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From the mailbag: Once a cheater, always a cheater?

You do like the tough ones, don't you? Thanks for this one.

I've written about cheating before, less than a year ago, in fact. Summary of that post: I do not support, encourage, facilitate or condone infidelity; people cheat for various and sundry reasons; often they're unaware of why they do it; and believe it or not, a majority of cheaters of both genders consider their partnership to be a generally happy one.

That last is probably tough for most people to believe. But it's true: in many cases, people are not actually looking to hurt their partner when they have an affair. They're looking to get a need met.

Now, that need is by definition selfish when it involves deceiving your partner. And the selfishness is (of course) the overwhelming focus of the deceived when the affair is found out. The need is often completely ignored.

I have some limited sympathy for cheaters, having been one myself. But it's limited. Cheating is (by definition, again) selfish; and because it is selfish it is (by definition) immature. I try not to judge people for being the saying goes,


The process of maturity involves

(a) realizing you did something wrong;
(b) owning up to the wrong thing you did and accepting any consequences thereto;
(c) making a sincere and honest effort to determine why you did wrong, so that you won't do it again;
(d) not doing it again, to the person you wronged or to anyone else

My sympathy evaporates to nothing for people who will not engage in this process...or who, having engaged in the process, are unwilling to see it through. People who deliberately hurt others, and who have no problem doing so...I don't have time or energy for people like that in my life.

Now, here's where the tightrope gets a little frayed. And there's no safety net down there, so watch carefully as I tiptoe through this part...or go splat on my face.

I am convinced that many cheaters are actually poly.

Jesus, it's windy up here, and who greased this damn tightrope?

Many, not all or even most. And anyone using polyamory as an excuse for cheating ought to be hung by their genitalia until further notice, which may or may not ever come.

But consider: it's a socially mandated given that once you've partnered up, the part of your brain that finds other people mate-worthy automagically shuts off. Because, you know, out of seven billion people on earth, you found your soulmate....amazing, how she just happened to work with you, or you just happened to meet in a park. What ARE the odds against that, I wonder. Never mind.  I can't help it: I find the scarcity model of love completely ridiculous, and if it means I fall off the tightrope here and now, no worries, I plan on landing in a big cushy pile of abundant love.

But if you still see me up here, wobbling, permit me to take another step.

Now, suppose you've partnered up, and one or three or six or thirty years down the line you suddenly feel that part of you waking up again. What's your reaction?

Probably a species of horror. This isn't supposed to happen. And yet here it is, happening. What happens next? Do I even want to know?

Often, horror is its own imperative. You may think you're scared, but you're also curious. You want to touch the shape under the covers. Yes. You do. You can feel it pulling at you. You try to resist, and if you are good and strong and upright and walk in the light, you succeed, and stride out of the dark room and go on living the life of the just. But if you allow that shape into your mind, it has a way of permeating your life, until you creep back into the room where it waits and you reach under the cover and touch it there...and there...and especially THERE.


First-time looming infidelity can indeed feel a little like you're in a horror movie. You've surrendered logic and even a degree of sanity and you've turned over control of your body to something that does not have your best interests at heart. And it's going to take you places. In the dark.

Before it does, or maybe after it does, there's a mad rush for meaning. What does it mean, this desire for another? Does it mean I don't really love my partner? Does it mean there's something wrong with our relationship? Does it mean there's something wrong with ME?

Probably not. Possibly not. Definitely not.

Assuming you haven't succumbed, the question then becomes what to do about this impossible desire. Within the confines of what society deems correct, you now have three options.

You can stomp on that desire until it dies. This is ethical, avoids hurting anyone (except maybe yourself) and it reasserts normality with a thud. Love is scarce, damn it. There's no such thing as shapes under the covers, and if there are such things, I'm not going to let them in.

Breaking up with a partner over an attraction is extreme, but we all know serial monogamists who do just that, addicted to the thrill of the chase and never satisfied with the catch. This, to my mind at least, is actually a form of infidelity. It's a bait and switch relationship: Now that I've won you over, I'm going to throw you away. You thought you were getting me, you're not, ergo I cheated you even if I didn't cheat ON you.

