“No one can be someone’s everything.” ~ Dan Savage
I was having lunch on a restaurant patio. A man sat at the table to my right by himself, waiting. When the server offered him a drink, he declined saying he would order when his friend arrived. He wasn’t glued to his phone passing time staring at his screen like most people these days. Instead, he eagerly watched the street scanning each car as it passed, looking for a specific one. When it came he lifted his hand and waved.
She arrived at the table wearing sandals and a white, cotton sundress with spaghetti straps – not overly dressy, also not typical for lunch with a work colleague. They said their “hellos”and fumbled awkwardly through initial conversation. She smiled non-stop, like she couldn’t help herself. His nervous excitement was palpable.
He propped his foot on the chair next to him resting both hands on his bent knee, attempting a relaxed pose. He fidgeted unconsciously, rubbing his hands back and forth against each other — an obvious tell that contradicted the casualness he was trying to project. A gold wedding band glinted on his finger in the sun.
She, too, wore a wedding ring though they clearly weren’t married to each other. They exchanged stories about their kids and it was evident they knew each other professionally, but something else seemed to be brewing at that table. A building attraction isn’t hard to spot if you just pay attention, even when people think they are keeping it on the down-low. The I’m-dying-to-know-you-better energy between them claimed space like a living presence. They eventually left, walking to their cars and parting after an embrace that lingered well beyond the merely cordial.
As if that interaction wasn’t interesting enough, the group at the table to my left was discussing polyamory (a.k.a. consensual non-monogamy). A couple people at the table were in polyamorous relationships and were discussing what that’s like, lauding the fact that it was guilt-free and satisfying precisely because everything was out in the open with their partners. One guy who wasn’t poly said there was absolutely no way he could do that. He respected the fact that others could but he knew he just couldn’t handle it. The emotional work of dealing with varsity-level human dynamics of that kind was overwhelming to him. He also seemed, at least on some level, to be conflating cheating with non-monogamy.
How interesting to find myself sandwiched between those tables. At one, the discussion involved relationship openness, negotiated consent, and transparent knowledge about the situation amongst all involved parties. At the other sat what appeared to be the beginning of something with the incendiary potential of a napalm bomb — a secret, building erotic attraction that could burn families to the ground and char anything in close enough proximity to be splattered by its searing residue.
All of it made me ponder what exactly is cheating? Where is the line that divides behaving and betrayal? What does it look like? What does it sound like?
I’ve spent countless hours thinking about this topic but answering those questions with clarity has always seemed somehow slightly above my pay grade. The best I could muster was along the lines of I’m not exactly sure but I think I know it when I see it. That’s hardly sufficient.
There are people whose thoughts and research around sex, relationships, and infidelity make sense to me and even give some measure of comfort when it comes to this topic though. Esther Perel tops that list. Being 27 years into a relationship myself, here’s the sort of thing she says that gets my attention:
“At this point, we are living one of the greatest experiments in humankind — to create something that has, throughout history, been considered a contradiction in terms — a passionate marriage. Passion has always existed, but it took place somewhere else. Everything that we wanted from a traditional marriage – companionship, family, children, economic support, a best friend, a passionate lover, a trusted confidante, an intellectual equal — we are asking from one person what an entire village once provided. And couples are crumbling under the weight of so much expectation.”
I heard about Perel a few years ago when I watched her first TED talk called “The secret to desire in a long-term relationship“. Later I watched her second TED talk, “Rethinking infidelity…a talk for anyone who has ever loved“. Part of her genius is that she challenges people to scrutinize their inculcated, reflexive beliefs about relationships, desire, sex, and particularly infidelity. In fact, it was her infidelity episode on the Dear Sugar podcast that finally clarified the question “What is cheating?” for me like nothing quite had before.
Esther Perel: The definition of infidelity keeps expanding. Is it a love affair? Is it paid sex? Is it a chatroom? Is it keeping your dating apps and your Tinder on when you are seeing somebody? Is it using porn? Where do we draw the line? For me, the constitutive element of an affair is the secrecy. It is the secrecy that leads to the lying, to the deception, to the duplicity. It is the structure of an affair — not the sexual or emotional behavior or what people actually are doing. It’s the fact that it’s not within the contract — spoken or unspoken, implicit or explicit — that they had with their partners. The same behaviors within an agreed-upon relationship have nothing to do with infidelity. They have to do with sexual freedom.
The second element has to do with the fact that there is an emotional involvement, to one degree or another. There can be very minimal involvement emotionally, or there can be a massive love affair. I do consider even going to prostitutes, or seeing a hooker or an escort, as having an emotional component, even if it’s not an emotion necessarily in the relationship. Even if you are paying in order to absolve yourself of any emotional involvement. That’s the paradox.
