Talking About Cheating

by Randall S. Frederick

I. Cheating, Broadly

Cheating, of course, is a terribly uncomfortable topic to bring up in conversation with a partner, right along with our sexual desires – the real stuff, not the tame stuff we slowly and measuredly allude to with a lover – or the sequence of events that shaped our own unique form of damage. Cheating is so pernicious to friendly conversation that we’d rather be polite and avoid discussing it altogether unless it is good gossip. Even now, having spent time talking about cheating with the person I am dating, emotional and mental fallout weighs on me and makes me morose. Cheating hurts people – and not just the person being cheated on. It affects circles of friends, like ripples in a pond. It breaks trust in families and friend groups. It brings out new sides of us, arouses fears and suspicions in our own relationships. It’s almost as if – when we speak of it at all – we try to convince ourselves that cheating is something that happens elsewhere. Celebrities. Across the street. Those kinds of people. We distance ourselves from the experience because we know, deep down, cheating is not something far away anymore, or an event that happens among a certain class of people, not the natural result of incompatible partners but something that can happen to any of us. I suspect we try to keep this distance out of fear, sure, but also because it is easier to speak in broad certainties – “That’ll never happen to me” or “Well, I tell you what I would have done” – but because we don’t yet have a language for it when it happens around us. It’s easier, in the absence, to talk around it than to speak directly to or about it. Which is precisely why we need to expose cheating for what it is – challenging, sure, but not the end of all things. Not always a terminal point but an experience in life that either happens to someone close to us (perhaps even in our own partnerings) or needs to be given sufficient attention for us to reach emotional awareness of why we are so afraid of it and perhaps divest of power.

Last month, Jada Pinkett Smith talked about infidelity on her show Red Table Talks with therapist Ester Perel. There were so many great concepts, beliefs, and views shared at the table that I would encourage you to watch it yourself, or picking up a copy of Perel’s State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity (2017) where she writes that the idea of betrayal hurts more than the idea of an affair. Infidelity can be forgiven and relationships mended, and it is quite possible that affairs can be a “doorway to a new marriage – with the same person.” More than this, affairs can teach us about modern relationships and expose what we expect, what we think we want, and what we feel entitled to. Obviously, there are some deeply challenging insights in the interview and even moreso in Perel’s book that I have spent the last few weeks mulling over.

That’s just it, though. Cheating is an abstract thing. We “mull” about it, we think thoughts, but even with the best minds, we’re not sure how to define it or where the lines are. It blurs here and there.

For one couple, cheating is narrowly defined, for another it feels so broad. Two of my friends were in an open relationship for a time and have both said that, even though they opened their relationship to other sexual partners, they still needed a routine check-in with one another to keep themselves from “cheating.” Another Evangelical couple, years ago, sat down with me and expressed concern that the wife taking a college class with me would “feel like cheating in a way.” For one of my exes, having inside jokes with a workmate felt like cheating. She insisted that I talk about what had happened at work with her every day to avoid this.

We talk about cheating as a fluid thing, abstractly, without ever defining what it means for us, specifically.

You see, I’ve been cheated on. I’ve shared about this elsewhere, but one of the first serious relationships I was in ended with my partner moving to Dallas and hooking up with a coworker. They are married now, have the house, and appear happy on social media. Mazel tov. Good for them. But as I moved beyond All That Happened, I began seeing a woman who wanted an open relationship (not the same as cheating, but it certainly is when one of you says they don’t want that and the other partner “tries it out” anyway) and another came to my apartment with ejaculate still inside of her, expecting that I wouldn’t notice. I’m not innocent, of course. Years prior, I participated in a rather exaggerated emotional affair with a married friend.

It’s because of that experience, I think, that I find myself having a conversation about cheating in every relationship at some point. Once my partner knows about my history, they wonder aloud whether the adage “once a cheater, always a cheater” is true. Could I potentially cheat on them? Having been cheated on, do I think I would in turn ever cheat? The conversation is broadly the same each time, a partner wanting to either be assured of my fidelity and commitment to them alone or to probe my thoughts and feelings with questions, even blunt “real talk” on the state of our relationship. If I am okay with an open relationship, does that mean I don’t love them? If I take no notice of them flirting at a business function, does that mean I don’t care? If my sex drive is low, would I “be understanding” if they “stepped out” and does this mean I don’t find them attractive? 

