When falling in love, most people choose to be in monogamous relationships, or at least claim to be. Infidelity has been around as long as marriage and it looks like it is here to stay. Yet, monogamy continues to be what is most commonly expected of love relationships and affairs are usually seen as the worst of all betrayals, because they shatter our emotional security and our sense of self. But what does cheating actually mean? And how common is it?
Since there is no universal definition of cheating, estimates of infidelity vary between 25% and 75%, depending on who you ask and what behaviours are included. Does sexting, secretly using dating sites like tinder, watching porn, getting a message with a happy ending, or day dreaming about a hot colleague constitute cheating? What about an emotional affair without a sexual component? Or an emotionally meaningless one night stand? It seems there is a fundamental paradox in the way we think about cheating and how we act. For example, 95% of people say it would be terribly wrong for our partners to lie if they were having an affair but 95% also say that this is exactly what they would be doing if they were having one. And no matter how much we pay lip service to being monogamous and expect our partners to be, who can honestly say they have never been attracted to another person while being in a happy relationship with a current partner?
It’s never been easier to cheat and it has never been more difficult to keep it secret.
Monogamy has been around in Western cultures since the Romans copied the idea from the Greeks and spread it throughout their empire. Christianity then did the rest. Monogamy is deeply entrenched in our cultural framework, yet there are signs that this is starting to change. Today, we live in a culture where we do not only feel entitled to be happy but we also have many possibilities at our hands that enable us to find other partners behind the backs of our boyfriends, girlfriends or spouses. As Esther Perel puts it in her Ted talk on Infidelity, ‘It’s never been easier to cheat and it has never been more difficult to keep it secret.’ This is due to the high degree of digital connectedness, the endless memory of the internet and the virtual documentation of most of our communication. So, on the one hand we now live in a culture where we sex has become an omnipresent commodity that can be easily accessed, where breaching sexual norms and taboos is a source of entertainment in day time TV talk shows and where the sense of entitlement to fulfil our desires is so strong, that people no longer divorce because they are unhappy but because they could be happier. But despite all of this, we still hold on to our values of monogamy. Even if it means lying to the faces of our loved ones. Given the fact that affairs have such a devastating and often traumatic effect on the deceived partner once discovered, why do we stick to this secretive culture of cheating? Is there another way?
Some couples choose different approaches. Open relationships, where both partners are allowed sexual endeavours outside of the relationship have been en vogue since the hippie days and seem to now be making a comeback if they have ever disappeared. And polyamory, meaning having multiple love partners at the same time, while still being practiced only by a small minority, has also become a lot more visible and tolerated in the last few years. This might be a sign of a profound value shift towards honesty and transparency that allows for the consensual exploration of non-monogamous love. So what open relationship styles are there, and how does it work? What are the problems that come with this type of love-style choice? What are its rewards? We will explore these questions in a longer article in our next issue that features interviews with couples that have chosen different forms of non-monogamy. Stay tuned for more.