Why is it so difficult to create a definitive definition about what counts as cheating? What does it actually mean to be unfaithful? Where does one draw the line?
Is it having feelings for someone else but keeping them to yourself?
Is it sharing those feelings with the other person but not acting on them?
Is it kissing someone on a drunken night out, even if you can’t remember what they look like?
Is it meeting someone for a drink without telling your partner?
Is it flirting with someone online?
Is it engaging in flirting/sexual talk with someone other than your partner?
Is it watching porn?
Or is it only infidelity when you sleep with them…?
(And what about swingers..?)
It seems there’s a sliding scale when it comes to this topic – and everyone has their own ideas about it.
I suppose you could guess that part of what might constitute being ‘unfaithful’ might depend on whether you are the person doing it or the person to whom it is being done: If you have feelings for someone in the office but you’ve done nothing about it, you could tell yourself you’ve done nothing wrong; you can’t help how you feel.
But if you imagine your husband having feelings for a woman at work… it doesn’t seem quite so clean cut. It seems disloyal at the very least (and rather worrying).
Maybe you like to flirt ‘harmlessly’ (aka ‘banter’) with members of the opposite sex, knowing that nothing will ever come of it. That seems ok – doesn’t it? But would it be ok if your partner did it? Maybe it would; maybe it wouldn’t. It depends.
Does it make a difference if you and your partner have an agreed idea about what is ok and what’s not? It seems to. I can remember when I was 14 I went to a party with the couple I used to babysit for (I have absolutely no idea why I was there – that seems weird now I think about it actually) and all night the woman was going round snogging other men. I asked her husband if he minded and he smiled and said (with pride!) ‘Nope – it’s me who gets to take her home’. I remember thinking then that these grown-ups had funny ideas about things and that I didn’t think I’d be ok with that when I was married.
So maybe looking at the language we use might help? Disloyal – ‘Failing to be loyal to a person … to which one has obligations’.’ Infidelity – ‘the action or state of being unfaithful to a spouse or other sexual partner’. Unfaithful – ‘engaging in sexual relations with a person other than one’s regular partner in contravention of a previous promise or understanding. Adultery – ‘voluntary sexual intercourse between a married person and a person who is not their spouse’ Affair – a romantic or passionate attachment typically of limited duration.
If we are to take the above definitions, one could say that they were being unfaithful, or committing adultery, only if they have sexual relations with another person. However, it seems an affair could be a passionate attachment to a person other than your spouse where no sexual contact needs to take place. I wonder which is worse? Sexual relations with someone who means nothing, or a passionate attachment to someone who means everything?
In my mind, the latter is more corrosive because it is inescapable. If you have a passionate attachment to someone, they are in your mind all the time. It is invasive and it must impact on your relationship with your partner. I never want my husband to cheat on me (obviously!) but I think if I had the choice I would choose sexual relations. The thought of him having a passionate emotional attachment to someone would hurt me more deeply, it would not be ‘over and done with’ as would a one night stand.
But what about a kiss? I have heard people say they have never been unfaithful, they have only kissed someone. Is kissing considered ‘sexual relations’? Is it a big deal? Again, I personally feel it would be very upsetting and worrying; it might seem like a big deal to me. But I don’t know – maybe not. It is certainly not something I would encourage him to do, or be blasé about, but if he did I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t end our marriage over it. Which makes me wonder what I would end our marriage over. How far would he have to go?
There are many married couples out there who have worked through the various scenarios I’ve mentioned above; they have forgiven their partner a kiss, a series of illicit meetings, a one night stand, an affair. Part of me thinks ‘Good for them! They believe in their marriage, they will make it work.’ Yet another part of me wonders if something is too broken, or whether if they have ‘got away with it’ once, they take that as carte blanche to do it again. Why did they do it in the first place? Is there something wrong with the marriage? Or something wrong with them…?
At one extreme, there are parts of the world whose cultures encourage, and are very comfortable with, polygamy. They see no harm in having more than one spouse (usually a wife). They live together in harmony. It is open and accepted as the way things are done, no one feels betrayed or hurt because the expectation is that it will happen.
At the other extreme are marriages where the spouse isn’t able to have friends of the opposite sex because their husband/wife won’t allow it. (Is this ok? Who am I to judge.)
All this makes me wonder about ethics, and where they come from. Are ‘good ethics’ something that is in the world, something innate inside of us, that we all just magically understand and adhere to? We just ‘know’ that being in a sexual relationship with more than one person is wrong.
Or is it something that is endorsed by society – something that our culture has created and is comfortable with, so we are judged by the other members (and ourselves) as being ‘unethical’ if the widely held rules were broken.
One thought is that it could stem from the days where is was practical to be monogamous; it was necessary to stick together in a pair to raise our young. After all, we only used to live until we were about 30 years old.
But as we evolved, we began to form deep bonds with each other, and to have expectations of what we provide for one another. This led to love, and commitment, and now we feel betrayed if that love is not seen by our partner as being something for us alone because they have shared it with another.
There is a great deal more I could talk about on these matters, both on where ethics come from and on why we are monogamous in our society, but I’ll leave it there for now. Suffice to say, it seems that the definition of infidelity is something personal, something for which couples make their own rules.
Perhaps, then, we could say that it’s only considered cheating if the agreed rules are broken. Each partner has an expectation of the other according to their agreement, and if they are betrayed they feel injured and rejected.
Of course, this article is only the briefest of snapshots into this controversial and provocative issue, and I know that for many of us it is something scary that we’d rather not think about. Much nicer to put our fingers in our ears and ‘tra la la’ with our eyes closed.
But really, it’s something worth thinking about. It’s worth thinking about how it would impact your marriage, how you might deal with it, and (dare I say it) how easy it could be for you to succumb to the charms of an interested party. What are the agreed rules of your relationship?
So if you are considering being unfaithful, perhaps the old adage ‘The grass isn’t always greener’ might be worth remembering. You know what they say:
“If the grass looks greener on the other side: water your own” Good advice I reckon.
(And if the grass on your side stays brown, leave it before you find pastures new. Don’t start watering both lawns at the same time…it rarely ends well)
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