Inside the Cheating-Industrial Complex

By Maria Padhila

I love advice columns. Even though I am in a state of confusion over my own life most of the time, I have a fantasy about writing an advice column where people would benefit from my great years of wisdom and experience. I could tell you just what to do! And it would be a disaster.

Poly Paradise at Burning Man. Photo by Eric.
Poly Paradise at Burning Man. Photo by Eric.

I read a question the other day where a woman was writing wondering whether she should, as another advice columnist, Dan Savage, puts it, “DTMFA.” That acronym stands not for an unusual sex act but for “Dump the Motherfucker Already.”

Her complaint began with a few paragraphs about how her boyfriend sometimes noticed other women and commented to her on their attractiveness. “I wouldn’t mind tapping that,” was one phrase used.

It wasn’t until the third paragraph that she mentioned, just in passing, that she also didn’t like that he went out drinking every night after work.

So, I know what advice I’d give: you’re really very concerned about a man commenting about how he’s attracted to other women, but you’re just a little bit worried that he’s going out drinking every night?

Let’s survey the possible damages here. In one case, a member of a couple shares an enthusiastic confidence about his feelings and appreciation of beauty. Even if you find his choice of language disrespectful, even if you don’t like to hear things like that and have said so — which you have a perfect right to feel and ask, of course — said expression of feelings is unlikely to cause any permanent physical damage.

On the other hand, getting drunk every night can cause vomit and pee damage to clothing and furniture, possible job loss, poor health, destruction of property, and possible death to oneself and others.

Disrespect versus death. You’re worried about what, again?

Seeing this coincided with Eric giving me some asked-for advice on what to write about this week: why not look at fidelity and polyamory? He pointed out that many think being poly is the same as a license to cheat.

I’m so far away from that way of doing things by now that it seems incredibly odd than anyone would think this way, but the notion of ‘cheating’ is intriguing. It has become such an integral part of our largely monogamous culture that there is a whole cheating-industrial complex. Just look at the side of your gmail screen if you mention the word monogamy. You’ll get ads ranging from a device you can put on a computer keyboard to discover your partner’s every keystroke to reverse lookups for phone numbers to a ‘posh’ website where married and monogamous people can hook up with other allegedly married and monogamous people, AshleyMadison.com.

Apparently, a lot of people are obsessed with fidelity, and a lot of people have figured out how to make money off of this obsession. People are sneaking into each others’ phones and computers and cars just to check up on each other — committing all kinds of violations in the hope — and it seems like a hope, rather than a fear — of ‘catching’ someone in a violation.

In Britain of the 18th century (check your Fielding if you don’t believe me) “the cheat” was slang for the gallows. “Cheating the cheat” meant you got away with it. It looks like many folks are getting enough rope to hang themselves, or at least to tie themselves up in knots, and not in a fun or responsible way. No safe words there — just a lot of anger and blame.

The trouble is, in some relationships, it appears people are heavily invested in their partner never telling them the truth, whether that truth is that they find the guy next door attractive or what they want in bed or even that they don’t understand this charge on the credit card.

Why would you ever want to be honest and come forward to someone about a drinking problem when that person won’t even listen to you talk about sex — and they’re supposed to be your girlfriend? If you’re in a place where you’re going all MacGyver trying to catch your guy in the act, are you really going to believe anything he says anyway? Isn’t it all just too far gone by then? And isn’t the problem as much with you as with him or with the relationship?

Poly, apparently, slips the noose. No way to make money off someone who is perfectly happy if his or her loved one flirts online or drives over to another’s home. Maybe if someone could invent a truly good and useful calendar function, there would be some money in it.

However, I’ve seen on several forums and in discussions that poly people are just as happy to point fingers and tsk and shame when someone is ‘caught’. When someone proposes going poly AFTER already starting an affair or falling in love, they come in for a lot of anger and blame. “You’re just a cheater!” “That’s not the way you do poly!”

Those kinds of things could be said to me — I started falling in love with someone else while still in love; for years before that, I hid the reality of who I was and what I wanted even from myself. Even when I was ‘dating’ several people at once and they all knew the deal, it was seen as me being free and playing the field, not my being faithful to two or three people at once. That kind of thing happens. The implosion of a monogamous relationship is painful but sometimes a step on the way to a more honest poly one.

I searched around and found two pieces of wisdom on ‘cheating’ to share. One is from the Poly Skeptic blog. (There appear to be a lot of polyamorous skeptics, and I’m not a skeptic but I often find their thinking interesting and enlightening. This blogger is a particularly clear and honest writer.) The other is from Mystic Life of the Spiritual Polyamory website. They come to similar conclusions — go figure!

Poly Skeptic tells the story of how he cheated on his girlfriend and felt guilt over being dishonest, but didn’t feel bad at all about his penis being in another place. I’d recommend reading the whole post, but here’s the flavor:

I violated an important trust. I had sex with another woman while in a monogamous relationship, and after having done so all I could think about was how happy I was with my girlfriend, how much I loved her, and how much I still wanted to be with her. I also thought about how in an ideal world I would continue to see that other girl. … But there was no deep feeling of having done something inherently wrong; no feeling that sex with another person while in a relationship was always wrong, just wrong when done in this way. [Emphasis mine.]

In fact, later on she did something rather similar with a male friend of hers while visiting home and did disclose it to me immediately. And it was fine.

It was fine because in my mind I was already willing to share. I was already geared to have that conversation. I had already stopped thinking about her as being exclusively mine. I would love her whether she was with other men (or women) or not. I loved her because I loved her, not because she loved only me. … And I understood that in that moment I should have disclosed the act, but didn’t. I rationalized all sorts of reasons why it was better to keep it secret. I get that even if it didn’t change how I felt or that it really should not matter, I should have disclosed. … So yes, cheating is a violation of trust. But it is not the act, the sex, that does the damage. The damage is the violation of trust. That was a distinction I learned that day, and have never forgotten.

And for the spiritual viewpoint, again, I’d recommend a visit to the full article, published in February in Loving More, and on their website.

I’m not sure I agree with all his generalizations about monogamy, but the concept rings pretty true to me.

We are socialized to believe that it is more justified to attempt to shame another person into a state where they suppress their feelings, which often leads to cheating. Many monogamous relationships involve some form of cheating in an attempt to experience freedom and diversity, while not allowing one’s partner the same options. Of course, this attempted ‘solution’ to jealousy results in a lack of integrity, and (in my opinion, and experience) results in bad karma by taking away a partner’s ability to choose whether or not they would stay in a relationship if they knew the truth.

This has resulted in a world where many monogamous people are much more well known by their friends than their partner. Their friends often get to hear about all of their feelings, including attraction to other people, while their partner gets a filtered, non-threatening version of who they are. This is not to say that there are no human beings who honestly feel romantically attracted to only one person. It is to say that there are millions, if not billions, of people who experience a tremendous amount of inner conflict regarding monogamy.

4 thoughts on “Inside the Cheating-Industrial Complex

  1. Poly Skeptic is great. “I loved her because I loved her, not because she loved only me” – yes, wonderful to be able to love like that… (am working on it).

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