Fidelity in France: fact or fiction?

Alison Eastaway 29.04.2013

If you’ve been paying any attention at all to the global conversation about French women, you’ll know the general consensus: they don’t get fat, they raise well-behaved children, and they are indifferent about the idea of infidelity. 

The French believe that it is possible to love more than one person at a time, and that it is against our intrinsic human nature to be faithful.1 Australians on the other hand, along with the British and the Americans, consider infidelity to be nothing short of abhorrent.

The French approach

French psychologist Maryse Vaillant encourages wives to welcome their husbands’ affairs as a sign that their marriage is healthy, because as she articulates, “a pact of fidelity is not natural but cultural.2

French author Alain Paucard agrees, stating that extra-martial affairs are “not shocking, but reality”.3

By contrast, in Australia, infidelity is widely considered to be unacceptable, at least as an abstract concept. In real life, however, individual circumstances are taken into account.4

Alison Eastaway - 29.04.2013

The science supports the French attitude

The science of the situation certainly seems to agree with the French argument, that monogamy amongst animals (including humans) is indeed unnatural.4

But that’s not the whole story. As Adele Horin writes in the Sydney Morning Herald: “The scientists tell us we are born with a roving eye. But whether we follow it is up to us.”4

Alison Eastaway - 29.04.2013

And whilst statistics on this topic can be unreliable, it seems that the French attitude towards infidelity doesn’t necessarily translate into more occurrences of it.

According to Pamela Druckerman, author of  ‘Lust in Translation’, just 3.8 percent of married men and 2 percent of married women in France admit to having affairs, lower than the figures for both the United States and Great Britain.5

Are the French just more realistic?

So it seems the issue isn’t actually about a fundamental difference in the structure of love between France and Australia. Rather, it’s a question about how each society chooses to address this aspect of the human condition.

The French are indeed more open about the biology of the situation, and prefer to acknowledge it, rather than sweep it under the rug as an unpleasant topic best left well alone.

Alison Eastaway - 29.04.2013

But are they the better for it?

Personally, I don’t believe that affairs hurt any less in France than they do in Australia. But one could argue that the shock aspect, at least, is minimised in France.

To Adele’s point – French, Australian or otherwise, I don’t believe we all are doomed to be adulterers, but if we can learn one thing from the French, perhaps it is to consider that faithfulness may not in fact be our default setting.

1 .Men, relationships and infidelity via The Connexion November 20120
2. Infidelity in France: it’s okay to stray by Iva Roze Skoch April 10, 2012
3. Infidelity – a very French affair via The Bugle
4. Infidelity scores the blackest mark by Adele Horin October 23, 2004
5. U.S. spouses cheat like the French – but feel worse by Michele Gershberg May 3, 2007
1. carlinow on Flickr.
2. david roessli on Flickr.
3. davemment on Flickr.
4. Sylvain Maresca on Flickr.

About the Contributor

Alison Eastaway

“I am Australian-born but Parisienne at heart. I've spent 8 years in Paris, and can usually be found sipping coffee on café terraces or snuggling up with my cat and a book. Follow me on Twitter, or find me on LinkedIn."

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  1. Hella Ibrahim Sep 18, 2012 at 12:06 PM - Reply

    Interesting isn’t it – the French people I’ve asked kind of shrug when the topic of infidelity comes up. I might agree that monogamy isn’t our natural state – polyamory is all well and good as far as I’m concerned – but I think it comes down to being a question of breaking a promise of fidelity, rather than the infidelity itself.

  2. Alison Eastaway Sep 30, 2012 at 8:22 PM - Reply

    Thanks Hella – you raise a great point re: expectations of fidelity, irrespective of your nationality!

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