And the third one, which is probably even more important than the second, is that there is a sexual alchemy. That doesn’t mean that you look at the sexual act. It means that you look at the sexualization of the interaction. The kiss that you have never given is just as powerful as hours of actual lovemaking. The erotic isn’t just what is happening between people’s legs. It is also what’s happening in their erotic mind. It’s these elements, intersecting with each other — always in different ways, but always present — that constitute infidelity. (Emphasis is mine.)
Based on Perel’s definition infidelity sits on a continuum traversing territory whose main artery is honesty and transparency, or lack thereof. It’s not about certain acts/behaviors per se, because as she asserts, those same acts occurring transparently within a negotiated set of parameters in a relationship are about sexual freedom (i.e. consensual non-monogamy), not infidelity. Rather, infidelity is about deception. It’s about lying either by omission or commission.
Such a charged topic. Everyone has intense feelings around it, myself included, which are often delivered vehemently through the filter of past pain. I’ve been hurt by betrayal. I’ve also hurt others by behaving deceptively all the while convincing myself my actions were okay because they didn’t involve crossing a physical line behind my partner’s back. How very convenient of me, no? How ridiculous and self-serving to argue something is cheating only if it involves getting physical with another.
But, oh, the rationalizing we do when toeing the line of something that feels both dangerous and so full of intoxicating, hot energy we don’t want to give it up. No one wants to believe she’s a bad person. But unless you are completely disconnected from your inner self or willfully denying it, the truth is that WE ALL KNOW when we are doing shady shit. Deception plus rationalization has a gnawing, persistent energy to it, tapping out in code with increased insistence: This is getting dangerous. Your partner wouldn’t be okay with this if he knew what was going on. If you’re reluctant to be honest about this, you should stop it now.
So, is it cheating to have an email-only relationship without your partner’s full knowledge, where you never see the other person but you nevertheless wake up eagerly checking the inbox first thing to see if there’s a new communication? How about the covert conversations you’re having on your device while sitting in the tv room next to your partner and kids exchanging texts laced with suggestive banter outside of what your partner would likely call the “friendship” category? Is that cheating? According to Perel, the answer is an unequivocal yes. It doesn’t rise to the level of your fiancé sleeping with your sister the day before your wedding, but it’s definitely on the spectrum. And these forms of infidelity do damage, hacking out surprisingly large chunks from the foundation of a trust bond between two people despite the fact that physical touch never occurred. That alone is worthy of deep consideration should you find yourself in one of these situations.
And then comes the business of deciding if two people can overcome a betrayal. If infidelity occurs on a spectrum, then each episode of it comes with some measure of relationship-killing potency. Determining what that potency is and whether or not it justifies “quitting this bitch right now” isn’t cut and dried. It differs depending on the couple.
Many factors will be considered — time invested in the relationship; weighing the transgression against years of honest, respectful behavior; whether children are in the mix and their ages; how well partners have treated each other over time or in recent times; whether or not one partner has unilaterally pulled the plug on the couple’s sex life without offering a way for the other person to get those sexual needs met; whether or not the transgressing partner feels remorse and is willing to demonstrate it by doing whatever it takes to reassure the cheated-on partner that he/she chooses to stay; etc.
I will say that, for me, on a scale of one to relationship-extinction, if I found myself in a situation where, for example, my husband involved himself with an intern, a cigar, and a publicly-humiliating reveal, I’m pretty damn sure I wouldn’t stick around to try and put Humpty Dumpty back together again. But like I said, people have different levels of pain tolerance and, well, who knows what their relationship agreements might be? Honestly, that’s between them. It’s not my business to judge what’s in someone else’s comfort zone, only to determine what mine encompasses, and to acknowledge that how I might feel about something two years in will likely be quite different than how I feel 25 years in.
For a great illustration about taking a considered approach rather than making a rigid declaration about handling infidelity, read and chew on the essay A Bit of Sully in your Sweet by Cheryl Strayed.
The bottom line is that infidelity is a fascinating topic and it affects almost anyone who’s ever loved. I highly recommend the Dear Sugar Infidelity Episodes as interesting food for thought. Part 1 focuses on The Betrayed. Part 2 focuses on The Betrayers. Part 3 is Esther Perel’s episode with the Sugars. And Part 4 is from the perspective of The Other Woman.
It’s also worth considering one more thing Esther says: “The victim of the affair is not always the victim of the marriage.”
Also, last week’s New York Times Magazine cover article, called Is an Open Marriage a Happier Marriage? was about non-monogamy. It’s an interesting read about how some couples choose different relationship types outside of the norm of monogamy.