When I published my post I Had an Affair and I’m Not Ashamed, I received a lot of hate mail. One friend posted on my Facebook wall about her husband’s infidelity and then promptly unfriended me. Another spoke of how her cheating father had left a trail of destruction she still had trouble forgiving.
I understand that affairs can cause deep pain and horrific memories. I am not discounting another’s experience for one second. But the way we handle the real or imagined unfaithfulness of our partner perhaps needs unpacking and re-examining.
When our partner cheats, instead of reaching for our coats, perhaps it might help to first consider the following points.
You Can’t Control Someone Else
In any relationship we like to think that we can influence the other person’s actions. I don’t believe this is possible. People behave the way they do for a variety of reasons, and although they may pause to consider another’s feelings or opinions, in the end they mostly think primarily about themselves.
When we stand at the altar and pledge life-long commitment and fidelity, we push back against our inability to exert control over our partner. We trick ourselves into believing that public promises will be harder to break.
Sadly, this is a fantasy. If we find ourselves with someone naturally monogamous, it is the result of our partner’s preferences, not because of his/her vows. And not only that, if such a marriage lasts a lifetime, it is because our partner hasn’t changed his values over the years.
On the other hand, if we find out our partner has cheated, maybe we shouldn’t damn them for being morally bankrupt, but instead recognise that our partner simply prefers non-monogamy. Once we take away the righteous indignation and blame from the situation, we are better equipped to make rational choices and decisions.
Monogamy is a Social Constraint
Monogamy became the lynch pin of marriage in times where there was no such thing as contraception. A good wife should stay virginal before marriage and faithful afterward so her husband knew he was only supporting his own biological offspring. Similarly, an ideal husband was not out fathering multiple children and being distracted by competing demands on his time and money.
Nowadays, we are free to have sexual relationships without fearing pregnancy and yet the coupling of marriage and monogamy still remains. Some would argue that monogamy is unnatural and only earned its status as morally superior because of our social history.
Is it possible to see monogamy as an archaic tradition which might not be the best choice for everyone, for ever, in every situation?
Unconditional Love Has No Conditions
Unconditional love demands that we love others not matter how they behave. It would seem to me that marriage should be the cornerstone of unconditional love — and yet we demand that our partners practice unwavering monogamy in order to deserve our love. Once someone is unfaithful, many people pack their bags and walk away citing cheating as the “deal-breaker”.
Perhaps modern, grown-up, mature love is unconditional, even in the face of non-monogamy. Of course, you are entitled to uphold your personal boundaries, but it doesn’t hurt once in a while to ask yourself why you hold the values you do.
Is Monogamy the True Metric of Love?
In an earlier post, I asked How do you know if someone really loves you? and of all the possible answers, staying sexually faithful wasn’t one of them. I know plenty of couples who are monogamous who can barely tolerate being in the same room, and couples who have open marriages who love each other fiercely.
The depth of a relationship should be measured in the gap between two people, not by how far away they are from everyone else. Every person is unique – my boyfriend cannot love anyone the same way he loves me, because I’m the only me there is.
If he has fallen (or falls) in love with someone else, it doesn’t diminish the love he has for me. Love is not finite, it does not get smaller the more it’s shared around, most of the time it gets bigger.
Over a lifetime, you have probably been intimate with more than one person, so technically you’ve practiced serial non-monogamy yourself. None of those relationships take away from what you have now with your partner.
Is there room in your heart to consider the possibility that your partner being with someone else doesn’t necessarily mean he loves you any less?
All Things to All People
In the past, we lived in large communities surrounded by family, friends and acquaintances. Our wide circle of relationships meant we had all manner of ways to have our intellectual, spiritual, emotional and physical needs met.
These days we live a more solitary life and we expect most of our needs to be met by our partner. What if that isn’t enough for you? What if that isn’t enough for him/her? What if needing to be your entire world has helped push him/her out into the world? Perhaps your partner has more needs than you can meet — do you not want him /her to be happy and fulfilled?
Enforcing the Rules
People come up with all sorts of rules about what constitutes cheating. Sending personal emails, playing Second Life, having a drink after work, flirting, touching, kissing … and the list goes on. Enforcing all these rules is exhausting and spreads the poison of distrust.
