Friday, July 26, 2013

Is Infidelity Ever OK?: Can Cheating Save a Relationship?

I borrowed the title of this post from a segment I recently saw on CNN that posed those very two questions. Right off, let me say that my answer to both is a resounding no. The terms "infidelity" and "cheating" both imply deceit, which is never okay, nor does it work in favor of any healthy relationship. Deceit undermines trust, and a lack of trust endangers any relationship.

A better question might be this one: Can a relationship survive infidelity or cheating? My answer: If it's meant to last, at some point, it might have to.

Every time I see a couple that's been together forever, it seems to get me thinking. The same questions pop into my head: How did they do it? What trials did they have to endure? What sacrifices and compromises did they make in order to get from there (young lust) to here?

And as with so many things in life, it always comes right back around to sex. Most of the possible challenges that I begin to conjure up in my head revolve around crimes and misdemeanors of passion: diminished physical attraction, temporary loss of attraction, permanent loss of attraction, alienation of affection and third parties.

Ah, yes! The dreaded third party -- the one thing most likely to break up a "happy" home. Being a jealous person by nature (though I hide it well, so none of my exes might even suspect a thing) and also a commitment-phobe who has always struggled with saving all my love for just one person, third parties have cast shadows of doubt in nearly every relationship I've been in and many that I've observed from the sidelines. Is it a genetic thing? Is it a guy thing? Is it a player thing? Is it a human thing?

"Human beings are not monogamous by nature."

It's an assertion I've been hearing -- and occasionally, repeating -- for years. It's something my brother Alexi says every time we land on the subject. I can't argue with that. If I ever thought we were monogamous by nature, experience has taught me otherwise, and my reasoning involves how we act and think even within the sexual confines of monogamy. Though monogamy refers to having sexual relations with only one partner at any given time, if humans were truly monogamous by nature, wouldn't we limit ourselves to one partner per lifetime?

People who are in monogamous relationships are still attracted to people other than their partners, and serial monogamists might enter into numerous one-on-one sexual relationships over the course of a lifetime -- or during a decade, a year, or a month -- so wouldn't that disprove the flawed precept of monogamy-by-nature that suggests there is only one true lust out there for everyone?

When attempted in a loving relationship over years, or decades, monogamy, though not impossible, requires considerable effort. It might come naturally at first, during that first blush of love when you only want to be with that one person but eventually, when reality sets back in, it gets harder, complicated by the unglamorousness of routine and over-familiarity as well as animal lust, the rising desire to experience people other than the one to whom one is committed, which would challenge the idea that monogamy is in our blood.

So how do we reconcile this with the idea of the one-on-one relationship, particularly ones that last past the initial whirlwind lust stage when we want to rip off our partner's clothes every time we see him or her? It's impossible to maintain this kind of physical attraction over the course of happily ever after. My friend Dave once said that looks and sexual attraction fade, so you'd better have a partner that you actually like, too.

But what if you still want to have sex? You can break up and move on, as the serial monogamist might do; you can stay together and shove sex way into the background; or you can adjust the dynamic of the relationship to suit your current sexual needs.

My intention here isn't to promote open relationships or even to suggest that they can work for every couple. It's up to the people involved in any relationship to decide together what works for them. In the past, one of my problems with open relationships was that I thought they increased the likelihood of one partner falling for someone else and leaving the other partner. That remains a distinct possibility, but it's just as much of one in closed relationships, too.

People generally don't fall in love with a person other than their wife or husband because the sex is so good. It's not that cause-and-effect simple. Husbands and wives have emotional affairs all the time in which sex is not involved, and because of affairs of the heart -- passion of mind -- many spouses have found themselves suddenly third wheels in their own romances.

This is just as likely to happen in a closed relationship as an open one. Perhaps even more so because you are probably more likely to idealize someone when the two of you are forbidden from having sex, leading to all kinds of messy emotions. I might be speaking as a typical male here (or someone who has been down this road, though on the wrong side, with too many histerico guys in Buenos Aires, the ones who want what they can't have and no longer want it once it's theirs -- I dedicate Fiona Apple's "Dull Tool" to them), but sex with someone you've admired from afar is more likely to get them out of your system than lock them into it. But yes, I still acknowledge that it can have the latter effect.

