Whenever I tell anyone the story of the time that I cheated on a boyfriend, I preface it with the phase "I'm not proud of this." I don't do it on purpose — it's a tick, like saying "excuse me" when you're passing through a crowd. And recently, I've been thinking about how weird this is.
Of course I'm not proud of having cheated —in our monogamy-obsessed culture, it's basically the equivalent of saying "I'm not proud of this" before you tell a story about how you once ate an entire roll of toilet paper to win a bet. Cheating is profoundly taboo in our country — so much so that, according to a 2013 Gallup poll, Americans think cheating is less morally acceptable than doctor-assisted suicide, polygamy, and the death penalty. So it makes some sense that many people view the estimated 20 percent of men and 13 percent of women who have cheated on a spouse as basically the sexual equivalent of The Joker in The Dark Knight — amoral, pure id, and totally unconcerned with the consequences; we just want to watch the world burn. In reality, most of us who find ourselves cheating are confused and ashamed. According to Mira Kirshenbaum, author of When Good People Have Affairs, talking to Time, the majority of the people she works with didn't plan their infidelities: "People say, 'I never meant for this to happen.' They're being honest when they say that."
I know I didn't mean for it to happen. Growing up, I heard my divorced mom and her similarly divorced friends trade field notes about a mysterious creature called "the cheating bastard" — a callous, cold-hearted man with philandering in his DNA, who only felt joy when he was using his dick to humiliate women who cared about him. I wondered how these women had been dumb enough to get involved with this kind of guy — couldn't they tell what he was like when they met him?
As I got older, I imagined a wild, bohemian adulthood, full of passionate love affairs and, possibly, some ill-thought-out quickie marriages — but I never imagined that I, or anyone I could possibly care about, could cheat. Who would do something so sleazy and gross? I remained confident in this belief as I began my first romantic relationship, too. My high school boyfriend and I were together for five mostly-unhappy years; we came from deeply dysfunctional families, jumped in with both feet immediately, and though we realized fairly quickly that we could kind of barely tolerate each other, we just couldn't figure out how to break up.
I had no separate self left. The idea of just dumping him, the way you'd end a normal relationship, seemed as realistic as cutting off your arm and throwing it in a ditch because it was too itchy.
That was, until a year into college, when my boyfriend discovered the nuclear option: he cheated. He did so in a notably humiliating way (he moved in with another woman while I was visiting my grandparents in Florida, leaving me to discover this on my own), but looking back now, we were just immature. We had both tried to turn plenty of small fights into breakups, but in the end, it was only by cheating that he was finally able to cut the tie (yes, I tried to make him get back together with me; thank god it didn't work).
For years, mostly I saw myself as a victim; in occasional clear-eyed moments, I saw that we were dumb kids who had both made mistakes. I was positive that anything I had learned from my high school dating life — much like knowing geometry or being able to speak knowledgeably about Ethan Fromme — would never be applicable in adulthood.
This thinking worked fine for a while, until I found myself on the other end of the equation: I got involved in an extremely tempestuous relationship six or seven years later with a man who, depending on the day, I thought was either my soulmate or my karmic punishment for every horrible thing I had done in my life. We adored each other; we also had constant brutal fights that built into furious, noisy hurricanes, with me screaming myself hoarse and him giving me the silent treatment.
I had no idea what to do. I felt like we had merged completely. I had no separate self left. The idea of just dumping him, the way you'd end a normal relationship, seemed as realistic as cutting off your arm and throwing it in a ditch because it was too itchy. I thought I'd die without him, and I also thought there was a pretty decent chance I'd die with him. I felt paralyzed.
And so, when I met a handsome man at an art gallery opening who didn't seem deterred when he found out I had a boyfriend, I suddenly knew what my ex had felt. It was simpler to be the villain than to try to flay open the body of our relationship and try to explain how it had grown sick and died. It would be easier to just accept my boyfriend's hatred than to live through the pain of discussing how unhappy our relationship made me, and potentially hearing about how unhappy I made him.
On a subconscious level, I had sought him out so he would blow open a door inside me, remind me that I still had the power of choice in life, even if I used it to make really terrible choices that made me feel bad. If I could make choices that hurt me, I could make choices that helped me, too.