Whatever the dynamic of a relationship – hetero, gay, closed or open – we all have a fence of expectations that we build around ourselves and our partners. We want to know that our partner recognizes those lines and can agree to them. We need them to know our limits. If they step outside of that fence, there will be consequences, whether delayed or immediate.

And once my partner spills out all of their questions and demands for assurance, we move to that uncomfortable place where we talk about cheating, specifically. Not open relationships. Not the lines or fences, not the questionable behavior, but one foot beyond all of that. Cheating.

What constitutes cheating for us? Is it just physical, the sexual ownership and exclusivity, or does cheating also include emotional and mental qualities? 

II. Cheating, Defined

For the last decade, I have maintained that the “emotional affair” I participated in was, yes, cheating. I call it that. I refer to it as that in my own head and heart. Whenever that memory is revisited, that is how I label it. My conscience continues to convict. But I am deeply conscious that those events were a decade and a half ago. My beliefs have changed, my experiences have grown, and the continued marital success of those friends (yep, they are still together) is a testament to the fact that “cheating” isn’t always defined the same way. In fact, when I told my friend’s husband what happened, he laughed and waved it all away. “None of that matters. That’s nothing.” 

Can you see him there in my mind’s eye, sitting on a bench, head tilted back with a chuckle? “That’s nothing.” It was a relief to him, almost. The emotional entanglement didn’t matter. The confessions of love didn’t matter. The plans to leave him didn’t matter. The kissing didn’t matter. That his two daughters giggled when they saw me kissing their mother in front of them didn’t matter. What mattered, where he had built his fence, was the sexual. We had not had sex yet, so “none of that” mattered.

And that is okay. That is his fence. But I am guessing, Reader, that many of you feel a clench of disgust at my confession because it feels so familiar. For you, the lines reside elsewhere. You would return that I am an awful “friend” and, lacking scruples, got off easy because if that had been your husband or wife, you would have killed me dead right where I stood.

I also think some of you feel a need to insert a “But wait, what about ____?” to this story. What about the husband’s dismissal of the emotional needs of his wife that he wasn’t meeting? What about the other elements of the story that I have edited out? Affairs of the heart, even when they are unconsummated, are still an intrusion into the ideal that partners build together. As Michael Ondaatje wrote, “the heart is an organ of fire.” This is because you too have a fence, one where emotional affairs or diminishment of marital trust plays a role. 

For some of you, porn usage is the fence. If you privately orgasm to the thought of someone else, this is a dealbreaker. And this strikes me, with my own fence, as sad since I have watched so many couples end their commitment over pornography rather than talk about the desires that compelled them and continue to compel many of us to entertain those desires online from the safety of a closed room. In my own family, for instance, I know of a man who frequently viewed gay porn for years before he came out to his wife. It severely and irreparably affected her and contributed to their divorce. But almost two decades later, she maintains it wasn’t the porn. It was the lying. She felt like their entire relationship had been a series of sustained lies. He was gay. How was she the last one to know? She loved him. She could have handled it, if he had only been honest.

William Park, writing for the BBC, offers that U.S. Vice President Mike Pence “refuses to dine alone with women other than his wife. For Mike Pence, it is a mark of respect for his wife, Karen, and a rule guided by his strong religious convictions. Some commentators have hailed it the solution for men unable to control themselves, others call it patronizing, sexist and insulting. (It is not an entirely rare attitude, however: in one study, around 5.7% of people surveyed thought that buying food for someone of the opposite sex would qualify as an act of infidelity.) Whatever you think about Pence’s justifications, at least he and Karen have clear boundaries about what is appropriate to do with people of the opposite sex – which is more than can be said for a lot of heterosexual couples.”

Surely by now, you see the case I am building. We spend time defining those lines of meridian for ourselves, but we must also take that next step and discuss what cheating means for our partner, those particulars that our partner(s) will be sensitive to, defining them together and noting which parts of the map seem vague, what is “nothing” to us, and those from which it would feel impossible to return.

