Why Do Monogamous People Support Cheating?
- 25 Sep
Why Do Monogamous People Support Cheating?
Let me begin with a story: several years ago, I was sitting in a bar with some friends who had brought along some people I’d never met before. One of them, a woman I’ll call Judy, sat next to me and struck up a conversation. It didn’t take long before I noticed a definite mutual attraction, so I made it a point to bring up early on that I had a girlfriend. It was my first polyamorous relationship, though, so I was still uncertain on how to bring up that detail, so I waited to bring it up at a later time (which was definitely my biggest mistake in this story).
Judy didn’t seem particularly phased to hear this. If anything, she started flirting even more intensely. So I happily reciprocated. We kept this going for a couple of hours. Finally, after almost all of our friends had left, Judy finished off her drink with a flourish and said, “How about we keep this going back at my place?” I was giddy. “Sure!” I said, and pulled out my phone. “I just need to let my girlfriend know where I’m going to be.”
She blinked. “Um, that’s… what are you going to tell her?”“Well, I don’t want to be presumptuous or anything…” Don’t blow it… don’t blow it… “I thought we were going to, um…”“Hook up. Yeah.” She smirked, then got a serious look. “But what are you going to tell her?” “Uh, pretty much that. We have an open relationship, we just have to keep each other informed…”
At which point Judy lost it. She got up so fast that she knocked her chair over and spilled her ice, her face was red and she was shaking. “That’s fucking SICK,” she spat, and then stormed out of the bar. Okay. So, first a disclaimer: I absolutely should have mentioned that part early on. The “ethical” part of ethical non-monogamy says that’s pretty much a no-brainer, but I’m awkward and am very good at putting things off when I don’t know what else to do. So I’m by no means faultless in this story.
But I still felt pretty righteously indignant and angrily confused over how she responded. After all, I had made it completely clear early on that I was seeing somebody. The fact that she only got mad after I told her that my girlfriend was okay with me hooking up with her meant that she was perfectly okay with cheating, it was polyamory where she drew the line. This allowed me to feel morally superior to her – after all, how fucked up do you have to be to think that cheating is somehow better than poly?
In retrospect, however, I don’t think it was quite that simple. Judy wasn’t just angry about my revelation – she was completely baffled by it. And I think I know why: to Judy (and to many other people in mainstream-monogamous culture) cheating is something that happens all the time, and therefore makes a certain amount of sense. Sure, you’re not supposed to cheat, but it’s acknowledged that it’s very common – so common that all you have to do is Google “affair dating sites” and you’ll be flooded with results. It’s an integral plot twist in almost every romance movie or novel. Quite simply, cheating is something we are culturally trained to understand, even to expect. And in the process we are also trained how to cheat: Be discrete. Be deceitful. And for fuck’s sake, don’t ask your partner for permission.
Polyamory, however, makes very little sense if you haven’t encountered the idea before (and even then, for many monogamous people, it will never make any sense). Finding examples of it in popular culture are difficult, and in almost all cases where it does appear it’s portrayed as being impossible to pull off and is only practiced by freaks and degenerates (don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of poly freaks and degenerates, but we’re not the only kind of poly folk). Judy quite simply didn’t have a social script to follow at that point – which is scary enough when you’re sober, and I imagine is even more terrifying if you’ve had as many tequila shots as we had that night.
For Judy and other people like her, cheating is far preferable to polyamory, but not just because she can understand it better. Another major appeal to cheating is that it makes the person you’re having the affair with special. You are so attracted to this person that you are willing to break your commitment to your partner, even risk losing your relationship entirely, to be with them. That’s an extremely flattering thing when you think about it. Totally unethical, but flattering.
We shouldn’t forget the gender angle in this as well: in mainstream American culture, women are taught from childhood that their main source of value and self-worth rests in how much attention they can get from men. If that attention comes at the cost of attention to some other woman, then all the better, because it means that you’re more valuable than she is.
For people like Judy, being the “other woman” in a polyamorous relationship does not have that kind of value. It’s much worse, in fact: to her mind, it must have sounded like, “I’ll fuck you, but my girlfriend is the one who really matters.” Words “whore” and “slut” – words that are constantly used to tell women they have no value – probably sprang to mind to describe how I was treating her. No wonder she was so offended.
I tell this story not to let poly folk feel morally superior to mainstream monogamists. While I still find her reaction hurtful, I feel like I can empathize with Judy now better than I could at the time. And I hope that in turn we as a community can better understand how our lifestyle might sound to the uninitiated. We also need to recognize the kinds of cultural barriers we face in overcoming the deep stigma currently associated with our lifestyle, and be ready to do some serious self-reflection about why we have that stigma to begin with.
And one that note about self-reflection, I’d like to offer a word to “Judy,” if you ever happen to read this: I’m sorry. I should have been more upfront from the start, and I should have tried to explain better. That being said, I hope you’ve taken the time for some self-reflection as well. Because seriously, why would it have been okay if I’d been cheating?