Cheating is a social construct. That means it’s not real outside of what we make of it. It is something our culture created as a term and concept to describe a behavior. The statistics show it occurs as often as in 60% of all relationships. But cheating doesn’t even come with a universalizable definition. And most couples have never discussed the specifics of what they deem to be “cheating”. This concept has permeated our society for long enough that most people live with it unquestioned as an apotheotic absolute. Monogamy was created, as was marriage, and we all fall into line and agree with these concepts and their assumed boundaries that we ourselves have not even chosen. When someone cheats, nothing actually changes but our own subjective interpretation of the event and of our partner’s character. Individuals are harmed, but only by interpretation and perspective. Humans lie, humans hurt, and humans cannot be trusted implicitly. Relationship, any engagement with an Other, must involve the conscious acceptance of this fact. “Cheating” needs to be downgraded from a relational act of emotional violence, to one form of many relational injuries to be expected from well meaning flawed humans. The sexual context of a behavior need not make it more “heinous”. Law & Order SVU loves this concept, as the show opens stating “sexually based offenses are considered especially heinous”. This sex phobic and sex hating statement exemplifies our cultural struggle to see sex as not being an inherently “special case”. We have colluded with the notion that lying is bad, but sexually themed lying is worse. This conceptual bias manifests with much consensus and support with shelves of “betrayal” books, and entire marital and sex addiction treatment programs existing to heal this “wound”. They both perpetuate the fantasy that within relationship or marriage one can expect no relational or sexual harm, ever. Only singledom comes with this promise. The “cheating industry” sadly does more damage then the act itself, by enforcing the notion of its consequential destruction and pain.
Cheating doesn’t injure. How cheating is conceptualized and dealt with does. How we see and treat “cheating” is an existential choice. The dismantling of this concept would alleviate the bulk of marital discord and misery and save most of them.
“How will I trust my partner again?” is the common question. You can’t. You cannot “trust” that you will never be disappointed, upset, uneasy, insecure, or wounded again. You will be! That is an outcome of being in a relationship with an Other. The acceptance of this can liberate you. I am NOT giving permission to relationally injure your partner by cheating. I am NOT condoning emotionally triggering behaviors. I am providing a much needed critical analysis of a concept that has been erroneously misused to villianize partners, needlessly end marriages, and assassinate the character of people we love. Monogamy, marriage, and relationships are difficult. The problem is often within these institutions and the associated unrealistic expectations carried parasitically within them, and not within the person.
We do have to be able to expect commitments that are made to be upheld. But cheating is a boundary violation, and these do occur often. Boundary violations and relational injuries are expected parts of the cycle of relationships. 21st century technology is creating new grey areas of sexual-relational engagement with others outside our primary relationship that couples are just now learning how to navigate. We are living longer and therefore experiencing longer marriages and periods of monogamy. This allows for more opportunities of struggle and more work to maintain a sustainable sexual life with our partner. Failures are to be expected and need to be “worked through” as normative phases of relationship.
The relational revolution is occurring faster than any current sexual revolution. The sexology field is bursting with writings about nonmonogamy, polyamory, and other formerly alternative relational styles. But many still want the traditional committed monogamy, some driven by anxiety and others by lack of time and ability to manage much more than career and a primary partner. Dating multiple people, open relationships, and polyamory are sometimes workable for those that have the time, energy, and high levels of relational skills to manage the multitude of interests, needs, and attention seeking of multiple partners and relationships, but few of us have such relational-sexual maturity. I tell my clients, if you cannot manage one relationship, you cannot manage two or more. And all of these relationships have various trajectories, so much so that plotting the subtypes becomes nearly impossible and we struggle both clinically and socially, limited by our vocabulary, to find ways to label and identify the myriad configurations. Our post-postmodern world of multiplicity and proteanism, is great on so many levels, while also confusing and disastrous on others.
The key words in relationships are “safe” and “comfortable”. Sometimes even with all the security building statements and behaviors from a partner, one is still left feeling anxious and uneasy. In this pluralistic relational time we are embedded within many relationships that can easily disrupt our sense of safety. Our friends, even with the best intentions, can dilute or aggravate a sensitive situation. Often they are driven by their own fears and are not stable enough to help hold you and your partner together. Do NOT get relationship advice from friends, because they are as lost as you are. Go to them for support and to hold you accountable to be your best. Its in relationships that we show the best of who we are, how healthy we are, and how much integrity we have. It’s our “big moment”. There is always another human being on the receiving end of all that we are doing, so take it into account and act accordingly with your integrity. Relationships challenge our “intimacy tolerance” and often our anxiety or dis-ease is a sign that we are being asked to grow. My mantra is when you want to “lean out” of the relationship, you need to “lean in”.
