Thanks to some recent celebrity scandals involving a certain Maroon 5 singer and whatever the hell a Try Guy is, I, like many people, have been thinking a lot about cheating lately.
Not on my own partner—I don’t have one (DMs are open, boys), though I did think about cheating on the one that I had when I had him.
Maybe that’s part of the reason why I find it so surprising that celebrity cheating scandals are even still a thing in our presumably progressive, sexually enlightened era. In an age of seemingly mainstream polyamory, BDSM, and even dragon sex, how is cheating really still such scandal fodder, to the extent that dudes are falling over themselves to *checks notes* publicly claim another man’s infidelity as their own trauma? As comedian Ashley Ray put it in a recent Tweet: “How is cheating this big of a deal? The straights are boring as hell.”
People getting up in arms about cheating is obviously nothing new, but that’s kind of the point. Like, this isn’t The Scarlet Letter. How is it still so shocking that people’s sexual desires—and behaviors—don’t always fit neatly within prescriptive social norms?
On the other hand, it makes sense that all our sexual enlightenment may have only further soured attitudes toward infidelity. After all, at a time when various forms of consensual or negotiated non-monogamy seem to be an increasingly accessible and acceptable option, why cheat when you can just have an open relationship?
It’s a good question, for sure. Why risk hurting someone you love—not to mention potentially blowing up your own life—when you could have a consensually non-monogamous relationship in which everyone gets what they want and no one gets hurt? All’s fair in love and consensual non-monogamy, right? As open relationships and other forms of non-monogamy increase in visibility and popularity, it makes sense that cheating would seem all the more tawdry and dated. Like, this isn’t Mad Men, you’re embarrassing yourself.
It’s sound logic, don’t get me wrong. But there are a few issues with this assumption that negotiated non-monogamy can be expected to function as some kind of modern antidote to infidelity. Let’s unpack, shall we?
People can still cheat in open relationships
Hi, yes, hello, cheating is something that can happen in any relationship, however open it may be.
Just like traditional relationships, non-monogamous partnerships function around a monogamy agreement, or a set of expectations and boundaries each partner is expected to uphold. Any violation of that agreement could be considered cheating, says Tammy Nelson, PhD, author of Open Monogamy and When You’re the One Who Cheats and a relationship expert for Ashley Madison.
Unlike monogamous partnerships, in which the whole “We’re not supposed to have sex with other people” thing is pretty universal, monogamy agreements and what it means to violate them may look very different from open relationship to open relationship. And even within those relationships, expectations may not be exactly the same for each partner. For example, one person might want to know when their partner has sex with someone else, while the other would rather be spared the dirty deets.
“Sometimes cheating in an open relationship can be as simple as going out for coffee with a new partner that is off limits, or an ex, or someone outside of the ‘pod,’ says Nelson. “ It can be complicated to get ‘approval’ from multiple partners if you are in a group relationship, and some people find it easier to break away and do what they want on their own.”
Regardless, whether you’re breaking a closed monogamy agreement or an open one, “cheating is cheating,” says sex therapist Jamie Schenk DeWitt, MA, LMFT. “The cheater, by definition, is not playing by the rules that have been established and agreed upon.”
Open relationships aren’t always an option
It may seem like everyone is opening up these days, but while non-monogamy is definitely becoming more mainstream, it’s a long way from being the norm. Take it from me, a woman whose last *ever* conversation with her ex was one in which I asked him for an open relationship, consensual non-monogamy is not always a viable option!
“Many folks don’t want open relationships,” says Zachary Zane, author of Boyslut: A Memoir and Manifesto and sex expert for P.S. Condoms. “If your partner doesn’t want one, and you still want to be with them, then you’re going to have to lie about having sex with others.” That doesn’t excuse cheating, to be clear, but it does explain why it still happens in our seemingly sexually evolved timeline.
Not to mention, the idea that you can just seamlessly convert a monogamous relationship into an open one to spare yourself the burden of infidelity is kind of a massive oversimplification of non-monogamous partnerships and the work that actually goes into maintaining them. Not everyone is cut out for that work, and some people simply don’t want to do it.
“Open relationships take work,” says Zane. “For many, it’s just easier to cheat and lie about it.”
Relationships are complicated, and *spoiler alert* so are people
Perhaps unsurprisingly, cheating in open relationships tends to happen for more or less the same reasons as good old-fashioned adultery. Your monogamy agreement—whatever it entails—isn’t working for you anymore, and cheating seems easier than talking about it. Or maybe you know that whatever it is you want to do would be a hard no for your partner(s), so cheating feels like the only way to satisfy those desires without threatening your relationship.
