You can admit to a lot of things from behind a screen and a keyboard. You can disclose weird and inappropriate crushes, your most self-sabotaging habits, your pettiest rage triggers and the most niche of kinks. You can confess to, say, an addiction so toxic and devastating, you sold your first-born to facilitate it. And for most of these things, online, at the very least you’ll find empathy, and often a great deal of support and understanding too. But woe fucking betide you if you admit to cheating in a relationship. A curious fact of the internet is that if you own up to infidelity, you will be vilified.
I write this now of course because cheating was pretty much the only thing anyone was talking about last week, thanks to comedian Seann Walsh and his Strictly dance partner Katya Jones being photographed kissing while both in relationships with other people.
Now, I don’t have any desire to get into what’s emerged about the pair since then, partly because the most interesting thing to me is our reaction to the story, rather than the fall-out of the events themselves. But also because really, we don’t know anything. We’ve been given one version of what happened, but that single version has been edited to sell papers, get clicks and provoke discussion, so… here I am, discussing it.
I’ve long thought that infidelity is something we haven’t got a mature handle on yet. An awful lot of people still see it as a black-and-white, good vs. evil thing, which I find quite troubling. Because, if nothing else, long-term relationships are hard. We all have our needy moments, our paralysing insecurities, and as a species, we have the capacity to find routine both comforting and boring as hell. It takes work to keep a relationship going for years on end, and the idea that one person can be everything you need for the rest of your life is absurd, quite frankly.
Shortly after the Strictly news broke last week, writer Felicity Morse wrote a brave, wise, and crucially, pragmatic thread about cheating:
re #Strictly I’m loath to comment on dynamics of anyone else’s relationship as you can’t what’s going on but for me (and I’m in a monogamous relationship) it’s easy to have good intentions, strong intentions and still cheat if you don’t observe the human risks along the way
— Felicity Morse (@FelicityMorse) October 8, 2018
It really heartened me to see it – because it’s still so rare to hear infidelity discussed in nuanced terms. When a story like this breaks, hardly anyone ever says, “you know what? I get it. I don’t condone it, but I get it”. It was refreshing to see Morse do this – especially as a woman on Twitter, but that’s a whole other thing and now is not the time.
I can’t remember where I first discovered the work of Esther Perel, but she’s a psychotherapist and one of the few voices currently offering a different perspective on cheating. Her second book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity was published late last year, and her podcast Where Should We Begin? (in which we listen to real therapy sessions) has been hugely successful. Perel has made the case that it’s perfectly possible to have a happy relationship and still want to cheat, and this piece from The Atlantic provides a fantastic insight into her work.
Of course, there’s a scale of cheating – a drunken snog is not the same as a months-long affair. The former can be forgiven more easily; the latter is far more likely to be a sign of a bigger problem. Once you cross a sort of ‘deception threshold’, then yes, I think you deserve the anger that will inevitably come at you. But even then, it’s rarely as simple as it might look from the outside.
Because unhappiness can be a complex thing; you can spend months thinking that on balance, things are fine – no-one’s totally in love with their partner 24/7, are they? There’s always the odd niggle – and it’s only when Something Happens that it occurs to you that perhaps there’s more going on. What you thought was a fairly standard relationship gripe, a tiny scratch on the surface, actually reveals itself to be an unbridgeable rift. And the catalyst for that realisation is often, sadly, someone else.
But, as Perel maintains, cheating is not always a symptom of there being something wrong in the relationship. Sure, a lot of the time it is, but it can also be an alignment of mood, circumstance and chemistry. If you’re sensible, you’ll remove yourself from the situation as soon as you feel it heading that way, but show me a human being who’s always sensible and I’ll show you a robot in clothes. To return to the previously-mentioned Twitter thread, the tweet below nails this:
Let’s not forget: that buzzing, sparkling chemistry you get with some people is as bad as crack. It takes a strong person to walk away and play the “what-ifs” out only in their head. It is absolutely unforgivable to quote oneself, but I’m going to do it anyway – sorry:
Honestly, if we could bottle the feeling you get when you have pure, humming chemistry with someone – when every exchanged glance is a firework display, when every conversation makes your heart race, when every touch makes you want to dissolve – we’d have a catastrophe on our hands.
Now, none of what I’ve said above makes it OK to get physical with someone else if you’re in a monogamous relationship. I’m not saying cheating is fine – you should know what the boundaries and deal-breakers are in your own relationship. I also write this as someone who’s never been cheated on (don’t worry, I suspect my time will come), and I do understand that if your only experience of infidelity is of being the wronged party, then you’re far more entitled than I am to judge people who cheat. It’s a horrible, sickening thing to find out that you and your precious, fragile heart were, at one point or another, simply not enough to stop the person you love from straying. I would never dispute that.
But I do think we could try and be more forgiving. Or if not forgiving, at least more willing to understand. People who are broadly good, nice, kind individuals sometimes make exceptionally bad decisions. It happens, and most of them learn from it. Immediately jumping to conclusions and deeming those who’ve cheated to be entirely lacking in morals is to be wilfully blind to how fucking complex relationships can be.
Seeing delicate situations only in extreme terms traps everyone in a damaging narrative. A narrative that tells us cheaters never change, that those who forgive them are weak, that relationships should be easy and if you find yourself struggling, you’re broken or flawed in some way. We’re all broken and flawed in some way, and gun-jumping judgement isn’t going to change that.