So I cheated. Over the course of a few months, whenever my boyfriend was away, I slept with this guy. A lot. When we were together, in the moment, I was happy, and wondered if we could really have a future together. Having our relationship be a secret gave it an intensity and unreality that felt like a drug, an intensity that I occasionally rounded up to love. With him, I didn't feel the way I usually did — like some shitty harpy of a woman, prematurely trapped in a relationship that had somehow become a mirror image of my parents' miserable marriage. I felt light, happy, carefree. When we went out to dinner one night, an older couple stopped by our table and told us that looking at how in love we were made them feel happy. They bought us a round of drinks. I thought, those people would lose their minds if they knew the truth. I thought, why can I only feel the way everyone tells me I'm supposed to feel when I'm lying?
When I was back with my boyfriend, I felt like a monster. I couldn't understand why I had done this to him. He already thought I was just a bitch, but I knew I was something much worse. I was a cheater now. I had the mark on me. I felt outside my body when we had sex, and teary and emotionally unpredictable the rest of the time (which, to be fair, wasn't that different from how I acted in general at this point in my life). I fantasized about moving to a new place where neither of them could find me — or anyone else, for that matter. I sometimes wondered if I deserved to live.
But even as I was in the throes of freaking out, I knew that this whole thing was about much more than the guy I cheated with — taking his number of out of my phone or defriending him wouldn't do anything. On a subconscious level, I had sought him out so he would blow open a door inside me, remind me that I still had the power of choice in life, even if I used it to make really terrible choices that made me feel bad. If I could make choices that hurt me, I could make choices that helped me, too. Like ending my relationship.
Unlike my past boyfriend, I didn't use my brief affair as "the nuclear option," but I did use the sense of separation that the affair gave me to eventually end things. Breaking up with him was exactly as messy and difficult as I had imagined it would be, but my affair served as ballast, reminding me that I had a separate self, that my boyfriend wasn't in charge of every single thing in my life. If I had been healthier at the time, I could have gotten that sense from taking up a hobby or by meeting new friends. I would never argue that cheating is a choice that a healthy person makes. But it is not only a choice that an evil person makes.
In case you're wondering: no, I haven't cheated since. This isn't to say that I have not been attracted — sometimes extremely attracted — to men who weren't my partner since. But my experience made me realize that for me, cheating had nothing to do with sex or desire; it had to do with feeling lost and worthless. And the only reason my affair caught me off-guard was because I had never been taught about infidelity that way. I had been taught that it was about people being powerless to fight their basest animal instincts.
But I've never had a problem fighting my basest instincts — or, honestly, all of my instincts, even when they were trying to alert me to trouble or danger. What I had felt helpless about when I cheated was my ability to exist outside of a poisonous relationship. Sexual self-restraint hasn't kept me from cheating again; taking care to only get seriously involved in relationships that are mutually respectful has.
Of course, this isn't to say that my story is necessarily representative of all or even most people who've cheated. Some cheaters will cheat again — according to a 2014 study conducted by a graduate student at the University of Denver, people who stray once are 3.5 times more likely to cheat again. It's obviously not my place to dispute that fact. But I will dispute the idea — propagated by article titles like "8 Things You Didn't Know About Cheaters," "9 Signs He's Not A Cheater,""6 Things You Didn't Know About Cheaters, According To Science," the reality TV show Cheaters, even the saying "once a cheater, always a cheater" — that cheaters are some kind of alien species, a creature apart from the rest of humanity. We're not. Many of us are regular people who were just too immature or damaged or scared to know how to say "Here are the things that aren't working for me" or "I want out." We let the taboo do the heavy lifting for us.
Licensed psychologist Dr. Erika Martinez tells Bustle that we tend to think of cheating as something that "other people" do because "defense mechanisms are at play — mostly projection ... Owning those thoughts and feelings are incongruent with [our] self-perception, which causes a lot anxiety...So [we] attribute it to another person rather than facing the anxiety head on to gain insight and integrate into a new, evolved self-concept." Dr. Janna Koretz, licensed psychologist and founder of Azimuth Psychological, tells me that, "Cheating is a loaded topic in part because it brings up incredibly painful emotions for people, such as rejection, low self worth, and abandonment ... So, regardless of what we logically know about cheating and what it does or doesn't mean, our emotional brain takes over and we want to distance ourselves from the prospect of being cheated on to the greatest extent possible."
In an ideal world, we'd all know how to talk about our feelings, and we wouldn't see all-enveloping, sometimes-suffocating love as the only romantic ideal worth reaching for. But this is the world we live in, and people aren't perfect. Not all people who have ever cheated are "cheaters," monsters who have descended upon our world to wreak havoc with their loose morals and thrilling genitals. I'm not saying that you have to respect my reasons for cheating, or the reasons of any other past, present, or future cheater. But you should know that we have them.
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Images: Gabrielle Moss