“One thing that many cheaters have in common is that they don’t want to confront issues or feelings that may be impacting the connection and health of their current partnership,” says DeWitt. “They would rather avoid confrontation with their partner to get their needs met.”
So we cheat, whether on one person or several, in a closed relationship or an open one. We cheat out of convenience or laziness or selfishness or some combination of all three. Or sometimes maybe we just cheat because it’s fun.
“One reason people cheat instead of choosing consensual non-monogamy is because some people don’t want to share their partner,” says Elisabeth Sheff, PhD, author of The Polyamorists Next Door. “Then there’s some other people who like the intrigue and the excitement of doing something clandestine, of having a James Bond moment in their life where they’re covering their tracks and it’s fun and sexy to be breaking the rules.”
Take Christine*, for example.
Christine is in her early forties. She’s been with her husband for around 20 years, and in that time, he’s always been open to the idea of non-monogamy. While Christine was hesitant at first, she’s started seeing other men outside her marriage. She says her husband knows about some of her boyfriends, “But I do really enjoy sometimes seeing others without his knowledge.”
That’s a problem, because her husband likes to know exactly what she’s doing and who she’s doing it with, even when he’s not around. “He wants to feel involved,” she says. “He wants the videos and the photos. All that stuff just really turns him on. He likes to know everything. He likes to know all the details.”
But what turns Christine on is doing things her husband doesn’t know about. “When I’m with somebody else, I’m no longer a mother. I’m no longer a business owner,” she says. “I feel like I’m back to who I was when I was 21, before life really happened. And it’s just fun. I love going out and having dinner or drinks and just being who I was originally before I became who I am.”
Will negotiated non-monogamy ever replace cheating?
I relate to Christine more than is probably wise to admit. When I was with my ex, I told myself (and eventually my partner) that what I wanted was an open relationship—the best of both worlds, right? We tend to position open relationships as the key to finally being able to have our cake and eat it too, to cheat without cheating, to Have It All.
But the reality is that open relationships are a compromise, just like anything else. Deep down I knew that opening up my relationship would mean sacrificing at least some element of the safe, cozy, socially sanctioned intimacy monogamy promises.
I wanted to think that I was just too evolved and open-minded to not be in an open relationship in this, the year 2022. But what I really wanted, if I was being honest with myself, was to be two different people—one who got to embrace all the comfort and stability of monogamy, and one who got to enjoy the absolute freedom of being single, screwing around, and answering to nobody. I don’t think I deserved to have both of these things, and certainly not at the expense of my partner, but I do think wanting them is probably more common than a lot of people are willing to admit.
What can I say? People are really out here containing multitudes. For some, open relationships might be a way of reconciling otherwise conflicting desires, but not without compromise. I’m not saying cheating is a better answer, or even that cheating works. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I didn’t end up cheating on my ex, partly because I know I would’ve felt guilty and partly because I think infidelity would have poisoned and eventually ended our relationship anyway, even if he never found out about it.
But I do think that wondering why cheaters didn’t simply open their relationship is sort of a reductive take, one that oversimplifies non-monogamy and ignores some key, if uncomfortable, realities of human desire and relationships.
“I think there will always be cheaters,” says Sheff. ”I think it will lessen as people come to know consensual non-monogamy as an option. But the, ‘I want multiple partners and I don’t want you to have them,’ I think that’s a permanent feature of the human psyche.”
Maybe it’s because I relate more to Christine than I ever will the outraged TikTokers who are mad at some famous guy for sexting his side piece, but I can’t help but roll my eyes a little every time the angry mob that is le internet breaks out its virtual pitchforks because someone cheated.
For one thing, pardon the hot take, but I really don’t think that what other people do with their own monogamy agreements is anyone else’s business. Like, I don’t think that it’s our job as a society to police other people’s sex lives, and I think that expecting open relationships to be this blanket cure for infidelity is a less progressive take than people think it is.
Plus, I tend to think that any mass societal backlash aimed at someone’s failure to uphold social mores that are ultimately rooted in heteropatriarchal, mononormative ideals is inherently kind of retrograde.
Like, even if we’re judging cheaters from the supposedly enlightened perspective of consensual non-monogamy, at the end of the day, we’re still shaming people for the same puritanical BS our ancestors used to stone each other in the town square for.
I’m not saying that cheaters necessarily deserve sympathy, but I don’t know that shaming them is particularly productive either, even when we do it in the context of seemingly progressive arguments like, “Why not just have an open relationship?” I think part of being an open-minded, sex-positive individual is accepting certain potentially unflattering realities about the nature of sexuality and desire, realities I think we need to be able to at least acknowledge if we’re ever actually going to embrace more consensual forms of non-monogamy as a society.
Cringe sexting though, now that’s a crime that deserves to be punished.