I’m in a cab late at night making conversation with the typically chatty driver; I realize I’ve lost my keys and have to find a place to crash. Texting frantically, I mutter aloud that I’m pretty sure my boyfriend’s asleep, and tell the cabbie I’m going to try my girlfriend’s phone.
He breaks into a grin. “How do you pull that off? Nah, you don’t have to tell me. I’m not one to judge.”
The assumption that I’m cheating and getting away with it would have me fuming if it weren’t so reasonable. Commonly cited estimates of the frequency of reported infidelity range from 18 percent to 60 percent of married couples (this more comprehensive study puts the number at about 25 percent for women and 34 percent for men). I can’t fault someone for assuming I’m the perpetrator of an act so commonly discussed that there are people whose entire career is based on addressing it.
The truth is, I’m polyamorous, and my two partners are friends and they have other partners and we all communicate as honestly as we can about what’s going on and sometimes we have pancakes together at my house. Our relationship structure is better defined by what it lacks than what it includes: polyamory, for me, means we don’t consider monogamy a necessary part of a valuable, healthy relationship.
The cultural expectation of monogamy—what I call “monogamy culture,” as opposed to monogamy in and of itself—can more easily lend itself to staying with partners out of obligation to them, or to what the excellent book and site More Than Two calls the “relationship escalator” (move in together, marry, buy a house, kids, etc.) rather than doing exactly what makes sense for the particular relationship that you’re in. I really enjoy spending time with both of my partners, but we don’t want to move in together—and that’s fine. If I wanted a relationship where I lived with a partner, I wouldn’t have to break up with either of them in order to seek it out. But in monogamy, if you really like a person but you don’t want the same things, you generally have to compromise or end it.
Everyone’s talking about infidelity this week thanks to Ashley Madison. It’s the site that helps people cheat on their spouses; recent hacking revealed the names of many people, including the infamous Josh Duggar, who frequented the service. While I’m not particularly interested in Josh Duggar—he’s an abuser and likely got what was coming to him—I’m very interested in this response from relationship advice columnist Dan Savage. In a nutshell: If your spouse has cheated on you, do you really want to know?
As a person for whom monogamy has generally not worked out, for whom polyamory has been a (perhaps literal) lifesaver, and who will rap on the problems with monogamy culture to anyone who asks (and probably to a lot of people who didn’t), I’m here to say that if your partner is cheating on you, you have a right to know and you have a right to, as Dan Savage often puts it, DTMFA.
Savage points out that many victims of infidelity report that in retrospect, they’d prefer to never have known about a partner’s cheating, especially if (they believe) it was an isolated incident. I’d argue that that’s irrelevant. What we’re talking about here is consent.
If we’re roommates and my cat poops in your bed and I’m not sure whether to tell you or just clean it up and hope you don’t notice, it doesn’t matter whether all my friends tell me they’d want to know or they think I should keep it a secret. Without the information to make an informed decision about something that affects you as my roommate (do you want to launder the bed professionally? Use a particular cleaning product? Kick me out? Enforce a no-pets-in-the-bedroom policy? Laugh about it?), you cannot, by definition, give informed consent as to what to do about it. Even if 99 people tell you they think your spouse would rather not know about your cheating, that does not amount to your spouse’s own consent to being kept in the dark.
Savage also points out that there’s a lot of fake garbage on the Internet, and finding your spouse’s name on Ashley Madison isn’t necessarily incontrovertible evidence. I don’t disagree. Much evidence of cheating—suspicious text messages or emails left open, unfamiliar clothing in the laundry or trunk, etc.—can have an innocent explanation. It’s important to consider evidence of cheating the same way we weigh and assess any evidence, difficult and emotionally charged as it may be. But everyone has a right to question their partner when there’s a reason to be suspicious, and a right to decide whether the response is acceptable. (The accused cheater has a right to walk away or suggest counseling, too, if there’s clearly an unfounded lack of trust coming into play.)
Finally, Savage chalks cheating up to a necessary risk of relationships almost outside the couple’s control: If you’d do anything for your partner, he asks, shouldn’t that include putting up with cheating?
Savage has often said that cheaters give polyamorous folks a bad name, and he’s right. They call into Savage Love or pour their hearts out in bars about how they think they’re just “not cut out for monogamy,” using it as an excuse to constantly string partners along while they lie and sleep around behind their backs. If you don’t want to be monogamous, be up-front about that and have enough respect for your partner to let them decide whether to continue the relationship. Yes, monogamy is our cultural standard and it’s not easy to be openly polyamorous. Lying and cheating is easier. It’s also wrong. Any asshole, monogamous or polyamorous, can lie.
I’d be fine with eliminating monogamy culture entirely, and I still object to the comparison of putting up with cheating to “taking a bullet.” I don’t think of cheating as a “natural” result of monogamy for any couple with the ability to communicate with one another and a modicum of mutual respect. If you can’t tell your partner you aren’t a monogamy person, you can’t build a relationship of equality and honesty—the kind of relationship I think all of us deserve, in whatever form it takes.
Every cheating outcome depends on the circumstances of the cheating, the relationship of the couple, the circumstances of the discovery of the infidelity, and the attempt (or lack thereof) at resolution. For some couples, cheating is just a symptom of a rough period, and they value their overall investment enough to work through it together. For others, trust is damaged irrevocably. The decision is (almost) never easy. But if you’re the cheater, you do not get to make this decision yourself. Ignorance is not bliss—it’s nonconsensual conflict resolution that reflects both a lack of respect for your partner’s autonomy and a lack of trust in the relationship’s ability to survive. And if your relationship couldn’t survive a major setback, is it really worth lying for?
Featured Image: Ashley Madison