Recently, Cardi B, who stayed with fiancé Offset through pregnancy and a cheating scandal, told Khloe Kardashian, who’d just faced rumors that her baby’s father, basketball player Tristan Thompson, was also cheating, to “just do what your heart feels like doing.” Some took her stand-by-your-man advice as a nod to the power of forgiveness. Refinery 29 took the angle that we might just be in a “post-cheating world.” After all, Beyonce, queen of personal agency, stayed with Jay-Z in spite of his affair, turning those lemons into Lemonade — and we all know three makes a trend.
There were other signs charting that, hey, maybe infidelity is no big deal anymore. Recently, the person who runs Ashley Madison’s Twitter account popped into the thread of writer Nicole Cliffe to lay down a “gotta hear both sides” argument. The website that helps people have affairs posited, predictably, that we really shouldn’t judge affairs because, hey, cheating can be a positive event in a marriage:
That’s true, but this is also like saying genocide really brings people together.
Ashley Madison didn’t back down in spite of the moral shaming they got in response, arguing that as the last sexual taboo, infidelity, like same-sex and interracial marriage, would soon have its day in the sun:
We do seem to have become somewhat more tolerant of cheating. A 2013 Gallup poll found that at 91 percent strong, more Americans were opposed to infidelity than human cloning or suicide, an opposition that maintained its foothold in spite of relaxed attitudes about divorce. But a 2018 study surveying some 13,000 people found that only 76 percent of Americans think cheating is always wrong.
But that relaxed attitude may be more about resignation than acceptance: No matter what we do to lifehack monogamy so people won’t have to cheat anymore — casual sex, delaying marriage, ethical non-monogamy, poly, and the like — the cheating doesn’t seem to stop. Statistics tend to put the numbers like this: Men still cheat more than women, and about 21 percent of men have cheated compared with 13 percent of women. Other statistics say anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of married people have had at least one affair. People cheat in good marriages and in bad ones. People in poly relationships still cheat even after negotiating clear rules for when and how and with whom to sleep around. This is why Dan Savage argues that for all our efforts at monogamy, reality ends up looking more monogamish, and everyone should kind of get a one-off to cheat if needs aren’t being met. The key, though, is to obviously keep it locked down forever and take it to the grave. Or as Amber Rose put it, “Every man cheats, but if he loves you enough, you’ll never find out.”
But 76 percent of a population against cheating is still the majority of the people, indicating that the infidelity utopia hasn’t really taken hold in the mainstream public view in spite of all this acting out. In other words, we are pretty okay with you ending your relationship if it doesn’t work out. We just don’t think you should start up with someone else before you do it.
While many people know lots of new relationships start before the ink is dry on the divorce, we are, as a society, nowhere near being cool with cheating. And it’s not just Puritanical pearl-clutching. The responses on the internet to Ashley Madison’s so called “infidelity stanning” typically took this angle:
This attitude — that infidelity is still a shit thing to do to someone even when you’re all for casual sex because it’s deceptive and risky — jibes with the current fascination with and gleeful, shaming reaction to the four-way infidelity hellhole that is happening right now to Blake Shelton and the Blake Shelton adjacent. Recently, the country star and People’s Sexiest Man Alive revealed his own tsk-tsking toward infidelity, which has resulted in a kind of karmic Olympics when it comes to who has the higher moral high ground.
Stay with me here, because the details are a little convoluted:
· Blake Shelton used to be married to Miranda Lambert
· Lambert left Jeff Allen McManus to be with Shelton
· Shelton was married at the time to Kaynette Williams
· Shelton and Lambert were married from 2011 to 2015
· When they divorced in 2015, Lambert got together with Anderson East, while Shelton took up with Gwen Stefani, who had just left husband Gavin Rossdale of Bush after 13 years
· Now Lambert and East have broken up and she’s dating Evan Felker, who, it seems, is still married to a heartbroken wife named Staci
So when Lambert showed up in the news now with Felker, Shelton took the opportunity to do a little grave-dancing for her relationship with East:
Then McManus — remember, he’s the guy Lambert left to be with Shelton — called cheater pot-kettle bullshit on Shelton in a now-deleted tweet that read:
“You know, i’ve always given you the benefit of the doubt and chalked it up to just being human, But you must be one arrogant SOB to pop off something like this, when I know damn good and well you were cheating on your wife and Miranda was cheating on me when you two started up.”
Shelton denied he was pointing any fingers at Lambert, which no one believed. Twitter’s been having a field day debating whether, in fact, everyone in the story is a grade-A cheater. (This timeline at E! sure as hell makes it look that way.)
While celebrities and certain civilians are always swinging to one relationship before letting go of the last — I believe it’s called vine-swinging — what makes all this hand wringing illuminating on a human level is that no matter how much standards relax, cheating does remain the last taboo, but not the sexual kind Ashley Madison wants it to be, as if it’s some kind of kink on par with light whipping.
The taboo is that no matter how cool we become with all kinds of sex and relationships, we will never be cool with the lying, arrogant kind. And it’s not really the lying that makes cheating so unsavory, it’s the selfish laziness of the shortcutting. A common site addressing married men who cheat, who promise mistresses they’ll leave their wives but never do, uses the term “cake-eaters.” It’s men who want to have their cake and eat it too, meaning get both the thrill of the chase, while maintaining the comfort and the security of the boring and mundane old ball and chain.
This, I’d maintain, is the most despicable part. Which is why I’d argue that we should think of cheating exactly as we think of cheating on a test, or plagiarizing, or looking up cheat codes before playing a video game. As the shortcut of a lazy, fearful person who doesn’t want to do the work.
What work? The work of studying for the test, working on the relationship, working on yourself, taking a beat and figuring out whether you really want to be with someone else or just need the relationship to improve. Cheating is so short-sighted in its inability to resist the instant gratification. It’s the move of a lazy person who wants the instant payoff with none of the risk. It’s getting the answers without having to get the knowledge. Someone who won’t do the real work of either fixing or ending one relationship so you are actually free to start another. Cheat codes let you win the game faster and easier without having to actually be that good at the actual game. Cheating lets you get security and novelty with zero personal growth.
Which is why in the view of Belgian psychologist Esther Perel, the cheater is often not actually trying to escape the spouse, but the self. In other words, you may not always want a new person when you cheat, she argues, you may just want a new you. Totally understandable! Also totally lazy.
And, yes, it’s more complicated than this: there are different types of cheaters and different types of affairs. But anyone who thinks the cheating is the first broken agreement in the relationship is naïve. Usually it’s just the dynamite that brings down the burning building.
So while we may never accept cheating, we may come to see it as a gift. Some 50 percent of marriages survive infidelity, which means some people do make their own lemonade. But when you’re dealing with someone too lazy to do the work in the first place, there’s a good chance they are just going to let your building burn. What better test could there be that this was the wrong person for you?