Is Cheating Ever Okay?

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.


Is cheating on your partner ever okay?

For a long time, I thought the answer was “no.” And a pretty unequivocal “no,” at that. I thought that people should keep their promises — especially important promises — and if one of those promises was a promise to be monogamous, then so be it. If you weren’t willing to be monogamous, I thought, then you shouldn’t make a promise to be it.

But as the years have gone by, my thinking on this has been changing. My thinking has been changed a lot — or rather, has become clarified — by a series of columns that sex advice columnist Dan Savage has been writing about sexless marriages and relationships… and the unfairness of denying your partner sex and then getting outraged when they seek it elsewhere.

Secret diary of a call girl

And my thinking was put into sharp focus by, of all places, a recent episode of “Secret Diary of a Call Girl,” and a passing comment made on the subject by the main character, the call girl Belle.

The comment:

“Yeah, he’s married. But his wife hasn’t had sex with him for five years, so I suppose they’re both breaking the marriage contract.”

Which is the crux of my new, revised thinking about cheating.

In a perfect world, everyone would spell out their sexual desires and expectations — their Yeses and No’s and Maybes, their Must Haves and No Fucking Ways and Only If You Get Me Drunk And Buy Me Diamondses — early on in their relationships. It wouldn’t solve all these little misunderstandings; needs and desires can change, and people in love can be first-class experts at deluding themselves into thinking their piddly little problems will work themselves out. But the misunderstandings wouldn’t be quite so prevalent as they are now.

In reality, though, we don’t live in a perfect world. The imperfect reality is that there are a whole host of default assumptions that most people make when they get into relationships.


One of those assumptions is monogamy. In modern American culture, it’s generally assumed that a romantic and sexual relationship will be monogamous, unless you agree otherwise.

But another of these default assumptions, I think, is sex. It’s also generally assumed that a romantic and sexual relationship will be… well, sexual. (With reasonable exceptions to be made for times of illness or great stress, of course.)

And now, let’s take a look at ethics… and contracts.

Because another thing that’s generally understood in our society is that, if one person breaks their side of an agreement, the other person is under no obligation whatsoever to keep theirs.

I don’t know enough about the law to know if this concept always holds true in legal contracts (although my understanding is that it usually does). But I would argue that it does hold true in the social contract. If you promise to sweep the sidewalk on Tuesdays if your neighbor does it on Fridays, and you start blowing it off, you have no right to expect your neighbor to keep it up. If I promise to help you move if you take me out for pizza after, and I flake out on helping you move, I have no right to expect pizza. If you skank out on your half of a bargain, you have no right to assume that the other party will stick to theirs.

And I think this concept applies to sex — and monogamy — in relationships.

I wish with all my heart that more couples would spell this stuff out: talk about it openly, negotiate agreements they can both live with… both early on in their relationships, and as things shift and change. It bugs me that so many people make unthinking default assumptions about the most important decisions in their lives.

But the reality is that people do make default assumptions about relationships. Monogamy is one; continued sex is another.

Pay the piper

And if you dance, you have to pay the piper. You lie in the bed that you make. Plus whatever other cliches you can think of about taking responsibility for your actions. If you make unspoken default assumptions about your relationship — such as the assumption of monogamy — you have no right to take umbrage if your partner also makes unspoken default assumptions… such as the continuation of sex.

And if you break your side of the unspoken agreement, you have no right to act the injured party if your partner decides that they’re therefore no longer bound by it.

I realize this stuff is complicated. I realize that it’s changing. And I realize that it’s not always as clear-cut as I’ve made it out to be here. Sure, you have a right to look elsewhere for sex after five years of a sexless marriage… but what about after one year? Six months? At what point does the contract become void? Plus, I realize that unilaterally backing out on a monogamy agreement carries some responsibilities of its own. Safer sex is one; making a scrupulous, good- faith effort to repair the problems in your relationship before you go a-wandering is another. It’s no fair reneging on monogamy in a sexless marriage if you haven’t told your partner there’s a problem.

I’m just saying: If you’ve given up on sex in your relationship, you have no right to object if your partner gives up on monogamy. Yes, they broke their promise. But unless you specifically spelled out at the beginning of your relationship that your partner shouldn’t expect the good sexy times to keep rolling… then so did you.

This is Part 1 of a three- part series; Part 2 and Part 3 will appear tomorrow and the next day. I realize this is probably a fruitless request, but I’d hugely appreciate it if people would hold comments until the rest of the series is posted. Parts 2 and 3 were written largely in response to comments made when I originally posted this series on the Blowfish Blog, so you might find my response to your comment in on of the later pieces. Thanks.

Is Cheating Ever Okay?

13 thoughts on “Is Cheating Ever Okay?

  1. 1

    You really believe that people can be that sure they’ll have the same libido for the rest of their life at one single point in it, and that if they don’t they’ve broken an assumed promise?
    You’re a very bright and sensible person, so that can’t be the case.

  2. 2

    You really believe that people can be that sure they’ll have the same libido for the rest of their life at one single point in it, and that if they don’t they’ve broken an assumed promise?

