‘I was okay with him having sex with her — that’s just physical. What hurt was he found a new best friend, and that’s supposed to be me.’
Many years ago a close friend said this to me when she found her husband of fifteen years at another woman’s home, while she thought he was fishing with his mates. There was no proof of any physical relationship, and they swore black and blue they hadn’t had sex. She said it didn’t matter and the marriage was over anyway.
She was far more devastated that he had betrayed their emotional bond than any of the physical acts they may or may not have engaged in. It was my first encounter with cheating, but it wasn’t my last.
I have thought long and hard about what I consider ‘cheating’. My perceptions are of course coloured by the experiences I have shared with my partners over the years. No one familiar with the emotional turmoil of cheating comes out the other side without an opinion.
I’m not here to say what’s right or wrong — that’s up to the individual in any given circumstance — and I certainly don’t have answers for anyone but myself. But differences in others’ perceptions of cheating often give me pause for thought.
I have encountered many people who are quite sure that cheating involves the genitals. It is an act committed without full disclosure: illicit, dirty, and most certainly only physical. They don’t want to, or can’t, consider any blurred lines of emotional involvement. I suspect many who have this view have never cheated or been cheated on, and I’m glad for them; they are the rare few, and increasingly harder to find as I get older.
Some friends will consider being emotionally or financially dishonest with a partner, and don’t see this as cheating. It’s my little secret; it’s not like it would matter to them anyway, to which I always answer, if you have to keep secrets from your partner then you should consider how they will feel when they find out – which they always do.
Others I have talked to, often people from alternate relationship styles, such as polyamourous or open relationships, have much more obtuse views of cheating. One friend summed it up by saying, ‘cheating is anything in a relationship done without consent.’
The constructs of an open relationship naturally promote greater communication between partners, who have to set boundaries of acceptable behaviours where these involve other consensual acts. Polyamoury takes the concept even further by encouraging open, honest and ethical communication between all partners, each considered to have a voice in the fabric of the collective relationship. This is not to say that partners in these styles of relationships don’t cheat, just that there tends to be a broader idea of what constitutes cheating in such a complex environment.
Given that people in alternate relationships with the highest levels of communication and interpersonal skills still cheat, does this mean it is inevitable that a partner will eventually violate a boundary? A common quote given to newlyweds is ‘the course of true love never runs smooth’. Is this society’s subtle message that it is just a matter of time before one or more of you make a mistake?
In my experience the answer is yes. I also know it is not always the end of a relationship, but rather a chance to grow as a couple. Everyone makes mistakes and some are easier to forgive than others. It is how you choose to handle these moments that define you.
This brings us to the question of communication: is too much of it a bad thing? Can you stifle a relationship by constantly trying to second guess every situation, always wanting to talk about boundaries, and defining every possible act and how to handle it? I am a huge fan of communication — it saved my relationship — but there is also nothing worse than a partner who can’t enjoy the moment and constantly worries about what could go wrong.
Sometimes this is labelled jealousy, but I don’t mean the possessive, nasty type of worry, more the constant ‘what if?’ that can be very draining. It is important to find the balance that works for any particular couple, and no one can define that for you.
More importantly if your partner does cheat, do you have to walk away? Or can you recover and continue as a loving, happy couple? There is nothing wrong with whichever choice you make; a couple whose relationship survives cheating aren’t better people than those who choose to dissolve theirs as a result. People can offer all the advice they like to a couple when things go wrong, but it is ultimately up to the individuals in the relationship to define their roles and decide if they can trust again.
My partner and I have overcome cheating. It was a difficult and challenging experience and we nearly didn’t make it. We didn’t seek counselling or spend a fortune on expensive courses, but there is nothing wrong with doing either if that works for you. For us, it was communication and setting clear boundaries that allowed me to rebuild my trust. In doing so I had to answer these questions, to know what they mean to me and my partner. Do you know what they mean to you?