RE­LA­TION­SHIP

Is cheat­ing the se­cret to your hap­pily ever af­ter?

ELLE (Canada) - - Storyboard - ByCourt­neyShea

Why some women are cre­at­ing their own post-monogamy re­al­ity.

A MOM SLEEP­ING with her di­eti­tian be­fore giv­ing birth to baby num­ber four. An in­vest­ment banker who hooked up with some­one she met on a busi­ness trip. A teacher who would have reg­u­lar sup­ply-closet ren­dezvous with a co-worker turned lover. What do these women have in com­mon? They are all hap­pily mar­ried.

“Not once dur­ing my af­fair did I think I wanted to end my mar­riage,” says An­nie,* the teacher who fell for a col­league de­spite be­ing in what she says is a ful­fill­ing re­la­tion­ship with her hus­band of six years, Josh.* “Hav­ing an af­fair felt like I was giv­ing my­self per­mis­sion to do some­thing that was just for me.”

This “me first” sen­ti­ment is com­mon among a grow­ing co­hort of cheaters: women who are sub­vert­ing stereo­types (think the pas­sive vic­tim, the venge­ful bunny boiler) and in­stead star­ring in a new type of in­fi­delity nar­ra­tive—one that is less about re­ject­ing com­mit­ment and more about re­lax­ing the rules around it.

Ac­cord­ing to studies from the Na­tional Opin­ion Re­search Cen­ter at the Univer­sity of Chicago, rates of re­ported fe­male in­fi­delity spiked by nearly 40 per­cent be­tween 1990 and 2010, while the stats for men have more or less stayed the same. And while there is no one rea­son why women (or men) cheat, it does seem like the cur­rent cir­cum­stances of our gen­der are a fac­tor for some. Namely that for women who feel suf­fo­cated by the im­pos­si­ble ex­pec­ta­tions of mod­ern wom­an­hood (where “hav­ing it all” can feel like not just an op­por­tu­nity but a man­date), in­fi­delity has emerged as an un­likely but po­ten­tially ef­fec­tive re­lease—cheaper than a lux­ury spa, eas­ier than ever thanks to the In­ter­net and maybe not even at odds with hap­pily ever af­ter.

For her 2017 book, The Se­cret Life of the Cheat­ing Wife, Ali­cia M. Walker, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy at Mis­souri State Univer­sity, spoke to 46 women who had cheated on their part­ners via ash­ley­madi­son.com, a Cana­dian dat­ing web­site and app that fa­cil­i­tates ex­tra­mar­i­tal hookups the way Uber fa­cil­i­tates trans­porta­tion. Go­ing into her re­search, Walker ex­pected to hear a lot about ter­ri­ble part­ners, but, in­stead, in ev­ery sin­gle case, “the women talked about their affairs as [be­ing] an ex­er­cise in power or per­sonal author­ity.” It’s a power, she says, from which many of them feel dis­con­nected in their dayto-day lives: “They feel locked into these roles and so­cial ex­pec­ta­tions [around] what it means to be a wife and a mother.” Walker tells me that for her sub­jects, hav­ing an af­fair was a form of self-ex­plo­ration—a way to in­dulge a side of their per­son­al­ity that they gen­er­ally sup­pressed. I joke that it’s like the end of Grease, when goody-goody Sandy trans­forms into a smok­ing mo­tor­cy­cle mama clad in black leather. “Ex­actly! And then she changes back,” says Walker, which re­flects what she iden­ti­fies as the most sur­pris­ing take­away from her re­search: “These women were cheat­ing not as a way to get out of their re­la­tion­ships but to stay in them.”

Take the preg­nant mom of three: Her trans­gres­sion was a pri­vate self-in­dul­gence be­fore re-en­ter­ing the world of di­a­per duty. One for­mer col­league refers to her sex­ting with a sub­or­di­nate as “blow­ing off steam” be­fore she goes home to her hus­band. (In the mod­ern in­fi­delity lex­i­con, this qual­i­fies her as a “mi­cro-cheater,” a term for the grey area be­tween flirt­ing and be­ing un­faith­ful.) Even the way that mar­ried/com­mit­ted women de­light in “play­ing Tin­der” on their sin­gle friends’ phones speaks to this idea of in­fi­delity as a form of tem­po­rary es­capism—more of a sexy week­end get­away than a per­ma­nent move.