Cheating affects every relationship. Whether we want to accept this fact or reject it, it’s a reality. Older studies show that 75% of men and 68% of women admit to cheating in some way in a relationship. Data from 2017 says the margin between genders is even closer and that women are “catching up” to men, cheating just as frequently. The lowest reported incidence of infidelity is 14% – yet only 5% of people believe their partner has cheated or would cheat at some point.

Folks, that’s… a jaw-dropping disparity between research studies and what we assume. 

Do the math in your head. 

Assume you are one of those individuals who thinks their relationship is safe, and look around. 

Count the number of people around you. Do the math.

Are you at work right now? A coffee shop?  Look around and count the number of people around you.

May I press you further?

In 1999, the data showed 3 out of 4 men and more than half of women cheated. 

In 2017, men and women were cheating in equal measure. 

Even if we want to err conservatively, 1 out of 5 people you are with right now have cheated.

Does that feel like an accurate number? Feel the numbers take on form around you, take on faces. The man to my left at the bar. The woman behind the bar. The man at the counter to my right. My god, he just sat down at a table with someone! Two people just walked up the bar! Already we are reaching the critical limits of this statistic!

Because I am so vocal about my past, friends come to me and, I suppose, find forgiveness if not a kind of staged practice for the real disclosure. Cheaters come to me to confess all the time, so I know several days – often weeks, in one case years, in another exclusively – before the cuckolded partner. They admit everything, sometimes too much, in an effort to unburden themselves and “get clarity.” To work through it. To confess. To ask if they are still a good person. To ask if I think things can be salvaged. I’m some kind of sounding board for the unfaithful, I suppose. 

There are always excuses. The sex was bad. The sex was too good. He was needy. She was too focused on the children. “I couldn’t help it.” With every turn, I refuse to judge. I’m too much of a realist, too pessimistic, to think anyone can be faithful for a lifetime. It’s too much, in this stage of humanity, to ask that of someone. Meet all my emotional, mental, and physical needs. Cook for me. Take my verbal abuse when I am having an off day. Oh, and grab another roll of toilet paper from the closet, would you? Explosive diarrhea tonight. 

This is why we find older couples so admirable, isn’t it? So-and-so couple has been married for 40 years. Their secret? “Eating a chocolate bar together every day.” It’s so sweet and beautiful, accessing our own hopes of lifelong fidelity and Happily Ever After that even a realist such as myself refuses to challenge their commitment with intense practicality. It’s sweet. Let it abide as it appears. “I’m too much of a realist, too pessimistic, to think anyone can be faithful for a lifetime.” Well, let us set this to the side and believe the best of these two sweet octogenarians. Let us admire them for a moment. And why do we wish to stay there for that moment? Because we want it to be true. We all harbor the hope that we may find a love that will keep us faithful and, in turn, that we may give the kind of love that will enrapture our partner.

The data doesn’t lie. It feels accurate for you, although we might challenge how cheating was defined by the individuals who participated in the studies. What did they mean by this word “cheating”? How did they define it? Perhaps you were wondering what acts were included, what violations and offenses displeased the court of conscience enough to qualify? I wonder myself. While I know many cheaters, “3 out of 4 men and 3.5 out of 5 women” who have had extensive and reoccurring affairs seems an exaggerated extrapolation. Surely, that sweet couple with the chocolate bars has flirted with someone at work or appreciated the curves and hard lines of another body. “Made eyes” with someone from across the pews of a church service. Allowed their gaze to linger a moment. “But,” we say, “It’s just a glance. That time when papa went to the club with the boys and had a lap dance that he never told meemaw about – surely, we wouldn’t be so unfair as to set hard limits like that, would you?”

Defining what we mean by “cheating” is one of the first steps to understanding your partner. Knowing the fences, knowing those lines, knowing how much metaphorical leash one has in their relationship is essential to clarify misunderstandings.

Let’s have an exercise in alchemy: Tell your partner about your most recent daliance (n. “amorous play, flirtation”) and see it transform into insecurity. Watch their lips tighten. Tell them about the man at the gym whose body you lingered over. Tell them about the time you furiously masturbated to someone else. These small things, passing imaginations, add up and erode the thing we are trying to build with someone. 