The third option...well, I'll say this for cheating. It has the illusion of security about it. You figure  hey, I can do this without throwing my life away over it, and if it doesn't work out, he'll never be any the wiser.
An illusion is all it is, of course. But illusions can be convincing. Ask anyone in a desert (and many would-be cheaters feel, on some level, that they're trudging through some sort of desert).

Those are your options under the scarcity model of love. For a fourth option you have to throw away that scarcity model root and branch and adopt an abundance model in its place. But many people haven't considered that abundance model--it's not exactly something that has much exposure, even now--and so they're stuck with the framework they know.

More than half of all cheaters say there's nothing seriously wrong with their marital relationships. Society's narrative suggests they're delusional. What if at least some of them are telling the truth? It suggests to me that some version of ethical non-monogamy is a potential solution for such people. If it's sex they're after,  an open relationship may work. If there are lots of feelings swishing around being all lovey-dovey, then that's polyamory.  Here's the hard part: talking to their partners about it. AHEAD OF TIME.

You have to be prepared for your partner to bolt the instant you bring this up. That's why so many would rather simply cheat and take their chances.  And pro tip: don't, DON'T, DON'T have a partner in mind when you first discuss the possibility. Or the probability of your partner going poof approaches one hundred percent.

Luckily, Ken has a single simple question that will determine once and for all whether you could be poly.


Loving more than one is easy. Letting your lover(s) do the same is harder, and for some, impossible. Even some poly people have trouble with this (see: one penis policy, hypocrisy of). Speaking for myself, I learned how to share in kindergarten, but...

Sorry. I really don't mean to be condescending. It's just that after you've lived this way for a while, it can be hard to even remember that most of the rest of the world doesn't. You find yourself turning off romantic comedies in disgust, suddenly remembering that at the end there's going to be one disappointed party who will turn out to have been nothing more than a plot device all along, a device meant to bring the happy couple together. Certainly not a real human being with feelings of his own. You hear people at work wishing their husbands would just take up rock-climbing the way they have and you actually have to slam your mouth shut before you can ever-so-unhelpfully suggest they find a rock-climbing boyfriend.

Polyamory. It actually is a way of seeing the world.

Okay, I'm going to put the poly away now. You're not poly, but you're thinking of cheating, or you have cheated.

Well, let's follow society's narrative. IS there something wrong within your relationship? Are you not being satisfied in some way?  Is your sex life good? Are you getting the right amount of sex, in the right style? How about emotional validation? Do you feel loved, cherished, respected, valued?  Whether the answers are yes or no, do you talk about them?

Are you sure about that? Most people don't, you know. They think they do, but they really don't. "Honey, are you okay? -- "Yeah, I'm fine" is not a relationship talk. Men stereotypically hate these talks, but believe me, men, you'll hate the consequences of silence much more.

What would your partner say if you said "you know, sweetie, I'm finding myself fantasizing about Oliver from work." Would she believe there's something wrong with you, with her, or with your relationship? Or would he laugh it off, and say "dream away, but do me the courtesy of not acting on it"? Scrub "fantasizing" and substitute "falling in love with". Does your partner's reaction change? (Sorry if you find the mixmastering of pronouns confusing: I always try to be inclusive in these blogs).

YOU NEED TO FIND THIS OUT. Nobody can know for sure before it happens how they're going to react, but you can and should talk about it in the abstract. Because odds are it WILL happen sooner or later, for both of you. That switch only really does turn off in the most devoutly monogamous people...and devoutly monogamous people are not as common as we'd like to think they are.

Are you bored? We dismiss boredom as a trivial thing, but it can be fatal to relationships, especially those founded on a high degree of excitement, and infidelity is often a product of marital ennui. The answer is to talk about it. Maybe you can spice things up. Maybe you can't, and it's time to move on--that's almost as provocative as polyamory, the notion that longevity of a relationship is no guarantor of that relationship's success). Regardless: use your words.

Once a cheater, always a cheater? Like so many other things in this world, it depends.

This post first appeared on The Breadbin, please read the originial post: here

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From the mailbag: Once a cheater, always a cheater?


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