The Real Deal on Infidelity

Few kinds of sex go as misunderstood as adultery. In movies, cheating couples wind up in bad shape–killed, shamed, degraded, villainized, dismembered (Saw IV, I think?). The same happens in real life, with the hopeful exception of dismemberment, though you never know…

When Ashley Madison, the hookup site for married people with 37 million registered users, got hacked back in 2015, I was one of the first people to crack jokes about it. Almost nobody expressed sympathy for the victims. A couple of writers warned us of the implications: Do we want a group of moralist hackers deciding what’s right and wrong and taking it upon themselves to dox those they find morally reprehensible? What about my dachshund fetish? I’m just kidding. Don’t hack my phone in search of dachshund nudes. You’ll just find my dead body dump.

Most of us automatically assumed every single one of those people at Ashley Madison was a piece of shit worthy of public ridicule and shame. Oh, how long it’s taken me to realize I’m not “better” than them. Admittedly, using social media to cheat on a spouse seems a little tasteless. But life gets way more complicated than movies and news sites like to admit.

True, I have a problem with a site that profits off the premeditated decision to cheat on a spouse. Of course, I also strongly believe in not meddling with other people’s business. Maybe adultery receives so much ridicule because it’s so common. According to NPR, 20 percent of Americans cheat on a spouse at some point–21 percent of men and 19 percent of women. In fact, 41 percent of men and 28 percent of women have at least considered adultery. So stop and think before you get all Judge Judy on your friends.

We try to distance ourselves from the truth, pointing at others rather than asking the tough question: Are we really that moral, or do we just happen to somehow avoid the circumstances that would make cheating easy? Statistics also say that factors like performance anxiety and openness to adventure and spontaneity play a much bigger role than religious or ethical principles.

Aristotle said we’re only as ethical as our environment allows us to be. Heath Ledger stole that line and used it in Dark Knight. Same idea, though.

It’s a little unsettling to wonder if at least some of the people who don’t cheat are chaste only because infidelity is too hard to pull off. Think about it. An affair would take a lot of work, and most of us are lazy. We’re lucky if we get to the gym.

I’ve slept with three married men in my life for different reasons. I’m not sure I’d call it cheating. Two of them were married but separated. One of them was gearing up for a divorce. We met at a conference, and he engaged in a concentrated pursuit that resulted in us kissing in an art gallery around midnight. (I don’t remember quite how we got there.) That led to his bedroom, and I distinctly remember it bothering me that he could make love with the TV going in the background. We even argued about it a little. Shawn Hannity is such a turnoff.

We texted each other every now and then over the next few months. Then we met up at another conference. By then, he had initiated his divorce. We had some great sex. Hotel sex is my favorite, because the sheets are so fluffy and smooth, and everything’s different. We wound up having flings at three different conferences before he met his next love. He didn’t cheat on her, and I didn’t try to break them up. See? I’m such a good person.

My longest affair happened with a guy involved in a messy Catholic divorce. They couldn’t finalize the paperwork until a year of separation, during which we had to exercise caution about where and how we were seen together. The need for discretion excited me a little, knowing I was his secret lover, someone whispered about by his friends and family. It all made me feel very sophisticated and mysterious.

I’ve meditated a little on the difference between cheating on your own spouse and sleeping with a cheater. Sleeping with cheaters usually doesn’t work out, for self-evident reasons. It’s only a matter of time before he’s cheating on you. Still, with the right attitude, those can still be fun lessons to learn the hard way. Half my relationships in college started with me stealing someone’s boyfriend. And I wondered why so few people liked me…

Anyway, for the record, I used to not classify myself as a good person. I’m better now. I take other people into consideration in my decision making these days.

No matter how awful I was on that side, though, I’ve never cheated on anyone I was dating myself. The closest happened when a friend from graduate school drunk-dialed me and confessed his feelings, which made me reevaluate my entire existence. I think I told a friend something like, “I never knew I could have someone like him! You know, a genuine 10!” and two days later I promptly dumped my boyfriend of a year.

In my defense, my longterm relationship at the time wasn’t going well anyway–part of my larger epiphany about what I could accomplish and what I deserved. For instance, he wanted to be a doctor but had failed two of his Biology courses in college. Instead of going to med school, he’d just floated around for a couple years before I met him–stringing together part-time jobs and watching House, MD or Grey’s Anatomy. He was quite attractive, and our personalities meshed, but sometimes that’s just not enough.

In some ways, he cheated on me much more than me him. His parents encouraged him to date “other girls” while he was seeing me. He kept assuring me it was just for show. These “coffee dates” sent me into a silent rage each time. I even met one of them once, at his birthday party, where she kissed him on the cheek around cake time and smirked at me. I could’ve dug her smug eyes out with coffee spoons.

A friend of mine has the most legit adultery experience I’ve ever heard. Her husband sought and procured the friendship of an attractive blond a year into their marriage. They went on cruises together when she couldn’t take vacation time, formed their own social circle that exploited her work schedule, all while my friend said it wasn’t cool. He kept saying it was fine, the blond was just a friend. What happened? He and the blond fell in love, and he filed for divorce. Admittedly, it’s easy to define myself against this asshole. See how much worse he is than me? But that’s a cop out. The real problem isn’t that he cheated, but that he was such a coward about it. He blamed her for the affair and never owned his decisions.

So in the end, adultery is no black and white issue. What we consider cheating often depends on perspective and circumstances.  A good piece of advice: trust your own moral compass. Don’t lie to yourself. If you think you’re doing something wrong or dishonest, chances are you’re right.




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