If you and your partner opt to ignore the warning labels and decide that it's okay to allow other parties into your bedroom (for threesomes, or to play when one is away), or if you enforce a "don't ask, don't tell" rule on extra-marital/relationship sex, or any number of other restrictions (only in other cities, no exchange of bodily fluids, no further contact following afterglow, no falling love), then when a third party does enter the picture, you aren't deceiving anyone.

Personally, I think those common restrictions that couples with open relationships sometimes apply to them are just another form of sexual control, which is one of the things they're supposedly seeking to avoid by opening up their relationship. It's disingenuous, but the behavior it allows is not "cheating" or "infidelity," two actions that require dishonesty and the breaking of a romantic pact.

What about "cheating" and "infidelity" in the more traditional sense, when a couple has opted for monogamy and one sleeps around regularly or has an affair behind the other's back? I used to take the hardline approach here. When it came to love, I was a romantic and an idealist, which meant that I had a tendency to be self-righteous and judgmental. Cheating, I insisted, was the ultimate deal breaker, the point of no return.

These days I'm not so sure. Recently, I've been watching the marriage of Lauren Fenmore and Michael Baldwin unravel on The Young and the Restless because of her affair with the New Jersey-bred Italian-American stallion Carmine Basco, a guy who, in the immortal words of the country duo The Kendalls, would make an angel want to cheat. 

Maybe that's why I find myself wanting Michael and Lauren to get past this. Or perhaps my thinking has just evolved regarding relationships. So she made a mistake, I rationalize in my head. Everybody makes mistakes. I'm still not so sure how I'd react if I were blindsided by my partner's tryst with a Carmine, but I'm not as convinced that one of us would be out the door as I used to be.

I have no doubt that Michael and Lauren will find their way back to romantic bliss -- probably once Carmine is six feet under and whichever one is blamed for his demise triumphs over the murder charge -- and they'll be one of those longtime couples that survived the big C.

Here is a cold hard fact of love: The way you feel about your partner as a sexual entity in the beginning isn't the way you'll likely feel about him or her years later. Another inevitability: sexual boredom. A third: Shit happens, and people stray.

Couples should be prepared to discuss these unavoidables openly and try to come up with a relationship model that takes them all into account and works for both partners rather than limiting their love with deal breakers and absolutes. Keep your mind open even if your relationship isn't. (Enlightened women like Susan Sarandon and Kate Hudson have supported this idea in interviews, though who knows what -- or who -- was responsible for breaking up Sarandon's longtime relationship with Tim Robbins.)

In the best scene in the 1999 film Eyes Wide Shut, Nicole Kidman's character Alice tells her husband Bill (played by Kidman's then-real-life husband Tom Cruise) about a fantasy she once had. It was about another man to whom she was so attracted that she swears she would have left her family to be with him. She never acted on her sexual impulses (though in some Christian circles, she still cheated for she had lusted in her heart), but she admitted that her desire for the other man had made her desire for her husband even stronger. It was a moment of powerful honesty and pretty much the only thing I remember about the movie.

During another no-holds-barred blowout in a recent, far better film, Before Midnight, Jesse and Celine acknowledge each other's possible infidelities. Jesse, for his part, is certain Celine recently blew, at the very least, an ex she went to visit after the ex's mother died, but he is okay with it because he is secure in her love for him (perhaps naively), and, well, she's French. 

Celine, though, is not so quick to forgive and forget the indiscretion she imagines Jesse must have had while he was in Washington D.C. on a book tour. Celine might think that she's being pro-marriage (though they haven't actually wed) by demanding fidelity (whether she's actually practicing it herself), but that honor might belong more to Jesse, who doesn't want a "stifling" relationship "where two people own each other, where two people are institutionalized in a box that others created."

I'm not saying -- and I don't believe Alice or Jesse are either -- that only the couple that cheats together stays together. But infidelity will likely touch every long-term relationship at some point, either in theory or in deed. How any couple reacts when it does will determine not only the course of their relationship but whether baby love grows up to be the kind of lasting love that always seems to get me thinking.
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