I thought that asking people if they’ve ever cheated would result in difficult conversations. I thought most people would clam up. But no. People were forthcoming. Eager even to tell their story. And I’m talking about everyone from absolute strangers to the best of friends. I spoke to about 25 – 30 people recently to prepare this article, and I’ve spoken to hundreds over the last few years: bartenders, financial advisors, programmers, teachers, designers, musicians, HR professionals, film set decorators, veterinarians, sales people, librarians, professional athletes, etc.
My history of cheating
My parents cheated on each other. At first, I thought just my dad cheated, and I was angry with him. I shared that with my mom one day and she revealed that they had both cheated. A lot. And I wasn’t angry anymore. There was something fair about both partners cheating. And my parents both ended up in new, loving (monogamous) relationships, so their story had a happy ending, which resulted in my having a pretty blasé attitude about cheating.
Blasé enough that when I was much younger, and my boyfriend cheated on me, I was pretty chill about it. When I confronted him, he asked me to empathize with his situation, and then he asked whether or not I knew what empathy meant. I was furious. Of course I knew what empathy meant. But I wasn’t furious that he had cheated. In fact, we remain friendly to this day.
I have also cheated. I learned quickly that not everyone is as blasé about it. I might be the anomaly. So I started to talk about expectations. I learned to fairly compromise. I will likely never end a relationship because of an occasional sexual dalliance, and I ask for the same latitude from my partners. I’ve become much more open (and am in an open relationship now).
Getting off on a technicality
So, I would share my story with everyone I talked to, which helped ease them into their own stories. But before they divulged, they usually wanted to wax philosophical about what cheating means. They’d try to get off on a technicality:
- Does kissing count?
- Does only physical cheating count?
- Does emotional cheating count?
- What about an online relationship that never leaves the online realm?
And while I’m willing to delve into this murky water for the sake of titillating conversation, for the purpose of this article, I would ask them two questions:
- Would your partner consider this aforementioned activity cheating?
- Would you allow your partner to partake in the aforementioned activity with impunity?
The answers were generally yes and then no.
So why did they do it?
A lot of reasons. Unhappiness. Insecurity. Motivation. Glibness. Often times they couldn’t quite explain why, but here are a few common themes:
- I needed a good reason to break up with my partner.
- I felt like my partner didn’t see me anymore and I liked the attention from the other person. I wanted to feel wanted.
- I just couldn’t decide who I wanted to be with – my current partner or my ex.
- I needed to know if I still cared enough to feel guilty about cheating.
- My partner kept turning me down for sex. After a while, I convinced myself I was doing us both a favour.
- I didn’t think my partner would ever find out.
- I fell in love with someone else, but didn’t want to leave the life I had created with my partner.
It just happened
While I was pleased with how willing people were to divulge their secrets, I was disappointed in how little they learned and how little responsibility they felt.
Not everyone, mind you – some folks took time to better understand their actions and what they wanted from their next relationship (or even from themselves). But most people were comfortable with the idea that the cheating was circumstantial. Almost as if they were unable to stop it from happening. Even if it happened in more than one relationship. Even when they were the only common denominator.
At first, when I asked why they cheated, many shrugged their shoulders the way a kid might when you ask why they stole a chocolate bar. They mumbled that they were not sure or it kinda just, you know, happened. But it never just happens. Like a chocolate bar doesn’t just fall into a kid’s pocket, people don’t just fall into bed together. Choices are made. Deliberate choices. And that is what people seemed to have a hard time admitting – they chose to cheat because they wanted to cheat. Even kids know we’re not allowed to say “I just wanted to.” It’s too honest. Too socially unacceptable.
If this than that
So people tack on a reason they wanted to cheat, and turn that into the story, the why. It alleviates some of their responsibility, and often shares it with the person they cheated on. If this than that, right? Problem solved. Guilt eased. Except that they still chose to cheat. And the idea that they chose to cheat – and that they are responsible for that choice – was hard to admit. And I get it. We’ve convinced ourselves that cheating is the worst thing we can do to our partners. If we cheat, we are degenerates. If we’ve been cheated on, we’re victims.
So I guess my next question, and maybe the follow-up to this article, is this: why is cheating the ultimate deal-breaker? Why does having sex with another person mean you have to end what may otherwise be a perfectly good relationship? Why can’t that mean, instead, that you work on your relationship rather than end it? Or maybe enter into a different style of relationship? I don’t know. But I’m going to ask some questions and try to find out.