More often, the confessions I have heard are those of the heart, emotional affairs of those who felt they were “just missing something.” A lingering touch. A furtive kiss in a parking lot. They are not the sustained variety and in some cases are not a genuine threat to a partnership. Porn and masturbation on an empty-apartment Thursday, for example. A smirk over drinks with a workmate. Notches on an incremental line, certainly. But do they qualify as cheating? Do they need to be told? Where to begin grouping them together?

Cathy Meyer, a professional divorce mediator, has noted five types of infidelity in her experience.

Opportunistic Infidelity

Opportunistic infidelity occurs when one is in love and attached to their partner, but succumbs to their sexual desire for someone else. Typically, this type of cheating is driven by situational circumstances or opportunity, risk-taking behavior, and alcohol or drug use. The more in love a person is with their partner, the more guilt he/she will experience as a result of their sexual encounter. However, feelings of guilt tend to fade as the fear of being caught subsides.

Obligatory Infidelity

This type of infidelity is based on fear. Fear that resisting someone’s sexual advances will result in rejection. People may have feelings of sexual desire, love, and attachment for a partner, but still end up cheating because they have a strong need for approval. In addition, their need for approval can cause them to act in ways that are at odds with their other feelings. In other words, some people cheat, not because they want to cheat, but because they need the approval that comes along with a having the attention of others.

Romantic Infidelity

This type of infidelity occurs when the cheater has little emotional attachment to his/her partner. They may be committed to their marriage and making it work but they long for an intimate, loving connection with someone else. More than likely, their commitment to the marriage will prevent them from ever leaving their spouse. Romantic infidelity means pain for the other man/other woman and the cheating partner. Rarely does it turn into a long-term, committed relationship. Marital problems have to be quite severe before a spouse will leave the marriage for another person.

Conflicted Romantic Infidelity

This type of infidelity occurs when people experience genuine love and sexual desire for more than one person at a time. Despite our idealistic notions of having only one true love, it is possible to experience intense romantic love for multiple people at the same time. While such situations are emotionally possible, they are very complicated and tend to create a lot of anxiety and stress. In this case, cheating partners, in their attempt not to cause anyone harm, often end up hurting everyone.

Commemorative Infidelity

This type of infidelity occurs when a person is in a committed relationship but has no feelings for his or her partner. There is no sexual desire or love or attachment, only a sense of commitment keeping the couple together. These people justify cheating by telling themselves they have the right to look for what they are not getting in their present relationship.

While Bridgett Michele Lawrence focuses on different arenas of embodied cheating, explaining each.

  • Physical Cheating

Simply put, physical cheating is the act of being sexually intimate with someone other than your spouse or significant other. It is one of the most common forms of cheating. Although physical cheating is common among men and women, it seems to affect men and women in different ways. Men view physical cheating as emasculating and a form of physical rejection. Women, on the other hand, may be more likely to see beyond the physical indiscretion if they perceive that emotions were not involved.

  • Emotional Cheating

Emotional cheating may include physical intimacy but not necessarily so. Emotional cheating may begin as an innocent friendship. Eventually, an emotional cheater finds himself intimately confiding in the person, sharing thoughts, dreams and an emotional closeness that would normally be reserved for his mate. In some ways, emotional cheating is more crippling to a relationship than physical cheating. With physical cheating, the cheater may still feel emotionally connected to his partner and may only be seeking to fulfill a sexual fantasy. With emotional cheating, however, the cheater’s heart may no longer be in the relationship.

  • Cyber Cheating

With the popularity of the Internet, cyber cheating is becoming a more common problem among couples. Cyber cheating can come in a variety of forms. Cyber cheating includes Internet pornography, online dating and flirting with other people on social networking sites. Cyber cheating is harder to catch than other forms of cheating. It requires the couple to have access to one another’s computer passwords and to pay close attention to conversations each person is having on the Internet.

Macaela Mackenzie elaborates further. Writing for Women’s Health, Mackenzie outlines physical intimacy outside of the relationship, harboring feelings for someone else, fantasizing about someone else, hiding money habits, and having secret social media habits. These last two we might tuck under having a secret life – or a lack of transparency, a withholding, that indicates larger issues, larger threats, in play.

