Infidelity is Not Surprising, Nor is it Automatic Evidence of a Bad Relationship or Lack of Love.
The NY Times bestselling book, Sapiens, is one which traces the history and development of humans, from the beginning of their time on Earth, up through the present.
One of the things he writes about in Sapiens is that all of current human life is an imagined construct that we created.
From the use of money to the 40-hour workweek to religion to societal morals and to monogamy as the default relationship model (a fairly new model, believe it or not). All of this, we made it up. It’s utterly invented and imagined.
Think about it, nothing is truly, inherently good or bad until we deem it so.
Without humans ascribing value to something, it is a neutral entity.
Consider diamonds. These are only perceived as special because we’ve decided they are. Ultimately, a diamond is a stone. That’s it. They are valuable because we have created this perception and people bought into it.
We ascribe value or moral meaning to all sorts of things. Killing another person is bad because we say it is. Sex with someone other than our partner is wrong because we’ve decided it is. Calling out of work sick for a mental health day is crappy because we feel guilt based on the societal values and constructs we’ve created about it.
None of these things are actually right or wrong. We have simply decided on them being so.
The same goes for cheating and infidelity too.
Cheating is morally wrong if it violates the agreed-upon boundaries of your relationship. It’s a betrayal in that you’ve gone behind your partners back and damaged the trust in the relationship. This is what makes cheating wrong.
Yet, aside from breaching trust and the perimeteres of your relationship, it isn’t inherently wrong, in and of itself, to have sex with someone other than your main romantic squeeze. On the contrary, this is how humans used to function and live.
Humans originated living in bands of 50–70 ish people. They shared everything in these groups, from food and water, to shelter, hunting duties, childrearing, and yes, sex. There were no issues of jealousy, no possessive sense of ownership. People had intersecting and overlapping relations with one another, several close connections within the group. This was normal.
Monogamy is still a relatively new phenomenon and one that came into play around the agricultural age, with the ownership of land. Men wanted to make sure they had heirs to pass down what they owned. This is part of monogamy. As in, my wife, my kids, we are one family unit and will pass things down within the family. Thus, control and ultimately, patriarchy is also part of it.
Monogamy is also heavily based on religion.
Those two things aside, there is no real, logical, sound basis for it.
(Other than “jealousy” but guess what? People feel jealousy in all kinds of relationships. In monogamous ones, open ones, you name it. So jealousy will always be there and will always be a challenge with which to contend and work through).
While there is nothing wrong with monogamy per se, it is a narrow, as well as “one size fits all” method of doing things, with little flexibility or openness, without much room for the messiness and complexity of human feelings and behavior, nor with much sense of understanding outside of it.
Our culture’s default assumption of monogamy as the “right”, “best”, and “the only way” to have a “truly” loving, committed, good relationship, is a problem, though. It has been since the dawn of monogamy itself.
Here is why.
Consider affairs, mistresses, boredom, and lackluster sex lives, as well as people remaining in stagnant and resigned relationships. Much of this can be at least partially attributed to the closed-off, rigid, constrained functioning (both sexually and emotionally) of our romantic relationships. There tends not to be much freedom or breathing room in our relationships. These can stifle, suffocate, or lead to feeling repressed and cramped.
And this is why affairs and infidelity will always be a thing that humans struggle with.
Because monogamy is hard.
And because it isn’t how the human heart is made to function or how human desire is designed or how our yearnings for connection tend to go.
For a small subset of people, lifelong monogamy truly works, without much struggle or hitch. This is a wonderful thing.
For many, many people, it does not.
And when a person cheats, we automatically demonized it. They “don’t love their partner anymore.” They are a jerk, a terrible person. They are immoral. They are a liar. They are not good. We also decide when someone has cheated, well, that must mean something is “wrong” with their relationship.
Sometimes, one or more of these things is true.
Some people do cheat and they are no longer in love with their partner. Some people cheat and they are a dishonest jerk. Some people cheat and they are not great people. Sometimes, yes, there is something dysfunctional with their relationship which was a puzzle piece with regards to the cheating.