Creating and policing a list of banned behaviours makes them more rather than less appealing. There is excitement and delicious danger in breaking the rules. What would happen if everything your partner did was okay? I wonder if that would make him/her less likely to wander?
My boyfriend and I have abolished the rule book. I can flirt with, kiss, and sleep with whoever I want. And so can he. Curiously, so far neither of us want to.
Some Men are Dicks
It goes without saying that not all men are enlightened, mature, relationship ready beings. Some just wander around putting their penises into anyone and everyone. Such a man is unlikely to be giving you any of the things you long for.
He is probably not caring, affectionate, giving, open, vulnerable or supportive. His infidelity is just part of a litany of behaviours which cause you pain. If there is nothing else to salvage beyond his cheating, then you are better off alone.
Speak Your Truth
The only way to unravel the potentially catastrophic consequences of being cheated on is to communicate openly and honestly. This means being vulnerable enough to consider there are many different ways to make a relationships work. You may decide to stay, you may decide to leave, and you may decide to explore all the light and shade this event has brought out into the open.
I know quite a few people who have stayed with a partner who has been unfaithful. They haven’t just been forgiving or naïve, but they have completely redefined what it means to be in a loving, complex relationship. I applaud their courage.
The fairy tales of happily ever after tell us that love and sex belong together and anything kind of deviation from that is a cruel betrayal. But in the end, we get to choose what stories we believe, we get to decide how much of what we are taught is our personal truth, and we get to script our own dramas.
The only thing we can control is how we see the world. I believe it’s time to think about love, marriage and monogamy in a revolutionary new way.
Is cheating always wrong? Or is non-monogamy a viable choice in a relationship?
17 thoughts on “What to Do When Your Partner Cheats”
I think polyamorous relationships can work out wonderfully for some. Others prefer monogamy and that is fine. Clear communication is key. I think, where possible, telling your partner you want to be in an open relationship before you go ahead and do so is the respectful and honest way- if they aren’t open to that it should be their choice to say no and then up to you both to discuss what happens next. Sometimes it happens differently- due to loneliness or abuse etc. Then communication might be a lot harder.
Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Amy.
This is very typical that people who cheat excuse their behaviour in many ways, especially by bringing up non-monogamou nature.
Here is where you’re missing the point – there is absolutely nothing wrong with polyamory, having sex with extra-marital partners , being in open relationship etc. Cheating is NOT about sex. Cheating is about deception and breach of trust.
Cheating does not have to involve sex. It could be about money. For example when one person invests all spare money into joint account and saves for the house the couple agreed to save on while the other hides his earnings and spends huge amounts of money on gambling etc.
If someone does not want to be monogamous then that’s their right but they should not lie to other person and agree on monogamy in the relatioship. It’s truly disgusting when people pretend to be in monogamous relationship and expect faithfulness from a partner while selfishly getting what they want on the side.
Why not be honest? Yes, it takes guts but it’s better to risk being rejected then to build relationship on deception.
I have respect for people who exercise open relationships. When things are honest and you not only enjoy sex with diffrent people but also allow the same for your partner instead of tricking him into faightfulnes and leaving him with no real relationship choices by withdrawing information.
So no, there is no excuse for cheating. Simply non.
You want to sleep with other people then communicate it to your partner and don’t lie about the nature of your relationship.
Still dunno, but I’m thoroughly appreciating the opportunity to read your thoughts.
That’s all I want, just for people to know there is more than one way to skin a cat 😉
It’s a catch-22: I wouldn’t kick my GF out if she cheated on me, because things happen sometimes that we fail to control and people are prone to making mistakes. Especially where sex is concerned. However I’m not advocating an open relationship so I can’t say ‘honey, it’s OK for you to shag someone else if you happen to be out one night and it just kind of happens’ because then I’m condoning it. Which I’m not. I’m just saying that if it *did* happen, it wouldn’t be a show-stopper. But as soon as you vocalise that, you are kind of sayings it’s acceptable behaviour. Hence the Catch-22.
And before anyone jumps to the conclusion that I’m only saying that because *I* want the opportunity to have casual sex with a stranger every now and then, I can assure you that is not the case. I just don’t see how an accidental shag is an instant marriage-killer any more than accidentally crashing the car is.
Of course if you start crashing the car on a regular basis, or start having an affair with the car then there’s obviously a problem, and that’s a whole different issue.