But some cheating is not so overt. Amanda Chatel offers that if “your partner flirts too much with one particular person or you see they’ve liked their ex’s Instagram picture again, there’s a chance your partner could be micro-cheating.” Chatel continues that we may not even think of certain behaviors as “cheating” even though we have a very emotional response to it, dimly aware that a partner has crossed a boundary.

“Micro-cheating is tiny little cheats that can add up, and when they do, they weaken the fiber of the relationship and can cause a rift,” New York–based relationship and etiquette expert of Relationship Advice Forum, says April Masini. “Sleeping with someone else is not a micro-cheat. That’s a flat-out betrayal.” Examples of micro-cheating include turning to someone other their partner for emotional support, keeping old dating profiles up, or keeping close tabs on an ex or crush. “These tiny tears in the relationship aren’t usually enough to create a break up, but they add up,” says Masini. “And if there is consistent micro-cheating, or enough micro-cheating over the course of the relationship, they can definitely harm the trust.”

These might seem ambiguous, and there’s a good reason for that. Many of the people I have spoken with about cheating over the years say that they were willing to forgive certain behaviors in a partner, or expected that those behaviors would be forgiven when they participated in them – those transgressions of the boundaries, the micro-cheating.

Ultimately, many felt they were caught unaware when they caught their partner having sex or were caught having sex themselves with someone outside the relationship. The line had been moved so many times and they have convinced themselves it would only go that far and no further.

Tellingly, one study revealed that “lower perceived availability of alternative mates is associated with a greater propensity to identify ambiguous behaviors as cheating (Mattingly et al. 2010). In other words, if you feel insecure in the relationship, you are more likely to be certain about what you think constitutes cheating and will have a lower threshold of tolerance when your partner crosses the line and likewise when your partner accuses you of cheating when you are with someone who is “just a friend.” That same study also accounted for religious beliefs and it should not be surprising that the more religious individuals are, the more likely they are to identify questionable or ambiguous behavior as cheating. But most importantly for our discussion, Mattingly et al noted that “regardless of their religiosity or relationship satisfaction, women are more likely than men to consider behaviors aimed at actively deceiving one’s partner, such as lying or withholding information, as cheating.”

A 2013 study published by Evolutionary Psychology identified 27 distinct behaviors that constituted “cheating” among their population. The study highlights that men see cheating in more physical terms, the sexual of course but even lending money to someone, while “Women’s ratings were significantly higher than men’s ratings on ten items for erotic behaviors, emotional bonding, behaviors implying relationship status, and financial support. Men’s ratings were significantly higher than women’s ratings on [the] minor financial support item.” See how you feel about the following list that Kruger, et al noticed in their research. 

  • Penile/Vaginal intercourse
  • Oral sex
  • Taking a shower together
  • Kissing on the lips
  • Emailing/Texting pictures of themselves naked
  • Texting erotic messages
  • Watching a pornographic movie together
  • Sleeping in the same bed
  • Holding hands
  • Staying in the same hotel room
  • Forming a deep emotional bond
  • Spending lots of time together
  • Sitting in lap
  • Accompanying to a formal event
  • Going out to dinner
  • Talking on the phone several times a week
  • Giving a large amount of money to the other person
  • Kissing on the cheek
  • Sharing secrets
  • Supporting the other person financially
  • Hugging for more than 10 seconds
  • Calling when upset about their relationship partner
  • Taking a road trip out of state
  • Telling dirty jokes
  • Calling when upset about work
  • Hugging briefly (less than 10 seconds)
  • Giving a small amount of money to the other person

III. Cheating Discussed

In those confessions, where my friends tell me about their affairs, one of the things I ask is whether the person in front of me believes it is possible to get to a place of faithfulness. Is it possible for them to reset the clock and remain faithful, or has something come undone that cannot be set back in place? It’s a tough question when you pause and dwell with it, but only one question in a series intended to suss out what they want to do next.

