Cheating, Dan Savage, & My Evolving Ethics

Still reading Dan Savage’s newest book, and his second essay “It’s Never Okay to Cheat (Except When It Is)” continues my conversation with myself about breaking boundaries and cheating.

Basically, Savage thinks that if, within a long term relationship, one or both partners only cheat once or twice or three times, those individuals are good at monogamy, not bad at it. He sees cheating as not a bug, but as a feature- humans can be socially monogamous, but not sexually monogamous. He supports cheating in certain instances (usually for individuals in truly satisfying and healthy and happy long-term relationships who are lacking something in the sexual department- a kink, activity, variety, etc.).

My favorite passage from this chapter:

“So what’s the solution for sexless marriages that are worth saving? Or for good, solid marriages that have lasted decades and only suffered one or two dalliances? Not wide-open relatonships, not polyamory for the monogamously inclined, or even for the monogamishly inclined. Not swingers’ conventions, not fucking in the streets. Perhaps a little license, a little latitude. An understanding that two people can’t be all things to each other sexually for all of their adult lives. An understanding that life is long and circumstances change and some things- love, devotion, loyalty- are more important than sex, and that lifelong, perfectly executed sexual exclusivity is not the only measure of love, devotion, and loyalty. And an understanding that making a small accommodation within marriage- or a series of small accommodations- is easier than living in a marriage that has been poisoned by resentment. An understanding that real, imperfect relationships are more important than romantic, idealized, and ultimately impractical notions about lifelong fidelity” (p38).

I think the issue, though, is that most people don’t think about their monogamous relationships and do have an idealized notion about lifelong fidelity, and definitely do not want to give latitude to a couple of dalliances. If it was common knowledge, or was socially accepted, that humans are sexually nonmonogamous, and people expected dalliances to occur over a life-long relationship, then cheating wouldn’t be the trauma that it often is for people. It wouldn’t carry the weight that cheating has. Actually, I think maybe before marriage became an institution of romantic love, when it was still an institution of family and finances, maybe it didn’t have the weight it does now; women expected their husbands to be promiscuous, and didn’t let it interfere with the marriage because that’s not what the marriage was about (even if it hurt still). Now that marriage is about romantic love, and romantic love is equated with sexual exclusivity, cheating can be a massive, deep trauma. 

I think cheating (boundary breaking) in open relationships can be quite traumatic, too, for the very reason that open relationships are supposed to be honest and open. For someone in a relationship built on transparent communication and clear boundaries to then experience cheating I think may be more traumatic than to have cheating occur in a relationship where boundaries and communication are more opaque and built on assumptions.

In any case, I still don’t know what to think about cheating. I do know this: I don’t ever want to cheat, and I don’t ever want to be cheated on. I don’t want to be in a position where I have cut off communication with my partner so that cheating behavior is facilitated (I’ve seen a lot of people in relationships where they stop talking and then cheating happens because people start acting like free agents when they are still supposed to be accountable to a partner). And because I have been in positions before where I have helped someone break their own boundaries, I have felt how crappy it is to be the third person in a cheating triangle. I don’t want to be in that position again.

Then again, I do see what Savage means about otherwise happy, healthy and satisfying long-term relationships in which one partner simply needs more or different sexually (more sex or a different kind of sex), and has tried other things first (couples counseling, communicating with the partner, etc.) before getting their needs met elsewhere. Maybe it is the best thing for that relationship if the one sexually unsatisfied partner satisfies those needs with dalliances. I also think mistakes happen and people are not perfect.

Then again, what is honesty if not people being honest with one another? I would detest being in a relationship where honesty wasn’t authentic and real, but a veiled form of honesty, where there are “just some things” we don’t talk about.

Also- doesn’t the cheating partner take away agency from their partner by not being honest with them about their real desires and needs? Shouldn’t the other partner get a chance to advocate for what they want- which may be a preference for serial monogamy, or a kind of open relationship with different kinds of boundaries?

I do agree with Savage that long-term relationships are about more than just sex- they are about love and devotion, and often they are about kids and jobs and insurance and finances and families. If relationships fail over sex, despite all of the other positive aspects of them and ways in which people are interdependent- I think that’s pretty crappy. The dissonance that I experience when I read Savage’s chapter on cheating I think comes from the fact that I agree- sex shouldn’t hold this much weight. Sexual dalliances shouldn’t be the source of so much trauma in our society. But I don’t think our cultural view of cheating as trauma will change if people aren’t first honest about their sexual needs, desires, and preferences. If people take it upon themselves to simply cheat without being honest with themselves and their partners, nothing will change.

What do you think??

2 thoughts on “Cheating, Dan Savage, & My Evolving Ethics

  1. I'm not familiar with Savage's material (though I have heard the name), but I think you're probably more right than him. While I completely agree with the notion that sexuality is ruining a lot of otherwise excellent relationships, I don't think cheating is any kind of solution.

    Cheating is, in a big way, giving into the notion that sexuality is a huge deal (which it's not); which ultimately supports the social inclination away from open sexuality. In effect, it's a self-fulfilling cycle of lust, denial, and finally cheating.

    Permanently breaking that cycle is going to take more than just looking the other way while your spouse cheats. It's going to take a redefinition of our sexual priorities; namely our entirely selfish interest in controlling (owning) the sexuality of our partners.

    In a word, jealousy has to go.

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