    Of course libido will change over time. Everything changes over time. Your taste in interior design, favorite foods, entertaining way to spend the weekend, taste in music, favorite author…it’ll all change over time. But a marriage is supposed to be a commitment, it implies a certain willingness to work towards common goals and compromise. You wouldn’t run out and sell your house without your partner’s input, would you?
    I can pretty much garontee your libido will change over time. And when that happens you need to discuss the situation with your partner. You don’t just cut off sex and expect them to deal with it.
    And if you do just arbitrarily cut off sex without talking to your partner about it. If you cut off sex and are unwilling to work towards some kind of compromise. If you cut off sex and are wholeheartedly unwilling to fool around with your partner. Then personally I think you have broken your promise. Not just an assumed promise that the two of you will be fooling around, but a far more important promise to work together towards common goals and to sustain the relationship.

  3. 3

    My concern is with the implicit “if” you’re arguing applies. When I took my vows, I didn’t say I would be faithful as long as my partner was faithful. Instead, I said
    “To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, ’till death do us part.”
    Although that list isn’t inclusive of all possible future states, the idea is that it means regardless of what happens. I realize you’ve put in the caveats that you should talk first, that a certain amount of time should elapse, etc. etc. But to claim that the cheated-on partner “shouldn’t object” since they broke a promise, well…
    To put it pretty simply: Why would two wrongs make a right?

  4. 4

    but I’d hugely appreciate it if people would hold comments until the rest of the series is posted.
    Er. Just saw this. Maybe close comments?

  5. 5

    I’m just saying: If you’ve given up on sex in your relationship, you have no right to object if your partner gives up on monogamy.
    There is one key difference between these two is that cutting off sex is an open breach of policy. The other party will notice the lack of sex.
    But cheating means sneaking around behind the other party. Lying. It’s *not* a fair tit-for-tat. It’s really passive-aggressive and I’m honestly really turned off that you keep defending it.

  6. 6

    Not a concern, per se, so I don’t see why I shouldn’t comment, as I am commenting on the subject matter.
    From the way I saw adults as a child I didn’t think cheating warranted breaking up necessarily. Maybe if the relationship was about passion, like it is for most young people, it made a kind of logical sense. But adults could see through each other’s lies and still care for their hearts even as body betrayed, and tried to keep it secret to keep from hurting feelings…
    Or maybe my parents were in a loveless marriage for longer than I thought.

  7. 7

    Hey Greta,
    I have to agree with Abbie on this one. Clearly denying one’s marriage partner sex is a violation of the terms of their relationship. But there are plenty of options for dealing with this situation in an honest and healthy way, divorce being an obvious example. There’s a whole subtext in the example you started with that isn’t being explored. Why isn’t the guy divorcing his wife? Is it because she is wealthy, and he wants to maintain his lifestyle, for example? What is motivating him to cheat rather than seek some sort of redress openly is a part of the equation here.

  8. 8

    “But there are plenty of options for dealing with this situation in an honest and healthy way, divorce being an obvious example.”
    Divorce is healthy? Even “obvious”ly healthy???
    I don’t think I’ll ever get my head around the idea that divorce, which is essentially claiming that you don’t love someone anymore, or that you never “really” loved them to begin with, is somehow not an infidelity, but having sex with another person, a physical act that doesn’t even involve your partner or have anything whatsoever to do with your feelings about or commitment to them, is.
    Isn’t saying you love someone one day and denying it the next the very definition of being fickle? How can divorce be interpreted as anything other than the greatest infidelity, the most extreme act of betrayal?
    How come people are so hung up on the “keep myself only to him/her” clause (which is patently open to interpretation in the first place) that they completely overlook the “till death do us part” clause?
    Would you consider a friend to be more faithful if he had no other friends and expected you not to have any either, and immediately stopped being your friend if you showed friendship toward another person? I don’t know about you, but I’d call him psychotic. And I’d call him a doctor.
    I know love is not a rational emotion, but must you insist on its being utterly insane?

  9. 9

    Healthy can be a relative thing. See the blog on harm reduction. Living in relationship hell, with celibacy being one part of it, can be worse than divorce. I’ve had both.

  10. 10

    I read this post a couple times and I think I reluctantly agree. It’s hard to say that cheating is EVER okay, but in a situation in which sex is completely denied a person, can we really blame him/her? The obligation to please each other sexually should be part of the marriage contract. Even if one partner just doesn’t “feel it” anymore, they should still make an attempt to satisfy the other partnert in bed.

  11. 11

    A couple of points here:
    1. Greta is 100% right. Marrriage is first and foremost a legal contract. If you don’t think so, try getting a divorce and you’ll find out in a hurry. And that contract implicitly implies providing sex to your partner. In many states, witholding sex is grounds for terminating the marriage.
    2. In many cases, for either financial or other reasons, divorce is not a realistic option. For many maintaining the facade of a normal marriage is preferable to a divorce.
    3. I agree that “sneaking around” and “lying” should be avoided whenever possible. But one of my very good friends is in this very predicament and discussed it at length with his wife. She told him “Do what you need to do, but I don’t want to know about it.” Her unwillingness to even consider his needs (we’re not talking wants here – we’re talking needs. Celibacy is not normal and it’s not healthy except perhaps for the rare asexual person.) meant in my view he was free to pursue things as he needed to do.
    Bottom line: Greta is pretty much spot on here. You violate yur terms of the marriage contract and do not support the NEEDS of your partner, then don’t whine when your partner finds someone else to fullfill those needs.

  12. Jay

    I feel like people have to take into account that cheating doesn’t always mean lying, it just means not being faithful in a supposedly monogamous relationship. I’ve met people who agree to their spouses cheating with certain people, under certain guidelines, and getting something out of the arrangement as well.

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