Relationships are a contract, informally negotiated by two people who, for one reason or another, want to spend their time together. Marriages have a more formalized contract – marriage vows, etc. – that both parties agree to. But, any romantic relationship has some sort of boundaries and proper behavior that each party is supposed to follow. People seem to absolutely fucking love breaking these agreements, and I have no idea why.
If you haven’t already, be sure to head over and read part 1 of this series of posts (this is part 4), in particular the Introduction section that puts this into a bit of a larger context, and gives a couple of disclaimers (like, for instance, assuming that I’m talking about a specific person or persons in these posts.) Even if you don’t read the rest of that post, read the Introduction. This isn’t just about a single person in my life, and it’s not about men or women. While it happened to a guy, and it’s being told by a guy, you can change “he” and “she” to any gender you like, and it still fits.
Made an Agreement? Keep it in Your Pants.
I’m at two ends of a spectrum that most people might find confusing: first, I really don’t care about sex as the basis for a relationship, and generally speaking, I really don’t care if my significant other is having sex with someone else. Which brings us to the other end of the spectrum: I don’t care if my significant other is having sex with someone else, as long as that’s part of a relationship choice we’ve discussed and made together. I usually encapsulate that thinking with a single statement: “I’m not as interested in who I’d or my partner wants to get in bed with, so much as I’m interested in who I’d want to wake up with every morning.”
I’ve had friends who were the swingers lifestyle – they could have sex with other people. But, there were rules and protocols for that sort of thing. It wasn’t an open game of sex with anyone anywhere, at any time, with no boundries. They had their own social contract between the two of them that they both agreed upon, and stuck to.
I myself have done the open relationship thing – I could sleep with anyone I liked, and she could sleep with anyone she liked. Oddly, this worked out fairly well, though I’ll admit I eventually got less interested in sleeping with anyone else, and more interested in just being with her. The existence of the open relationship was an odd thing in the first place: we dated, became exclusive to each other, and it fell apart. We had no idea why. What we did know is that we really liked each other still after having been apart for like 5 months, so we decided to give it a try as an open relationship. For some reason, that worked well for us. Well, up until she got pregnant. That didn’t actually end the relationship: we put things on hold until the baby was born, rather than make a rash decision like trying to get married. I bought a house in town right around the time the baby was born, so I could be available to her. And then we discovered the baby wasn’t mine, so we never went back to the relationship (but, remained friends for a number of years.) We had a social agreement between us, and we honored it. When things changed, we re-negotiated that social agreement in a way that was beneficial to the one in the most need (I took her out to eat a lot, made sure she was doing OK, etc. – I felt she had the greater need than myself.) Going back to my first post on all this, in many ways I consider this a “successful relationship” – we filled our roles that we wanted for each other.
I mention all that not because it was an open relationship, where sex with others was OK. I mention it, because it’s an example of how that social contract can be renegotiated, even more than once. We tried one thing, it didn’t work. We tried another thing, and it worked. We put it on hold when we saw a serious complication. We even discussed, and got very close to unpausing it quite a while later. (It’s complicated.)
But, I’ve never cheated. Not once have I had sex with someone else, or tried to have sex and been refused. (I mention that last part, because I’ve met people who would say they’ve never cheated, and eventually you find out they’ve been hanging out on dating site and places like that, TRYING to cheat, but failing horribly.) And, there’s probably multiple reasons for that – I can’t say I know all the reasons in my head, but I know some of them. First, if I give my word on something, I try very hard to fulfill it. Like all humans, I fail sometimes, but let’s be honest: it’s not that hard to keep my dick in my pants. Hell, it actually requires more effort to cheat than not to cheat. Second, I revere my significant others. Third, I’m actually a more of a fan of having sex with the same person, rather than new partners. At one time, the idea of sleeping with anyone I wanted sounded like fun. After a couple of long term relationships, I learned something: sex is more fun with the same person over and over. Now, granted, I’ve never done that for a decade straight or anything, but over the course of time, you learn everything about your partner. Where they like to be touched. What works, what doesn’t. What they might want to try, and what is taboo. And, they learn the same about you.
Now, before you get the idea from any or all these posts that I’m a saint, or that I feel I’ve done no wrong (online, it’s so easy to be judgy): far from it.. I’ve had plenty of fails in my relationships. I’m not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. A failure on my part in one area doesn’t suddenly make it OK for someone to cheat.
Having said that: I’ve been cheated on more than once. I’ve had more than one person in my life decide that whole social contract wasn’t up to their liking for one reason or another, and step across the line with someone else. The first one was an alcoholic that managed to keep her alcoholism problems completely hidden from me (even though we lived together for a while.) In fact, that relationship (I was young and very dumb) not only did we have a social contract issue with sex apparently, we also had one about roles: we had discussed marriage, and I said flat out “no.” I wasn’t interested in getting married. It was only a week or two later when she introduced me to some people as her fiance. A serious inequality in the relationship there.