Evolutionary psychology describes mating concepts such as mate poaching, mate retention, and market values. All of these are dense ideas that speak to the complexity of the sexual-relational field. Dating is a social experiment and only the strong and passionate survive it. One must work to create time to tend to a relationship, work to maintain closeness and priority to this relationship, then protect it from outside “poachers” and disruptors, and also struggle with their own market value and that of their partner to keep a high status of worth and value. This is all driven by external forces outside the relationship which are either eclipsed and made irrelevant by the internal strength and passion the two partners create, or taken over by them due to no internal drive or interest. Part of long-term relational sustainability and success is how two people manage and navigate outside forces that can interrupt and derail the partner’s sexual-emotional drive to remain connected.
If outside forces aren’t detrimental enough, our own inner process can also be an enemy to our relationship. Far too many clients use their decoder rings to decipher their partner’s thoughts and actions, to then act and relate from what they think their Other wants. Early dating and relationshiping can be an uneasy time and is best dealt with by being more “self centered.” (There is a whole chapter about this in my upcoming book. Plug!) Do not direct your behavior around the fantasy you have of what you think your partner wants. Call as often as makes sense to YOU, make plans as often as YOU are comfortable, and let your partner set the boundaries they need to set and take care of themselves. Far too many clients struggle with attempting to act from the fantasy they have created of what their partner may want, when instead they should be “self centered” and act from what they themselves want. You have to trust that your partner is an adult and will tell you how they feel, if you do not have such an adult relationship, then build one or get out and grow up a bit.
While watching a report on the Amanda Knoxs trial, I was stunned when journalist Diane Sawyer repeatedly mentioned Amanda’s interest in “casual sex” as a qualifier for her having bad character. It’s ridiculous how an expected, healthy and “normal” (there’s that evil word I hate) developmental stage becomes bastardized and used to shame this girl. Sexual-relational developmental milestones are achieved by dating and being sexual throughout an individual’s life. For those that are comforted by statistics, and require social science research data to support all claims, you will feel satiated to know that the stats report that the average teen and young adult will have intercourse many times prior to adulthood, and this is a good thing as sex is learned and not innate. These encounters are how we all learn to increase self-esteem, utilize erotic capital, social negotiation skills, and boundary setting. Let’s not infuse this necessary social education with our own sex phobia and anxiety.
Poor Amanda had her “character” in question because she wanted to be sexual and date a boy. This is a sign that she is statistically “normal” and average, and doing exactly what her peers are doing. The equation of acting on inborn human sex drive and mating as congruent and symptomatic of being “out of control,” “sex crazed,” or “murderous” is both absurd and naïve. The media pushed it further and then equated her possible engagement in an orgy (good for her; she is sexually creative and adventurous) with being more evidence of her poor “character” and a sign of her ability to murder.
This sex shaming is far from rare as I often hear clinical clients being labeled as having a fetish, sex addiction, or being “ill” due to their sexual behaviors. I’m not talking about illegal, coercive or compulsive and problematic. I’m talking about non didactic , non committed, and non vanilla. The word “fetish” as a concept is made irrelevant as everything is a fetish, and no part of our arousal constellation should be shamed by such a “perspective.” You like boobs, that’s a fetish; women, that’s one too. Feet, shoes, and leather (god forbid), they all are, too. It’s all needless modernist attempts to “re-center” a pluralistic postmodern “de-centered” sexual world. Frequently engaging in odd, different, alternative sexual behaviors is not being addictive, its called sexual confidence. Good sexual lovers are open to pushing the boundaries to maintain novelty, the linchpin of high arousal sex. They go after what is arousing for them in every sexual experience. The seeking of high arousal when being sexual is what I advise and what long-term sexual satisfaction within relationships require. Monogamy will limp along otherwise. If you want long-term monogamous commitment, you better break out the monkey suit and hang from that chandelier. Roll with it folks, a sexual revolution is brewing and I’m leading the charge! If these behaviors sound unhealthy or make you anxious, this says everything about your sexual confidence and sex education, and nothing about the other engaging in them. I agree with old Kinsey when he said “the only unnatural sex act is that which you cannot perform.” If your body can do it, then its “natural.” Whether or not Amanda Knox is a murderer, someone who has poor “character” or is sex addicted has nothing to do with the contents of her sex life. And I worry for Diane Sawyers’ sexual partners. I hope she keeps good reading material by the bed to entertain them because her sexuality sounds like a snoozefest!