The dust is just now settling on the Tristan Thompson cheating scandal. You know the one: Cameras caught Thompson running around on girlfriend Khloé Kardashian with multiple women mere moments before she was set to give birth to their daughter, True.
In the immediate aftermath of the scandal, it seemed like everyone had the same opinion: She’s gotta leave him. My best friend and I exchanged new evidence for this course of action constantly over the next few days: The Cleveland Cavaliers’ hometown crowd booed one of its own when Thompson stepped on court for his first game after the very public spectacle unfolded; the Kardashians are reportedly no longer fond of Thompson; and Kim recently unfollowed him on Instagram. But I was so caught up in passing judgment on the situation, especially when it appeared Khloé would stay with him (!), that I hadn’t even considered that the decision might not be black and white. That is, until Cardi B spoke some truth.
Right after the scandal, Cardi B appeared on a radio show to promote her new album. The host asked her if she had any words of wisdom to impart for Khloé — after all, Cardi B had just weathered a cheating scandal of her own with fiancé Offset, and, like Khloé, she was about to become a new mother. Cardi B’s words for Khloé were wise: “Do what your heart feel like doing,” she said. “At the end of the day, everybody wanna act like they date deacons and pastors and their relationship is perfect… You don’t know what type of things going on in their relationship… Let them work things out.”
It can be easy to categorize relationship decisions as right or wrong. Good or bad. Wise or foolish. But although I was once a girl hung up on rules like these, and then a woman overly concerned with how I should behave in relationships, I’ve come to an uncomfortable truth: Relationships are an almost entirely gray area, full of mistakes and forgiveness, built on learning, hard choices and, often, making decisions no one else understands.
I’ve met women who have seemingly safe and stable relationships. These couples are often held up as examples by dating coaches (and moms), and they’re the ones who can say that “what they heard was true:” “When it’s right, it’s easy” or, “Wait for the one who loves you more.” But for every woman with a seemingly seamless love, I’ve met one walking a different path. Sometimes, these other women have one person they just can’t quit. Sometimes they “stay” when everyone tells them they should leave. These women make controversial, frequently unpopular choices. But in the end, as long as they’re safe and in control of their situation, who can say they’re wrong? Not all love is a straight line.
I once interviewed a married woman in her mid-thirties who told me about her decision to stay in a relationship many others questioned. Why? It was simple, she told me: because she wanted to. She’d just come off of a divorce where she did everything “right.” She’d married the man “who loved her more,” the pursuer type who wouldn’t let her say no. She swore she’d never marry again. “I was so disappointed the first time,” she told me.
But then she met the guy who other people didn’t like. He wouldn’t label their relationship. He was her boss. The relationship had hair on it. But she stayed. “We are best friends,” she said. “He listens to me, without judgment, and doesn’t look down on me. He pushes me to be better and to grow, but still respects me for me.” He is far different than the guy who wouldn’t let her say no and much closer to her personal ideal. More problem-plagued on the surface, but, to her, a much better fit.
One of my good friends stayed in a situation not dissimilar to Khloé’s, where infidelity was an early problem. Many told her to leave, but she stayed. And over the course of a couple years, I’ve watched the relationship stabilize. I can see that she fought for them, and so did he. She committed to showing him the meaning of true partnership, one where you don’t get to check out or leave. He responded to it, and I’ve never seen them happier.
Of course, there’s a time and place to listen to others — especially when friends and family see sides of your partner that you cannot. Sometimes when you’re in the middle of a toxic relationship, love can skew your perspective enough to miss deep incompatibilities or character flaws. Several outside voices with the same observations can give you insights into the strength and viability of your relationship.
But sometimes you can see someone, flaws and all, and choose to carry on. I have several friends — in their twenties, thirties and forties respectively — who “stayed” despite commitment-phobia, trouble with labels and not wanting to settle down too soon after a divorce. All were told to leave by friends and family; they saw rocky, frustrating beginnings with arguments and breakups peppered in. But they also saw something in the other they truly wanted. And they’re all now married.
When I was writing my book on relationships, I meditated on a lot of psychologists’ work, past and present. I was especially drawn to theories and ideas that seemed to jive with trends I’ve witnessed IRL, and one such theme was women who shirked the rules and chose complicated love. In Esther Perel’s latest book about infidelity, she notes that the old relationship establishments don’t apply for many modern couples.
“Strange as it may seem, affairs have a lot to teach us about marriage—what we expect, what we think we want, and what we feel entitled to,” she writes. “Often when a couple comes to me in the wake of an affair, it is clear to me that their first marriage is over. So I ask them: Would you like to create a second one together?” She claims how we “metabolize transgressions” may “determine the quality of our future connections.” Is perhaps choice what defines love better than perfection?
Psychologist Abraham Maslow studied personal growth in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. He found that people who exhibit growth have important and similar characteristics, like the ability to be unpopular if their choices do not align with majority opinion, as well as listening to their own inner voice instead of adopting the views of tradition, authority or the general public. In the context of relationships, I see this frequently: Some make choices others told them not to make — never for shock value, but because they believed it was right for them. Because they wanted to.
I don’t know what decision Khloé will make for love, and I’d never condone Tristan Thompson’s behavior in the context of a monogamous relationship. But I’m not going to pretend to understand what’s best for her, either. The choice to love or not is hers. The choice is also yours, and mine.
Ultimately, I believe in Cardi B’s simple advice: Do what your heart feels like doing. In a universe with no “shoulds” or “right ways” or rules, with a backdrop colored in shades of gray, sometimes the heart knows the path best of all.
Feature photo by John Parra/Telemundo/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images.