I like your analogy. The odd car crash may mean the car needs trading in for a newer model … or something … I have no idea what I’m saying but thanks for the comment ♥
Monogamy is one of many social/moral/religious constructs that we have come to think of as absolutes. Really, our society has been built upon externally imposed rules of thinking and behaving … and a lot of people are quite comfortable and secure living that way.
It’s much harder to think for yourself; it means you have to learn about your options and the potential consequences of your choices, and then you, and only you, are responsible for the outcome. It’s both a blessing and a burden that some people would prefer to avoid.
Some would argue we need these rules or chaos would ensue. I wonder …
You make a great point, T.O. – that when we expand our notion of what is acceptable we have to be responsible for the outcome. We forfeit our right to say “I was told to do this …” and for some people that is very scary.
I’m completely 100% against enforced monogamy. That being said: I think couples/triads/quads etc should create their own version of monogamy. I know of poly quads who only have sex within their relationship. That’s a version of monogamy. I know man/woman couples where both are bisexual and if they have sex with others it’s a member of the same sex. I know couples who only have sex with other people in the same room at the same time. I know couples who routinely hook up with other people away from their primary partners with the full blessing of the other. The key is establishing the boundaries for both of you and the “we” which are healthy and respectful.
My personal menu of desirable activities isn’t nearly as adventurous as what you describe. I’m a plain old heterosexual female who likes the idea of extra icing on the cake should she ever feel like it.
Fabulous article. And, wow it’s complex isn’t it? This is a topic I’m examining in my own life right now–it seems to me that the commonality in all these cases is trust and clear communication between partners. And, the understanding that we each get to make our own decisions without judgment.
I have always been monogamous-but as I age I wonder if my life might be richer by having varied and fulfilling relationships–not necessarily all about the sex. People get all tripped up over the sex and forget that for some it’s about a different kind of intimacy, not just getting sexual needs met.
When I was younger, I toured the world working on shows. It is my one regret that I never took advantage of the fact that ‘what happens on tour stays on tour,’ although there were plenty of others who did.
If I had my time again, I’d live alone and have multiple boyfriends for all sorts of different reasons. I think I’m channeling some Parisian artist fantasy which would probably be a complete disaster LOL.
Good luck with your adventures.
I think it’s ok to be monogamous or not monogamous. Just ideally you would be open, honest, respectful of one another and make the decision to be together or not based on what you want. And continue to communicate openly if things change and finding ways to continue together that continues to be mutually respectful. Or part ways if that’s what one or both of you want. I love and respect my husband (17 years in relationship). Knowing him as he is I would not end our marriage if somehow he made a mistake and cheated to some degree. It would hurt very badly. I would worry about him not loving me (depending on the circumstances). I don’t think he would ever cheat, though. We are also very open talking about our desires and fantasies and acting on the ones we want to make a reality. So, monogamy doesn’t feel stifling to us. We have our experimentations with trying opening things up in various ways. We’ve been together a long time and since we were young college kids. I like feeling sexy, flirting, being around people in a sexually open context (we do that together). Playing around together with it in a fantasy sense. But, I just don’t feel the desire to be sexually involved with anyone, but him. I know that he will try out anything I want to try and same with me for him. I’m a bisexual. So, it isn’t completely off the table for me to be with a woman. But, I don’t. Technically I have his ok anytime. I flirt with women (that know I am married). I think serial cheating on a partner that loves and trusts you is different from a one time relationship. And in my personal experience the people that cheat serially with dishonesty are harmful in other even more harmful, serious ways (abuse, etc). So, I think it’s important to look at all the facts. Just because we were harmed by a cheater that does not mean that everyone that has ever cheated is the same as that person. I had a stepfather as a child that sexually abused me and was sadistic with me. And he is also a cheater. He is a batterer and has disabled and almost killed people (a spouse), and I am not exaggerating. He is a sociopath. And he steals money. That’s completely different from other situations. So, I would never compare one time cheating to that!
Thank you for sharing your personal story, Nissa.
I have nothing more to add. I ditto all this! A brilliant piece. The only thing I have to say is… isn’t it a shame when the ego feels it must compete with love? and it’s strength becomes greater?
Great observation, Karen – ego vs love – I hadn’t thought of it that way. Thank you.
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