You’re in a long-term happy, sexually active marriage and one day you discover that your spouse has been cheating on you — basically since Day 1.
How do you feel?
You’d probably feel heart-broken and devastated, which is how a man writing to author, LGBTQ activist and columnist Dan Savage signed off as in his latest Savage Love column.
I am a huge fan of Savage — I turned to his writings and used his term monogamish in The New I Do — so I was not surprised by how he answered “HAD”:
A long-term relationship is a myth two people create together. … You thought your marriage was a loving, committed, and “completely loyal” one, but it’s not — it can’t be, and it never was, because she was cheating on you from the beginning. But loyalty isn’t something we demonstrate with our genitals alone. Your wife wasn’t loyal to you sexually, HAD, and that’s painful. And the conventional “wisdom” is that people don’t cheat on partners they love. But you were married to this woman, and you describe your marriage as good, loving, and wonderful. And it somehow managed to be all those things despite your wife’s betrayals. She must have been loyal to you in other ways or you would’ve divorced her long before you discovered her infidelities. tweet
Boy, do I love this: “loyalty isn’t something we demonstrate with our genitals alone.” How true! And yes, the conventional wisdom is people don’t have affairs if they truly love their partner. Yet, they do.
The lies and the truth
Savage ran the letter by psychotherapist and Mating in Captivity author Ester Perel, another person whose work I greatly admire, who didn’t think the marriage was necessarily doomed:
“You have a good relationship, from everything you tell me, and the question is always, does one discovery topple an entire relationship, an entire history? … With so many marital tasks in your hands, this does not necessarily redefine an entire relationship. This doesn’t say, ‘Everything else was a lie and this is the truth.’ This says, ‘There was a lot of truth and then there was a whole other closet in which stuff took place that I had no idea about and now I need to find a way to understand it, cry over it, experience acute pain, but also make meaning of it, and potentially integrate it — and in the end, I may choose that it is too big for me to integrate and then let go.’ tweet
That’s a LOT to think about or integrate. I’m not sure I could do that. Many people are forgiving of a one-night stand, but serial cheating? Hmm. And yet …
One thing I love about Perel is the way she matter-of-factly acknowledges that there are many ways to betray a spouse that have nothing to do with sex. The nonsexual types of betrayal probably occur a lot more than the sexual ones, although sometimes both occur, and we put up with them — often for years. Where do you draw the line? Is it OK to put up with years of nonsexual betrayal as long as your spouses isn’t cheating?
When non-monogamy’s OK
I have observed with a certain amount of fascination the sexual shenanigans that have gone on in my own life, my circle of friends and acquaintances, and the world at large. I have engaged in all sorts of sexual shenanigans yet I am, at heart, a monogamous woman (albeit, a serial monogamist). I, like many other serial monogamists, seem to want our current partner to also be monogamous — even if we began seeing him or her while they or we were still married, a relatively common occurrence. Which means many of us — men and women — are OK with non-monogamy being on the sly as long as it’s something we’re choosing for ourselves but not if it’s happening to us. Yet we balk at the idea of consensual non-monogamy — when couples decide for themselves to have an open marriage, be polyamorous, swing, etc. — and consider it to be abnormal.
So non-monogamy of the cheating kind is normal but consensual non-monogamy is not.
Isn’t that kind of crazy?