It wasn’t for a couple years before I finally found out she had cheated on me. She broke things off with me (I wasn’t sad), and we moved on. Until she entered AA, and had to do that whole bit where she went around telling people that she had hurt what she had done wrong to them. Honestly, I could have done without that information.
But, even with multiple cheating partners in my past, I just never quite developed that whole jealousy thing. See, I WANT to trust my partner – unless they tell me there’s a problem, screw it, there’s no problem. If I actually see a potential problem – someone sharking around the relationship, obviously interested in my significant other – I discuss it with them. (If you haven’t guessed from the posts and some of my comments, I’m a big fan of communication in a relationship. I wasn’t always, but it’s a thing I developed.)
Even cheating isn’t necessarily the end of a relationship in my opinion. It’s an indicator that something is wrong – and that humans can be dumb sometimes. But, it has a habit of causing a series of failures in that social contract. First, there’s the cheating. Then there’s the lying to cover it up. Sometimes there’s also further lying and manipulation to continue having sex with someone else. It becomes a slippery slope of shit going wrong with that contract, as fail after fail happens. I’ve been lied to straight in the face about the nature of one time someone cheated on me. I knew they were lying – you can’t be a partner of mine for a while, and me not learn when you’re lying. I went ahead and accepted the story she gave, which the idea of seeing if she’d fess up eventually. I really wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt, but it was already towards the end of the relationship – there would be no recovering it.
There’s also other conditions where it gets even weirder: sometimes cheating is about control. The person feels for one reason or another they need more control in the relationship, so they cheat on it and keep it a secret. Or, in really extreme circumstances they do let it be known, or hide it poorly, and look forward to the control of having broken that contract, but having the partner STILL remain with them. It’s rather twisted at that point.
Studies have put infidelity between 25% and 70% for both male and female partners. That’s some pretty rough statistics, no matter which end of the scale you look at. I have a hard time identifying with the concept – why would it be this common? For some, they simply stay we’re not wired for monogamy. And, if you get involved with someone who cheated to get involved with you, stats shoot up pretty high. They’re probably going to cheat on you again, or on their next partner. I’m a big believer in forgiving someone’s past: what they did before me doesn’t automatically mean they’re going to do it to me. In some ways, probably not the best thinking, but I’ll probably maintain that thinking. But, I have to admit seeing something amazingly brazen once: someone who had cheated on me contacted me, starting the conversation with the line “Watching the snow and thinking of you.” They had a boyfriend at the time. No. Just… no. Actually, no, that’s not right: hell no. Cheat on me, then make eyes at me while you’re with someone else? Fuck that. I’m forgiving, not dumb. (Side note: one of the great mysteries in my life is ex-relationships commonly striking up a conversation about getting back together. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually accepted that discussion – most of the time, there’s some pretty good reasons we broke up.)
Now, here’s the thing: there are some people who consider infidelity abuse, and some people who don’t. That’s why this one appears towards the beginning of this series of posts – it’s a little “lighter” than some of the stuff that follows. I really can’t say how I feel about this: I can see points to both sides of the issue. Abuse is often associated with behavior that more directly hurts the recipient. The person who cheats isn’t automatically going to hit their partner. They may not berate their partner because of it. Heck, they may not even lie about it, and come clean right off the bat.
On the flip side of that discussion is the fact that often it’s part of a larger scope of abuse. Lies and manipulations are common with it. How many different breaks in the social contract does it take before it’s abusive? I mean, it’s definitely an abuse of the trust of the partner, that much is clear. Is it emotional abuse? I’ll leave that up to the reader to decide. Is it physical abuse if the cheater contracted an STI and transmitted it to their partner? Again, I’ll leave that up to the reader to decide.
Either way, though, it’s pretty obvious there’s something wrong at that point. Oh, and I forgot to throw one thing in there in the “stuff that happens when a cheater is caught”: the whole bit where it’s the partner’s fault somehow. They didn’t give out enough sex. They didn’t spend enough time with the cheater. There’s all sorts of reasons it’s “your fault.” This part? This is abuse. The actions of the one who cheated is now the fault of someone who didn’t cheat. There’s actually multiple psychological things going on here, but the most important thing to know if you’ve been cheated on: no matter what they say, this wasn’t your fault. If you kept it in your pants, you didn’t fail that part of the social contract. They failed it, not you.
And, lemmie tell ya, it’s actually kind of hard to accept that sometimes.