In a popular TV show I won’t spoil, two characters – one of whom is committed elsewhere — fall in unlikely love and, in a romantic crescendo of delusion, kiss each other through a pane of glass. It couldn’t have been satisfying, and was probably very cold, but it enabled them to remain secure in their logic that they weren’t technically cheating.
You probably know what I mean by “technically cheating,” just as you know what I mean by “emotional cheating.” Our culture is obsessed with these semantics. When I watched the scene, I remember wondering whether the writers of the show meant for it to be a commentary on the absurdity of it all, or whether they really thought a quarter inch of glass made a difference.
In the months since, I’ve been surprised to notice how many modern love stories dance around this same line, as if sexual contact is unquestioningly more serious than everything that precedes it. On the one hand, it’s a paradigm I’m comfortable with. On the other, it feels so old school, doesn’t it, to view sex so ceremoniously? And it feels a little sterile, too, to analyze commitment through the lens of loopholes, as if love were a literal contract instead of an emotional one.
I’d been toying with these ideas for a few months when the topic of cheating came up at dinner with some friends. One guy said he’d come close to kissing women several times in clubs, and felt no obligation to tell his girlfriend, nor did he see it as a problem. I asked him if he thought his girlfriend would care if she knew, and he said she probably would.
“Would she consider that cheating?” I asked.
“I don’t think it really matters because it’s not cheating,” he said. He thinks everyone ought to live by his or her own moral compass, plain and simple. We debated for a while, just for the sake of it, but he ultimately made me firmer in my budding belief that cheating, in general, is under-examined in our culture. Shouldn’t monogamous couples be talking, out loud and to each other, about what it means to them, why it matters, and where their shades of gray exist? Isn’t that so much better than having to debate those bounds in the aftermath of a betrayal?
When my partner and I were deciding whether or not to put a label on our relationship, I remember him saying, “We get to decide what does and doesn’t define a relationship. That’s up to us.” It seemed so obvious, but I’d never thought of it that way. Why had I always accepted, without question, what it meant to be “together,” especially when the realities of that system are so often maligned in the long-run? His framing of our relationship as a mutual, emotional contract that we mapped out together stuck with me.
I used to be very staunch in my belief that “I’d never stay with someone who cheated on me,” but now that hypothetical feels so underdeveloped. Could one word and an associated set of actions possibly encapsulate disloyalty for everyone in the same way?
I don’t have the answer, but I want to open the conversation. Have you had these kinds of conversation with past or current partners? Have you ever played by the semantic rules even when you knew you were betraying someone? Do you think cheating, as a concept, is full of gray or black-and-white?
Illustration by Buyenlarge/Getty Images, collaged by Emily Zirimis.