Your Cheatin’ Heart

I recently found a relationship discussion thread started by a man who had cheated on his girlfriend and wanted to know whether he should tell her or not. In his post, he stated that the GF was “the one” (his words) — though their relationship had only been for six months — and he did not want to lose her. His cheating involved a premeditated meeting for oral sex. He claimed to feel terrible about it afterwards, that he knew beforehand he would feel terrible about it, and noted that the woman with whom he cheated was “ugly” (again, his words). His argument for not telling his GF was that he knew he would never cheat again and he saw no point in hurting her. The thread then saw a lot of hotly contested debate on what he should do, including many speculations that the cheater did not genuinely feel remorseful about his actions.

Personally, I think that the cheater does not feel remorseful about his actions and has not “learned a lesson” from his experience. His actions were premeditated and planned, he feels the experience means less because the partner was “ugly,” he knew that he would feel guilty about the experience and still deliberately chose to proceed, and he then argued why he should not tell his GF about it. None of these indicate that he learned anything about the experience. Particularly, the fact that he did knowingly perform the cheating act while fully aware that he would regret it tells me he is likely to repeat such an act. Knowing that something would be bad did not deter him from doing that thing.

And that brings me to the concept of “Once a cheater, always a cheater.” I really hope that statement is not true, because I have a cheating history. I cannot speak for all cheaters, obviously — just for myself — but my experience does give me some insight to the cheating mindset, including that of the cheater from the thread. Starting with my very first boyfriend, I had a “cheatin’ heart.”

My first boyfriend was literally a misunderstanding. At a school choir/band concert, I, a choir singer, flirted with a band member that I had just met. I considered the flirting just a playful and new (I had not previously flirted much before) way to pass the time backstage. The boy apparently took it much more seriously, asking me after the concert if I would like to “go out.” Figuring that he meant for a date (also a new experience for me), I said yes. It was not until I was on my way home that I realized he probably meant “going steady.” “Oh, shit,” is probably not the right response to realizing that one is in a steady relationship.

Since that concert was a winter concert and the last school activity before winter break and we did not know each other’s phone numbers or addresses, I was off the hook for a little while. I also was going to be moving away very shortly after we returned from winter break, so felt that bringing up the mistake was unnecessary. I avoided him as much as I could; he only managed to catch me at my locker immediately after school for a few minutes each day. However, during that brief “relationship,” I met another boy with whom I immediately clicked and would have happily dated, had my remaining days in the area not been so few. That boy had a steady girlfriend who just happened to be one of my better friends. He also knew my own boyfriend, though they were not quite so close. Despite the fact we were both taken and knew each other’s partners, we would have happily dumped our partners and started going steady together… and not necessarily in that order. Though sex was not even a question at this point, the sentiment of cheating was definitely there.

My track record did not exactly improve over time. I lost my virginity in an act of anger at my boyfriend of the moment, cheating on him with someone who was a friend of a friend. I maintained a long-term relationship with one boyfriend for a couple years and cheated on him with the boyfriend on whom I had previously cheated! I dated two boys at once — which I don’t count as cheating because I made sure that they were aware of this and accepted that they were sharing me — and still cheated on them both when I went on a trip and had two one-night stands! I later had another long-term boyfriend and repeatedly tried to cheat on him with a friend of mine who (good for him) repeatedly resisted me. The friend probably would have accepted me if I had slowed down and been single, but no, I had to try to get the new boyfriend before parting with the existing one. I also made out with a stranger on a trip while dating that same boyfriend. Later, while maintaining a long-distance relationship, I cheated on the long-distance boyfriend by actively maintaining a relationship with someone else (who enjoyed being part of something so illicit as cheating). Overall, my record is not good.

Now, I could try to defend my various experiences. “I was young and stupid.” “I wasn’t serious about him.” “It was just to try something new.” “I liked how this person made me feel.” While these statements are all true, none of them defend my actions. There are plenty of other people who have been “young and stupid” and who did not cheat on their partners. If I am not serious about someone, then I should let him go, rather than see someone else on the side. If I want to experiment, then I should start first with my existing partner. Even if the experimentation is trying someone else, I should discuss that option with my partner and give him a chance to decide for himself how this might impact our relationship, rather than just cheat and hope to avoid the consequences.

“I liked how this person made me feel” is probably a very common cheating argument. The stereotypical cheating husband argues that his other woman “Makes me feel young/alive/etc.” And I fully understand how good it feels to have someone new express interest. The existing relationship gets familiar and partners might get a bit complacent, or what was previously thrilling is now expected, or it just seems so much the same. Then someone new comes along and the stimulus of something different and unfamiliar is quite exciting. Nice as it feels, though, it does not justify cheating.

There are a lot of scientific and pseudo-scientific discussions on why people, particularly men, cheat. There is lots of evidence that non-human animals cheat. Those are interesting facts, but do not form a defense for cheating. We are a thinking and socialized species and cheating is one of our No-Nos. Yes, we are subject to certain biological imperatives, but we also practice suppressing our base instincts all the time, in the interest of functioning within our society. I am not going to get into a big scientific discussion here, but the long and the short of it is: Yes, temptation may be there, but no, you do not have to succumb to every temptation. When you cheat on your partner, you are making a deliberate decision over which you do have control. The real contributing factor is whether you are considerate or selfish.

Bear in mind, I have my own cheating history. I know that; I have no excuse and I own up to it. What is worse, even today, in a happy relationship with an incredible partner who accommodates to my desires and actively encourages the idea of finding others to add to my pleasure, I still understand the appeal of cheating. There is something attractively easy, convenient, private, and more than a little illicit about having a fling or affair. Rather than make sure everyone approves of everyone else, is comfortable, and understands proper boundaries, I could just shag someone and keep it a secret. But that would satisfy only my own selfish ego, desires, etc., and put my relationship at risk. My individually made decision could destroy a relationship built by my partner and me together.

I know that cheaters try to justify their — our, to be fair — actions, such as the excuses I listed above. However, there is no valid justification for cheating… none. “My wife won’t have sex with me.” “My BF doesn’t satisfy me in bed.” “My GF rejected my idea to ____.” Even in the extreme case where it seems like the partner must cheat or go without, there are still choices, such as:

– Discuss your desires with your partner. Don’t just cheat, assuming that your partner will flat-out refuse your idea. You might be pleasantly surprised.

– Be prepared to negotiate. Your partner might not want to do what you want to do, but maybe you two could find a good compromise or arrangement.

– Wait and see. Even if your partner dismisses your idea now, keep the idea alive. Things might change.

– Enjoy the fantasy. Fantasies are not bad things to have. Maybe this thing that you want could stay within the realm of fantasy, rather than become a reality. You still can enjoy the fantasy without harming anyone.

– Reevaluate your relationship versus your desire. If you want something so badly that you are willing to cheat, then you have essentially decided that this desire is more important than your relationship. So, decide: the desire or the relationship. If you opt for the relationship, then find an alternative to cheating to satisfy the desire. If you opt for the desire, then do your partner the courtesy of ending the relationship before you find someone else to help you satisfy the desire.

I know I come across as very harsh, particularly for one who has a cheating history. However, the question of cheating is not a question of desire or getting fulfillment elsewhere. It is a question of being selfish or being considerate; I personally know this. Cheaters know that cheating will hurt our partners. We must decide whether we rank satisfying our own wants higher than we rank respecting our partners and the relationships that we share.