we are told exists. In this post I hope to show that we don’t actually care, as a society, about affairs; we only say that we do. Then, I will argue that we really should care about affairs, but probably not for the reasons most people think, and that we are all part of the problem.

A pastor friend of mine once made an observation about people who lash out in anger about another person’s “moral transgressions.” He said that those most inclined to spew forth over-the-top indictments are often angered less by the transgression, and angered more by the belief that the perpetrator is “getting away with something.” He argued it is less the act, and more the jealousy and iniquity that cause the rush to burn someone at the stake. “Hey, you can’t do that—because I can’t do that, so you must be labeled and tossed in the fire.”

Let me stop here and disclose my personal position on the alleged Tiger Woods actions. A central moral of my novel, A Secret of the Universe—which deals heavily with sexual ethics and the supposed “morality” taught by religion, is that lying and deception about extramarital sexual activity are on a much lower moral plane than the actual acts of sexual activity outside marriage. Part of this conclusion follows easily from a true and historical journey through the actual sexual ethics suggested and exhibited in the Bible, versus the gross misunderstandings that have completely usurped modern Christianity, through forces such as Augustine and Marcion. But whatever the reasons, my guess is that even many evangelicals would agree that lying and cheating and having sex with someone other than your spouse, is way worse than consenting and loving sex with someone other than your spouse, with that spouse’s permission.

Back to Tiger Woods. Almost ironically, most women I know do not condone his alleged indiscretions, but they seem to believe we know of him due to golf, and that the allegations not related to golf are irrelevant. Perhaps, but I have a different take.

Here is what gets me. If the allegations are true, Tiger Woods is a liar and a deceiver. Granted he’s not alone in that; it isn’t about something we seem to think rises to the level of lies about taxes or money matters; and please understand, there could be many reasons, circumstances, and factors involved (who knows, and who cares). I realize all that. My point is not to judge him, but as a student of human behaviors and societal norms I am interested. Tiger, who has been the picture of discipline when it comes to athletics, was apparently not so disciplined and honest with his wife and family, and probably not honest with himself. Does this not beg the question why? Why wasn’t he honest with himself and others?

Our Complicity

We’ve all seen it a thousand times. In fact, in light of a recent disclosure that my wife and I were separating (with no cheating or lying behind it, at all—and genuine interest in the other’s wellbeing never set aside), it occurred to me just how many people I know have happy marriages that have been the result of someone cheating.

We all know the stories: a boss who fell for his secretary and since then they together have been model citizens and churchgoers (it was “meant to be,” but not until he tossed his former wife under the proverbial bus); a co-worker whose office romance is, after years of happy marriage, viewed as cute and romantic tale of people clutching sweet joy and happiness from the ashes of mundane marriages; the friends who found growth potential and the beauty of selfless love in an affair that began at church, resulting in great “revelations” for them after the deep regret for the pain-causing transgression that caused hurt—but the resulting new happy couple is still damn glad they have each other rather than their previous spouses (wink, wink). All’s good in the end, we seem to say.

The point is that society isn’t really against anyone dumping one spouse and finding something new in another. Society really isn’t even really against cheating, though it claims to be. I’ll argue that it should be; but it isn’t, at least not a year after the fact. Hey, Christian recording artist Amy Grant seems ultra happy with Vince Gill, right? All’s well; we celebrate that for the lovely couple. Even Tiger, if he repents, will probably cease to be a leper in a year.

If you think about it, our culture tolerates, then essentially celebrates and promotes this kind of serial monogamy and exclusive love, this twisted view of ethics when it comes to love and relationships that clings to strict monogamy, until it’s time to quickly throw a loved one under the bus and find a new person to stay with “forever.” After all, we say “all is fair in love and war”; cheating and/or seducing another person’s spouse is cute—and even romantic—once the dust settles; and lying and deceit are not condoned, per say, but really they are gladly accepted after, oh, roughly six months have passed without a further “bad outcome.”

But why? Why the strange and mixed messages of approval and forbiddance? Why the cognitive dissonance of our culture on this topic? Why don’t we get really serious and burn people at the stake for cheating, like in some countries (usually just the women though)? Why don’t we really seem to care, a year later when the new couples are all happy?

Well, the answer is simple, really. We don’t care because … it seems that human nature has some problem with lifetime exclusivity of genuine and close interpersonal relationships—without exclusivity being implemented by force of culture, religion, or government. At some level, we get that! We also get that human relationships are complex and difficult to sustain for decades, in the modern world. We even say we’re happy for our friends and family who find what makes them happy, after they’ve cheated. We’re not really against changing horses midstream, are we?

Why we should care

So now that we have a small but important part of the answer to the original question about why Tiger would cheat, we can move on to the bigger question: “Why should we really care about affairs, as a society?”

We should care because of the lying and the deceit and the hurt! And to some degree maybe we do, but when we deny the very “why” that leads to the lying and deceit, we are experiencing a massive cognitive dissonance and a breakdown between cause and effect, and thereby perpetuating a truly destructive force. We ignore the effect (lying and deceit), by ignoring human nature and the human potential to learn and grow and love wastefully through others; we ignore the cause (human nature), by deluding ourselves with fairy-tale expectations and tacit support of serial monogamy, wherein we toss one relationship aside to begin an new one, thus destroying lives with the lies and deceit that we demand through our denial of reality.

We are deluded about what marriage is, and what it should be. We say it is about love, but love cannot be contained and bottled exclusively for one person forever. When did we decide it should be? (No, I’m not talking about sex.) When did we start pretending that the genie belongs in the bottle? The thing we actually decided, historically speaking, was that long-term commitments—for kids, business, and life—were a good thing. I agree. But only recently did we decide to marry for romantic love, and be exclusively sustained by an ultra-intimate bond with only one person—for life, or even that a person somehow owns another’s emotional experiences. (See Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, by sociologist and marriage expert Stephanie Coontz, or hear my interview with her here on .mp3 audio).

Conclusion:

Tiger Woods’ situation is worth pondering. It’s worth pondering not for the purpose of judging him, but because all experiences and information can teach us about the world. Tiger Woods should not have hurt people by lying and deceiving them; on an individual level he presumably needs to fix that, seek forgiveness and redemption, and not do that again. But that’s only half the story. We are to blame as well. Our societal expectations and complicit demands for serial monogamy; our approval of recoupling and our approach that “all is fair in love and war”; our complicit acceptance of human nature while simultaneously denying that very same human capacity to be enriched by loving more than one person in lifetime—all mean WE are not without blame in the schizophrenic demands we’ve placed upon the cultural institution of marriage. Collectively we either need to get serious about enforcing life-long exclusivity and bans on loving more than one person in a lifetime—and get serious about burning people at the stake; or perhaps we should consider divorcing the life-time expectations of exclusive love from the true sins of malicious lies and deceit.

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(Stephen L. Gibson is the author of  A Secret of the Universe, a critically acclaimed, citation-rich novel about the intersections of science, reason, and faith. Still an emotion-driven thinker in recovery, Steve shares his journey in search of ever-elusive truth with thousands via his Truth-Driven Thinking podcast, and his Perspectives blog. © 2009, Truth-Driven Strategies LLC.)

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