I thought I had a solid opinion on infidelity. Then a discussion about adultery laws in India brought out a number of other nuances and now I’m not quite sure. (Note: I believe polyamory/ open relationships/ any relationship model with enthusiastic consent by all adults concerned is NOT infidelity.)
I negotiate a confusing world by taking a long term view. What are the consequences of cheating? I am not able to be impersonal or impartial about infidelity. It comes from having been cheated on, experiencing devastation at the hands of other people’s cruelty. Cheating is a form of abuse, just like violence, control, rape and manipulation. The kind of shock this delivers to your system is permanent. You feel the ground shift beneath your feet and turn to air. Once you’ve experienced that, even after you recover, every decision you take thereafter is tainted with the terror of it happening again. You watch every mouthful you eat in other people’s company, lest it be poisoned. You triple check each time you cross a road. You look over your shoulder when you login to your email, your bank accounts. You have been permanently made aware of the fragility of your peace of mind. Thus cheating is always about disrespect for the partner, a deliberate act of violence against them. Even in retaliation (as I laid out in my earlier post). Even in the selfishness of ‘it happened in the heat of the moment’. Disrespect, callousness, violence, premeditated malice – all of these leave deep, lingering wounds inside our own pysche.
Infidelity: It’s personal.
I pondered the question of cheating from within my own love life journey. Many years ago, a woman in my social circle began an insidious attack on me. She flirted with two different people I dated (one right after we’d broken up and the second while I was with that person), spread rumours about me, copied bits & pieces of my life but with coy laughter so others put off by my more brusque nature decided to side with her. Things came to a head when the person I was with cheated on me with her, despite knowing she made me deeply uncomfortable. I’m inclined to think that was precisely the reason he cheated. No, they did not end up together. That offers me no comfort since I know they didn’t do what they did because they liked each other more than they liked me. They cheated because they wanted to hurt me.
Years later, a different social circle wanted to set me up with someone. I realised that he was the guy she liked (she had been talking about him). His friends told me, “We don’t like her at all. But you’re great. You and he would get along so well!” I found myself at one of those life-defining crossroads. I could hurt her so badly if I wanted. And I didn’t even want him. But, I realised that was the most important thing of all to me. I would never want to be with someone if I didn’t want them for themselves, but only to hurt someone else. That is just not me.
The issue of abuse came up in the original discussion and there too I have a personal experience to think it through.
I have been made to feel like a fool for being in this relationship and for trying to make it work. Equally I have been shamed for that relationship ending (with zero repercussions for the abuser). In many contemporary discussions, I feel shamed for staying faithful to someone who treated me with disrespect. Did he deserve that? Where does morality sit when it clashes with shame? If I had cheated, I would have been raked over the coals but nobody considers his violence, his control & gaslighting, his entire reign of abuse wrong. Wasn’t that infidelity as well? Is morality supposed to work differently for different genders?
A decade later, I’m relieved that I did not succumb to temptation. If I had, it would have been a reaction to my partner’s abuse and a weak reaction at that – there’s nothing powerful about spite. I’d have always wondered whether I truly liked the other person. It would have been such a disrespectful thing to do to that other peson, weaponising them to hurt my partner. I don’t think anything good would have come of it in the long run. And it would have been a poor portion of love & attention for me, just because I was being served poison from my partner. This is not about whether my ex ‘deserved’ my loyalty. It’s about whether I deserved to live with a lie that I had wrought.
Detangling the other emotions that come up
I find myself examining the shame leveled at me for other people’s misbehaviour. “Why do you keep getting into these situations?” sounds a lot like “What did you do to deserve it?” and it’s just a step away from “Men will be men”. I understand that doing self work is more empowering than playing victim. But we need to go down that path carefully. Remember pharmaceuticals are drugs, just as much as the things they treat you for. I cannot heal from being cheated on if I must assume that it was my fault or that I deserved it or that a whole gender is incapable of basic humanity.
Vindictiveness seems to go hand in hand with shame. Neither are a good look for me. I just don’t like how they sit inside my stomach, my heart. They make me so uncomfortable, I’d rather be heartbroken. Both are temporary escapes from the wounds inside and they come at too high costs. I can’t heal myself by inflicting wounds on other people. Social media warriors have been keen to push me to an extreme reaction of hatred. They suggest that I have ‘internalised misogyny’ because my actions to my abusive ex were not outright vengeful. Friends tell me ‘Forget him because that’s what will hurt him’ which does not sound like healing either. And justice? That would have been to never break my trust, to never have assaulted me. But I can’t turn back time. And I’m brutally silenced when I say rage does not aid my healing.
I have not been protected from other instances of cheating either. The older I get, the easier I heal. But it seems like the less power men have to threaten me, the more violent they get. I get the feeling that men don’t actually like me and romance/sex are just ways for men to humiliate me. How does one heal from gunshot wounds when the bullets are still coming? I didn’t ask to be feminist but as long as I live in a society that weaponises sex & romance as ways to hurt women, I have to be one just to survive.