  • Do you really want to act like business as usual? Or has this event changed things so much that you cannot get back to what you thought and felt before all of this started?
  • Clearly, there is a problem in your relationship. Without judgement or finger pointing, but a sober recognition of who you are partnered with, are you the problem? Or is it your partner?
  • Is that problem worth fixing for you? Not “is it fixable,” not “is it worth fixing,” but is the problem worth your time, energy, and effort needed to repair? Are you still invested?
  • If you are still invested, has that diminished since you started and why?
  • Do you, your partner, or both of you need counseling?

This isn’t advice, you understand. It’s not meant to bring a decision one way or another. It’s meant to get them to the place where they stop dwelling on an event or a behavior and start thinking about what brought either to fruition. 

  • Were you able to discuss your desires with your partner, or did you have to hide them – and now, down the line, you’ve “acted out”? 
  • Are you ready for the consequences?
  • Are you willing to talk about what happened? Or do you just want to run away?

Cheating is, at base, a breach of trust. No matter what the event involved – kissing, an orgy, touching someone’s shoulder to pick off a piece of lint – once you cross that fence, you’re outside of the expectations you and your partner have established with one another. Framing it as a “breach of trust” rather than “a dealbreaker” is important. Jennifer Chesak points out that there are common thought patterns that negatively affect how we approach situations:

Distortion                                    Concept

All-or-nothing thinking – There’s no middle ground. Anything short of perfection is failure.

Overgeneralization – One instance of a bad thing means it will continue to happen.

Mental filtering – You filter out all the positive and focus on the negative of a situation.

Jumping to conclusions – You assume how someone feels toward you, or assume negative outcomes about future events.

Magnification or minimization – You turn a minor mistake into something monumental in your mind or discount your positive qualities.

Emotional reasoning – You assume that if you feel a negative emotion about something it must be the truth about the situation.

“Should” statements – You use “should” or “shouldn’t” statements to guilt yourself or others into action.

Blame – You blame yourself for things you had no control over, or blame others wholly for negative situations.

In my current relationship, cheating is a non-negotiable. We established early on that we need loyalty and trust from one another, and either of us (individually) coming short of that would be a breach of trust for both of us. I prefer not to speak broadly here, but instead offer a direct transcript of one part of the conversation.

R: Let’s start here. Do you think there is ever an excuse for cheating? Maybe “excuse” is too strong a word. Conditions under which it’s less offensive or can be explained? Is cheating ever justified?

E: I don’t know. I think, because of my parents, I used to feel… and probably still do… that cheating is never okay. Maybe I’ve been too hardlined on it, in terms of thinking very by the book, very cut-throat. You cheat and we’re done. There’s nothing to discuss. Now, I would say yes. But I would also say you need to get out of the relationship before you cheat. My biggest thing with cheating and that old idea – once you cheat, there’s no coming back – is because I just don’t know how you regain that trust that you lose. For me, that’s the hard thing. I feel too emotionally, I think. 

R: How do you protect that trust? 

E: I think you build it and you make a conscious choice every day. Every day, you wake up and you tell yourself “we’re going to fight through this and find a solution together.” You began with that commitment and just need to remind yourself of that.

R: What does it mean to cheat; mentally, emotionally, spiritually, physically, where is that point where things tip over from questionable behavior into cheating?

E: I would say it has to have multiple things. It’s not just mental or emotional. For example, kissing is bad but you could come back from it, right? So… it has to be multiple parts. I could and probably did feel threatened that you had so many female friends when we first started seeing one another, but learning about what those relationships were and are helped me feel better. Did you date any of them? If you had, I would feel threatened that feelings could come back. There is a sense of jealousy that I wish I was smart, sure, but we can connect on other levels that I know you can’t connect with with them. It’s almost like what will the person be territorial about, so what will you be territorial about? 

R: Okay, so what about porn, do you see that as cheating? What do you mean by “territorial”? Say more about that.

E: I think it depends. I grew up in a church where porn was bad, a bad thing, and I also was in relationship with someone who was either abusive or harassing in his own way toward me. He would send me porn that was getting him off or he watched. At first, I was uncomfortable with it. Some of it was classy, I’d say, but I haven’t explored that. I haven’t explored porn but what you can view for free online, and that always feels so fake and plastic to me. 