What ex­actly we are es­cap­ing from is a topic Es­ther Perel ad­dresses in her 2017 book The State of Affairs: Re­think­ing In­fi­delity. The Bel­gian psy­chother­a­pist (and reign­ing global in­fi­delity ex­pert) based her re­search on the rev­o­lu­tion­ary premise that peo­ple in happy re­la­tion­ships cheat not be­cause they want to leave the mar­riage but be­cause they want to leave the per­son they’ve be­come.

Mar­riage, Perel notes, be­gan as a prac­ti­cal ar­range­ment (“to know who our chil­dren are and who gets the cows when I die,” as she says in her 2015 TED Talk), whereas to­day’s ro­man­tic ideals are any­thing but prag­matic. Perel talks about how in­fi­delity shat­ters this “grand am­bi­tion of love” but also how the very grand­ness of that am­bi­tion it­self is part of the prob­lem. And maybe you’re think­ing “But wait—my grand­par­ents had a ro­mance for the ages, loved each other ’til their last breath and never cast their eyes on an­other.” But take into ac­count that your grandma prob­a­bly didn’t ex­pect Gramps to be her BFF, her pas­sion­ate lover, a per­fect par­ent, a strong pro­tec­tor, a sen­si­tive con­fi­dant, a du­ti­ful sous-chef and a week­end Ikea com­pan­ion. She wasn’t in­un­dated by mes­sag­ing of the well­ness cul­ture telling her to live her “best life” (or else). And she def­i­nitely didn’t com­pare her re­la­tion­ship to the per­fect cou­ples we now see splashed across mag­a­zines and In­sta­gram feeds. Even as we un­der­stand that these im­ages are ex­tremely fil­tered (if not en­tirely fake), we in­ter­nal­ize the im­pos­si­ble stan­dards, and our own re­la­tion­ships come up short by com­par­i­son.

“No ques­tion there’s a cor­re­la­tion be­tween the sat­is­fac­tion we ex­pe­ri­ence in re­la­tion­ships and the ex­pec­ta­tions we place on them,” says Jess O’Reilly, a Toronto sex and re­la­tion­ships coun­sel­lor with a Ph.D. in hu­man sex­u­al­ity and host of the Sex with Dr. Jess pod­cast. This is par­tic­u­larly rel­e­vant to the is­sue of fe­male in­fi­delity since women are not only the main per­pet­u­a­tors of mod­ern #re­la­tion­ship­goals but also tend to be the un­of­fi­cial cus­to­di­ans of re­la­tion­ships. Sta­tis­ti­cally we do the ma­jor­ity of both do­mes­tic and emo­tional labour in our ro­man­tic part­ner­ships. And cul­tur­ally we are ex­pected to sur­ren­der so much of our per­sonal iden­ti­ties to our roles as care­givers, part­ners and par­ents. “Women are ex­pected to be a lot of things to a lot of peo­ple,” says O’Reilly. Which is part of what we may be push­ing back against when we cheat.

The other part may be monogamy it­self, or at least the idea of one-size-fits-all when it comes to happy re­la­tion­ships. My friend, the one who had the af­fair on the busi­ness trip, told me that part of what made the ex­pe­ri­ence so at­trac­tive was the feel­ing that she was ac­tu­ally mak­ing a choice. When she thinks back on the de­ci­sions she made to part­ner up and have chil­dren, she says: “It’s not that I nec­es­sar­ily re­gret mak­ing those choices. It’s more that I re­al­ize I didn’t see them as choices—just as the next step.” She wor­ries about what ex­pos­ing her in­fi­delity could do to her part­ner and her kids, which is an im­por­tant point to high­light amid all this talk of em­pow­ered fe­male phi­lan­der­ers. Gen­der not with­stand­ing, there are dif­fer­ences be­tween adopt­ing a new Bikram-yoga prac­tice and be­tray­ing your spouse. In­fi­delity can be dev­as­tat­ing, and, cer­tainly, there are more ef­fec­tive and hon­est ways to han­dle dis­sat­is­fac­tion in long-term re­la­tion­ships.

So how do we move for­ward? In a time when fewer of us are sign­ing up for ’til death do us part (for the first time in Cana­dian his­tory, there are more un­mar­ried adults than mar­ried) and more and more peo­ple are ex­plor­ing less tra­di­tional re­la­tion­ship struc­tures, maybe the first step is rec­og­niz­ing our brave new post-monogamy re­al­ity—one in which choice is the se­cret to hap­pily ever af­ter. n

* Name has been changed.

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