In fact, this wasn’t even a post, it was a reply tweet that I was rock solid sure of. When the questions of abuse and gender disparity came up, I realised just how overwhelming are the emotions that follow cheating. We don’t always make the right decisions while in the throes of intense emotion. I needed two posts and several weeks to work through all the feelings this brought up (and I’m still figuring it out). By ‘right decisions’, I mean ones that further us, cause least devastation to the world around us and bring us more learning than regret. But that definition is mine, it says something about who I am choosing to become. And it’s neither right nor wrong; it’s just how I live my life. Infidelity is a cruel but gifted teacher in the lessons of life.
What does really mean to forgive infidelity?
I’m told time and again, that forgiveness is about releasing the burden of someone else’s misdeeds. But we are not a world that understands healing. We do understand revenge. Our idea of justice is a punitive one. Our notions of emotional wellbeing are transactional.
I have never experienced a genuine apology for a betrayal. I’ve heard many sorries and they always come with the MASSIVE pressure of ‘forget about it now and let’s go back to how things were before’. How does that happen? When an act of betrayal occurs, when a callous thing is said, when a malicious act is plotted, when a trust is broken, something is irrevocably shattered. Sorry acknowledges that this happens. Forgiveness is about the wronged person being able to move forward with their life, however they choose. But the onus of cleaning up the mess lies with the perpetrator. How do people fall so short when they apologise? Because they aren’t really apologising, they’re expecting the person they hurt to absolve their guilt.
I find myself at a standstill here. My life has moved (everlastingly slowly) out of that dark hellhole of betrayal and wounded loneliness. It’s not as clean as ‘I got over it’. I had to claw my way out when no help or sympathy was forthcoming. I learnt to tolerate the dismissiveness of friends, the callousness of those who refused to take a stand for me because I just didn’t have the energy to call out their betrayals and also draw my next breath. This is not forgiveness or peace but it is a truce with the way things are. A battlefield doctor is as much a healer as a peacetime physician even if their methods seem different.
Finding morality in a cheating world
Cheating inevitably brings up questions of morality. I just finished reading ‘Talk Bookish To Me‘. It feels honest to have love stories now that talk about cheating. It seems that cowardice, betrayal, malice are equal parts of human existence and indeed our interactions with each other. A dialogue in the book asks,
“Are they a bad person or just a good person who made a horrible mistake?”
Do I have the moral largesse to decide who is good or bad? Can I believe that, when I am unable to forgive people for being weak? To be truly wise in decisions of good or bad, I need to feel trust in the general integrity of the world. But something foundational has been broken by betrayal. Trust becomes hard and with that, inner peace is impossible. Infidelity is that pesky fly that continues to break my reverie.
The Good Place is a delightful treatise on ethics, that starts with the question of ‘What do we owe each other’? It seems to conflict with ‘What do I owe myself?’. But maybe these two are not different. I owe the universe (including me and others in it) a fundamental commitment.
Time and distance away has let me notice the self-hate (because what else is aggression?) of people. Abusers, cheaters and other people who hurt people are damaged to the point where they are not people anymore, only wrecking balls. It hurts to get in their way but I will not become them.
I’m realising I cannot save them. I only need to save myself and do so without sending anything their way from me, not even malice. I’ve carried too much for too long in resentment and space given to being gaslit. The weight of other people’s life lessons is too big a burden to bear. I must heal the way I know best, from facing & enduring. And leave others to their lessons and journeys. I’m grateful to be alive, to have the opportunity to speak to people who are kinder, to experience flowers that are gentler than words, to know emotions that are kinder than rage. It is too heavy to carry ‘should have’s.
Maybe the most I can commit to, is to being honest. But honesty is weaponised and can cause more damage than growth when used that way. So we must also commit to respect. Respect ends up being ritual-locked into dead labels and irrelevant systems. It must be something that flows, morphs, evolves and stays rich without clinging. Can I, we, then commit to this – to being okay not having a defined term for it, to keeping it free of the baggage of associations, to keeping it free for everyone to adapt to their lives? It must be a sense of wonder for all that we do not know, for all that we cannot see (which includes why other people do what they do). Patience, if we are not wise enough to understand, to sit with behaviours that seem unfathomable to us. Kindness is a nice word to use for that. Yet, how kind is it to mistrust & pretend that you trust because you’re hostage to a rigid idea of healing? That is once again a lie and we’re back to the a place of unkindness. Since I cannot be truly kind, I strive for detachment.
Let me not add poison and let me not add sugar either. Let me add nothing. It feels doable in a way that nothing else does. Forgiveness remains at large. I can’t see it. Until I do, I will need to distance from people trying to convince me to smoke a poisoned cigarette while respecting their need to do so (and that it may not be poison to them). Lighthearted reads could break my heart just as easily as someone I once loved. But there are flowers and sometimes life is a good place.