I think, yes, it can be cheating in a way because you are looking at another woman or someone else to get you off, but it’s not the same as cheating because there isn’t that connection. Maybe that’s where I am terrorial or just fucking afraid, is you make those decisions together but once you begin making small adjustments, it becomes giant holes. Like, we both know people who have opened their relationship and that’s how it starts. You make small adjustments, concessions, and then one day you realize how many you have made… that you’re not the same people… and you need to make those decisions together. I think it really comes down to communicating, for me.

R: That took a turn just then. You’re saying cheating starts by making small decisions-

E: Selfish ones, yeah. Without your partner.

R: You’re so quick to say that. There has to be a story there.

E: One my exes, yes. He had said the distance was too hard because he was lonely.

R: To be faithful, you mean.

E: I wanted him to promise that if he started seeing someone, he needed to tell me so I could be sure that I wanted to do it. If you (Randall) wanted an open relationship, I would want a conversation before you went a did something. To talk through it so I could decide, once we got there or he got there, whether I wanted to be a part of that. 

R: Not like permission, but staying informed.

E: Right. So when he revealed that he was seeing someone else, he had already started seeing them and it really hurt me because he didn’t give me the one thing I asked for, which was that he tell me in advance. He took the power from me and was selfish in that way. Had we had that conversation, I could have said no and stepped away from the “friends with benefits” without being hurt because I would have been the one who made that decision. Instead, I didn’t make that decision. He did. And I was devastated because it felt like cheating; it was both emotional and physical. Cheating is like a power play. It really is. You have to empower your partner to have that conversation, you are making a decision about the relationship that may not be good for the relationship. The moral of the entire story is that you have to communicate. That’s it.

IV. Defining Your Expectations

I am convinced that the only way to arrive at these kinds of conversations in a healthy way that won’t immediately burn the relationship to the ground is to know yourself and what you want. Taking emotional inventories, personality profiles, reading up on love languages and discussing attachment styles is vitally important to lay the groundwork for discussing what you perceive to be threats to the relationship, to discuss your history with cheating, and to reach a contract (however defined or undefined) with your partner.

Years ago, I tried to explain what had happened in the emotional affair I had with my friends to a new partner. She was horrified. In that moment, I felt I was sharing who I was and an experience that had affected me but, in hindsight, I realize that she had very little context to understand what had happened. The conversation quickly closed and we stopped talking, full stop, that very night because of it. That relationship ended without her ever hearing about the regret I felt over it because, for me, I didn’t feel safe enough to continue the conversation, to communicate.

I think of the couples I know who have survived cheating in their relationship and in every case, they were able to work through things because they knew and understood one another. It didn’t miraculously fix things. But without context, without knowing who you are and who your partner is, what you expect from one another, you’re really just guessing and this can create an ironic circumstance where neither of you is sure what constitutes cheating, so a simple thing like sharing a package of cookies in the breakroom takes on the same weight as kissing. Everything becomes suspect, behaviors become secretive or quietly left out of the recounting of how your day went. You begin to begrudge one another of private time – after all, when she watches The Bachelorette while you are upstairs, is she fantasizing about other men? If he is left alone at the house for two hours, surely he watched porn and wants other women, right?

In my own relationship, it is an ongoing negotiation. These conversations are not one-time events. Even while things are new and we are still meeting one another’s families, we are still discussing who we are and why we are. The emotional inventories of why communication is not just important, but how the need for communication has been violated in the past. We are discussing the levels of jealousy – I am not as jealous as my partner, for example, and this allows us to understand one another, understand ourselves, understand the relationship, and understand our respective places in the relationship better. 

This is not prescriptive advice, you understand. Rather, it is a descriptive account. Not a “what works” but instead a “what is working for us.” 

I can tell my girlfriend it’s “understandable” if she flirts with someone at a conference because I know she is loyal and that, if she wanted to exercise that option, would likely tell me long before she found herself entangled in sheets with someone else. We can discuss previous partners with the knowledge that what we have felt for previous partners does not diminish but instead enriches who we are and what we are building. This was not always the case. There have been sullen relationships where other women were an immediate threat to my then-partner. Cheating is not an uncomfortable topic, but a reality that we acknowledge.

Further Reading

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