Is cheating just a matter of degrees?

Cheating takes on many forms... but are we all guilty of it?
Cheating takes on many forms... but are we all guilty of it?


Are we all really just useless cheaters?

Infidelity is commonly understood to be the most sinful of lovers’ sins. Cheating makes you pathetic. Cheating tears hearts. Cheaters kill pure things. Cheaters should never be forgiven. We like to begin relationships hoping they’ll be strong and fair and faithful. We live relationships in light of this hope, we die in relationships in light of this hope, and sometimes, even when it is the relationship that is dead we think, not lightly, “Well, at least we stayed true to each other”.

Hm. Are we for serious?

Because it occurs to me, surrounded by various, interesting people, perhaps we’re actually far less faithful than we all like to think. Perhaps we’re all actually cheating on our lovers, or will do, at some stage, given the chance. And that chance doesn’t manifest in flesh always either. But that chance will come around, inevitably – you may be taking advantage of it right now.

Hear me out.

Cheating rests on binary opposition. You are either faithful or unfaithful. You are either being true, or being false. Yes, there are various shades of deceit, but it boils down to that black and white dichotomy eventually. This applies to cheating in the broadest sense – be it Monopoly or monogamy.

So let’s now focus on relationships, committed, romantic relationships.

Now, not every relationship is arranged the same – some are monogamous, more are polygamous (ideally at least), others are open – yet I’d go as far as to suggest that nearly every relationship is governed by a fundamental principle of truth: “I’m with you, you’re with me (however that may be), and we promise to be with each other every step of the way”.

And the ‘with’ is significant. ‘With’ means a particular arrangement, an accompaniment – with, in this sense, is what makes a relationship special. Sans with, you are literally without. You are just someone standing next to someone else. Your relationship is circumstantial, not consciously committed.

Take a moment to stop and think about that.

(Are you with me?)


So, when the ‘with’ is gone, relationships break. People may not break-up, but the love is broken all the same. Sometimes work and a bit of luck can repair the damage and the relationship heals – like a carriage reconnected to a moving train. But other times the train rolls on, and carriage is left parked at the station, all alone. It’s still considered to be part of the train, but it’s not actually part of the train. Eventually, someone realises something is missing and a decision has to be made – do you go back/catch up, or do you keep going/change lines.

But before there is a resolution, there’s a period when things just, well, carry on. You’re with someone, but you’re not really ‘with’ them. This is the period that makes cheaters of us all, even if the behaviour precipitating the apartness doesn’t look like the cheating we’re familiar with. There may not be any clandestine romps or adulterous ravaging or secret pregnancies, but unfaithfulness is there all the same. Remaining true to the idea of being with someone is not the same as truly being with them.

And it happens so easily. It happens when someone is too wrapped up in their work, or their family, or their kids, or their dog, or their insecurity about not earning enough money, or their disappointment in the success of their friends, or the way that time changes things and there’s nothing you can do about it.

All of these very big, very large, very seductive matters can consume the space, time and attention that we should instead be sharing with our lovers as readily as another man or woman can. We just don’t acknowledge it as much, possibly because the headline “CAUGHT OUT: Man’s all-consuming affair with the love he didn’t get from his father leaves woman broken-hearted” isn’t as sexy as one that includes Pants-down or Naked-romp or Love-rat.

Or possibly because to talk about it requires us to think deeply about how we feel and face some profound truths. Physical infidelity hurts a whole lot, but because it’s about flesh and bodies and right out there in the open, it’s more tangible and less terrifying. Emotional infidelity, on the other hand, is far less pronounced but a whole lot more prevalent.

And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, as long as we can talk about it. Infidelity of any variety doesn’t necessarily mean the end but it does mean something is wrong and something needs to be addressed. The problem is, when you’re balls deep in extramarital sexual relations, it’s pretty obvious that there’s something not right – when you’re over your head in worry or regret or work or whatever other thing, the problem is less apparent. The problem is less apparent and often misdiagnosed as being with the world beyond your relationship: “society demands we work too much”, “society puts too much emphasis on thinking about your children first,” “etc”.

Well I don’t think we should blame other people any more. Yes, we face many living pressures. Yes, we do work long and hard, and children and friends and family are important. Yes, it’s good to focus on improving internally and addressing issues within. But when we make decisions to be with people, we need to make sure we really are with them, all the time, until the time you each decide to be without.

Cheating does kill pure things. Cheating will destroy relationships. Cheating is more common than we think. That should encourage us to be less judgemental and more open – open to the idea of uncovering what’s at the root of the problem, rather than just reacting to it, together. Because cheating can lead to all of these bad things, but it doesn’t have to. And even if uncovering infidelity is the beginning of an end, it is a much better to have things die honestly than continue living a lie.


Are we really all just useless cheaters?

Well – yes. But knowing the truth is useful place to start.

Are you with someone and really with them? Are you having an affair – with another person, with your job, or with your self? Why? What did you/are you doing/will you do about it? Do you think we afford enough attention to the many ways we can cheat our partners beyond the physical? Are we more inclined to be without in a world that focuses less on being with someone, and more on what’s within ourselves?

This story Is cheating just a matter of degrees? first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.