Most of us have a fetishistic response to cheating: we either find it so morally reprehensible that we can't look away, or we're drawn to it as the last relationship taboo. While there are some critical of the way cheating is viewed in America, more often than not, we hear cautionary, moralistic tales about the evil cheater and the innocent victim. Take any classic film about infidelity, from Unfaithful to Fatal Attraction, and it's clear that nuance has no place in our narratives about adultery. The male or female cheater causes destruction (and even death) because of their unbridled desire, and their loved ones are left to suffer from their selfish choices.
As someone who's been both a victim and a perpetrator, I have actually seen how cheating can result in an improved love life, and how it can irreparably destroy a relationship. My experiences with infidelity led me to leave strictly monogamous relationships behind, in part because I find monogamy ill-suited to my personality, and in part to avoid the fallout from traditional two-person commitments, which, for me, encouraged resentment and cheating. Granted, certain people will never be comfortable with any talk of "affairs" — particularly if their beliefs are structured by a monotheistic religion or if they're just the one-on-one kind. To those types, I will come off as an immoral jerk when I try to put a positive spin on cheating, but to others who are game to explore how our culture of monogamy can be sexually stifling and how instances of cheating can lead to personal growth, here are five ways that I've found infidelity was good for me and my relationships. They've made me the satisfied practitioner of consensual non-monogamy that I am today.
1. The Pre-Breakup Hookup
I've been in a few relationships where we both knew it wasn't going to last. Whether we were looking for different things, weren't sexually compatible, or were kind of bored with each other, a breakup was imminent. Enter the pre-breakup hookup.
In my early twenties, I had been in a dead-end relationship for what seemed like forever. I was planning to break up with the guy any day, but hadn't been able to pull the trigger. One night, while out with friends, I discovered a certain guy I had been eyeing was into me, but wasn't looking for anything serious. At that moment, the decision loomed before me: wait to wade through the messy emotional fallout, or dive in head first with the new guy to see how it might feel. I chose the latter, knowing full well I was never going to sleep with my significant other again (and wanting some sign that it was time to move on).
After a night that renewed my faith in my sexuality (I had been withering under the weight of my relationship's sex drought), I knew what to do. I went home after work and told my boyfriend exactly how I felt about "us" and we ended things with a sharp finality.
I understand that I broke the monogamous relationship contract (a type of contract into which I now refuse to enter) by overlapping my attentions, but I also know that the experience helped me to gain a fresh perspective and the drive to get the hell out of my sour relationship.
2. Being Cheated On In High School
High school is the perfect place to learn about heartbreak. If you were cheated on during this fragile and formative time, count yourself lucky. It was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me, relationship-wise. After my boyfriend cheated, I learned that things are not always what they seem, that cheating isn't an indicator you are personally lacking, and that a "good" guy you care about can still have other interests that lead him to other vaginas. We loved each other, but that wasn't the point. Most of the time, cheating isn't about love.
Although I cried my eyes out when it all went down, I am so glad it didn't happen for the first time at 35 with two kids and a mortgage. Infidelity is a fact of life, perhaps because most of America thinks of monogamy as the defining terms and conditions of a romantic entanglement. If I hadn't been cheated on, I wouldn't have become aware of the ways monogamy can police and pervert our natural, healthy desires.
Being cheated on in high school helped every single one of my subsequent relationships. It shattered the unrealistic "one soulmate happily-ever-after" ideal we are force fed as females. That doesn't mean I don't believe in love and commitment, but not according to the rules of patriarchy, where men are too often given a pass for sexual indiscretions because of their "animal" natures, while women are expected to live according to some higher moral standard.
3. Hooking Up With A Married Guy (Accidentally)
As a lady about town (read: sexually empowered woman), I've had my share of hookups where I didn't know too much about the gentleman in question. While I prefer having a safety net of friends or acquaintances in common, sometimes you can't resist a little strange. One evening I went back to an older man's hotel room where he was staying on a business trip. Midway through "hanging out," something made me blurt, "are you married?" I'm not sure why I said it, but he stopped dead in his tracks and said, "yes."
What followed was a very honest conversation about his marriage, his children, and how he and his wife loved each other and their family but weren't too excited about having sex regularly. He spoke about his situation so respectfully and thoughtfully that it was actually kinda sweet. What I learned from this admittedly unique encounter was that it's not always so cut and dry. It's not about the bad husband or wife and their pathetic spouse. In a perfect world, they would have an arrangement where she could have a fling of her own while he was away and they'd reunite and somehow it would all be renewed. Even if that's merely wishful thinking, our indiscretion couldn't discredit all they had together.
4. Cheating When You're Not Sure If You're Cheating
Striving to be sexually enlightened isn't always easy. I've been in relationships with open-minded guys who said they'd be down for a little side action in theory, but we never got around to figuring it out in practice. Monogamy wasn't on the table, but we weren't polyamorous either. This is when hooking up with someone else really tests your bond.
After a great year together, the guy I was dating happened to be out of town. I was out at a club and ran into another guy I had slept with years before. It had been a while since I felt that illicit spark with someone else, so I decided to go for it. I was nervous, worrying that I broke some rule that we had never explicitly agreed to, but happy I had followed my own pleasure instead of subsuming my desires in the name of some idea of some unspoken "ownership."
When I finally called my significant other and told him, it turned out it was the best thing I could have done. He was overjoyed that I was stoking the flames of my own fire while he was gone instead of mindlessly watching TV and gorging on Wendy's (not that those things are mutually exclusive). When he came back, we had the best sex we'd had, EVER. My lesson from this? Listen to your libido. Contrary to what our culture teaches women, sex will not always lead you down the road to ruin and leave you penniless, alone, and riddled with life-threatening diseases.
5. Cheating On A Total Jerk
Wow, I've dated some assholes. Like the guy who said I'd be so much cuter if I lost 20 pounds, or the guy who pretended we weren't dating when a girl who had a crush on him came to one of his shows, or the guy who got pissed at me when I couldn't pay his rent anymore — the list goes on. I didn't cheat on all of them, but the one time that I did it felt pretty great. Now I'm not saying cheating is ever the perfect prescription for dealing with anger and resentment. I should have taken my own advice above and jumped ship. But alas, I, too, am human.
In the end, the jerk never knew that I cheated, and we eventually broke up. While I was having sex on the sly, I felt like I had taken my dignity back after being kicked around for so long. It was a lusty high I'll never have again, particularly since I vowed to leave that behavior behind — not only is it logistically complicated, but I'm also not into lying constantly, and I find it majorly unethical to put someone's sexual health in jeopardy. Ever since I started to tread in the waters of non-monogamy, avoiding these kinds of situations is easy. No monogamy, no cheating! See how that works?
I'm not naive, and I'm not suggesting that cheating scenarios can't turn out the way they do in the movies: destructive and soul-crushing with families and hearts torn asunder. And just because you aren't monogamous doesn't mean you can't piss your partner(s) off if you deviate from your agreed upon terms, either. However, I am a firm believer that cheating is not always what it seems. The overly simplistic way we perceive infidelity in America does far more harm than good. More and more millennials are eschewing monogamy and designing their own sexual rules to escape those imposed upon us by our parents or society. For me, cheating was an invaluable part of that process.
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