All of this is relative and dependent on the specifics of the situation, though.
You cannot figure this out until you learn details and specifics, about the relationship, and about each person involved. You cannot just “know this” off the bat, on the mere basis that someone cheated.
And yet, some people cheat and they still love their partner deeply. Some people cheat and they are, in fact, good people in heart. Some people cheat and they are not jerks or liars. Many times, someone cheats, and their main relationship is, by and large, a loving and good one.
People cheat for innumerable reasons. Some of which, they might be consciously aware of, and others, they might not even fully understand themselves, since humans have many underlying instincts, desires, and feelings of which they are not always totally aware in every moment.
It might be that they are a liar and get off on the thrill and deceit. It could be that they are no longer into their main relationship and are looking for an escape. It might be that they are unhappy and looking for a reprieve.
It could also be that they are bored. That they are feeling disconnected and lonely from their partner. It might be that their partner cannot fulfill them in one significant sense sexually. It can be a result of them trying to feel more alive in a life that has become routine and merely existing. It could be they are immensely drawn to another interesting, attractive person, which may have nothing to do with their main romantic relationship (since yes, these can be separate things). It might literally have nothing to do with their main partner.
The list of reasons can go on and on.
The human spirit and heart are designed to be drawn to different people. This does not stop because one is within a monogamous relationship. Some might argue this can serve at intensifying this yearning.
While monogamy isn’t bad, just like nothing is good or bad (because we ascribe these labels to everything and make them up), there is much about it that might serve at making things harder.
Monogamy is often tightly confined and restrictive. It is closed off. It can stifle growth and cut us off to other immensely meaningful connections (and ultimately, important growth). It increases the likelihood of monotony and boredom. It can stifle maintaining a hot sex life over time. It can lead to taking our loved one for granted and getting into ruts.
None of these are faults with humans either. None of them indicate there is “something wrong with the relationship.”
Many of them can be caused by the rigid, one-size-fits-all, default system we have in place.
This is not to say that open relationships or polyamory are automatically the answer either. I am not advocating for either monogamy or more open arrangements. Instead, I am merely offering some thoughts on both.
Part of the reason people have affairs in secret, and part of the reason people might leave their romantic partner for someone else, is because they are forced to choose. They are told they cannot have it both ways. In our black and white, either-or construct of monogamy, we are taught, you can only have one or the other. You can have your romantic love or you can leave them to be with someone else. You can have sex with your main partner forever, or, have sex with someone else and likely lose your main love.
This is very unfortunate, and it doesn’t have to be this way.
I imagine this results in many otherwise wonderful relationships ending when they didn’t necessarily have to.
Sometimes, in a largely wonderful, loving, and good relationship, one person steps outside it and has relations with someone else, and then their partner swiftly ends things with hardly a thought otherwise. To me, this can be throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
What if we didn’t have to choose?
What if we could maintain the loving, beautiful, worthwhile relationship with our love and partner while experiencing other significant connections along with way?
What if it didn’t have to be either-or?
If that were the case, I imagine there would be less cheating, way less secrecy, and significantly fewer people leaving their spouse or partner for someone else. They wouldn’t have to. They wouldn’t be forced to choose.
Of course, some people cheat and they are smarmy, low-life, dishonest, and crappy people. Some people cheat and the relationship should be ended by their partner. Sometimes cheating happens and this is one of likely many messages along the way that indicate it’s time for the relationship to conclude.
And then other times, people cheat or infidelity happens, and this is not necessarily the case.
We must stop automatically jumping to the conclusion that anytime someone cheats, they are immoral, they “no longer love their partner,” they are uncommitted, and the relationship is “clearly terrible” as a result. And, we should let go even more so of the rigid death grip we have on monogamy as the default, as the only “right”, “ideal”, or “truly committed” way to have a relationship. It could save a lot of relationships otherwise, if we were able to shift and open our thinking on this, to become more flexible, understanding, and open on this topic.