This post is a tangent off of my series on Pagans and Predators. I want to talk a little bit about cheating, in other words, infidelity, and why cheating is 1. bad and 2. a red flag as far as the issue of predatory behavior in the Pagan community. Well–in any community, for that matter.
I hear a lot of Pagans prevaricate and tell me, “Cheating’s not so bad, you shouldn’t be so hard on people just for cheating. It’s not like it’s abuse or something like that.”
And in some cases they are right, and in some cases they are wrong.
So let’s look at what cheating is, and talk about different types of cheating. In any scenario I can think of, cheating is a lie. It’s breaking a promise. It’s breaking a contract you made with one (or more) partners.
So–I’m not talking about polyamory, swinging, or other forms of ethical non-monogamy. I’m talking about making a commitment to be with someone or someones, and then sneaking around and beginning a new relationship or having sex behind that person’s back and lying to your original partner(s) about it.
Before we go too much further into this, let me clarify that I’m not writing this as a sexual prude. I write erotic romance novels, I write articles about sexual pleasure, and I’ve been inn polyamorous relationships. I’m pretty comfortable with my sexuality.
Apparently, we first have to talk about why cheating is bad. For me it’s pretty obvious; you’re lying to someone you made a promise to. You’re lying to someone you are supposed to love. But, I hear from so many Pagans that cheating “isn’t that bad” so let’s talk about why it is.
Lying is bad. Breaking agreements is bad. Exposing your partner to STDs they don’t know they are getting exposed to is bad.
Cheating = Empowerment?
Perhaps important to first talk about why people think that cheating is somehow positive. I have heard more than one person use the phrase, “What happens at a festival stays at the festival,” or, “What my baby back home doesn’t know won’t hurt them.” I’ve heard people–usually women–talk about how sexually empowering it is to come to a festival and be able to be free and have sex with someone new, even though their husband back home doesn’t know about it.
I’ve heard people spout a lot of stuff that’s a mishmash of sex positive, empowerment, and sexual freedom. “Let’s not be constrained by what the dominant culture tells us. We have power over our own bodies.”
Yes…that’s true. But lying is still lying, and if you made an agreement to be monogamous, for instance, breaking that is still lying.
I’ve also had people try to convince me that if Partner A is cheating on Partner B, then that’s just a sign that that Partner B is failing to meet Partner A’s needs and it’s logical for Partner A to seek out someone new to meet those needs. In other words, implying that Partner A’s not at all in the wrong for breaking agreements and that it all falls on Partner B for some kind of relationship failure.
Now–as with just about anything that I write about, it’s not clean. It’s not easy. And there is a heck of a lot of gray area.
Sometimes, yes–Partner A is cheating on Partner B, and Partner B is incredibly abusive and Partner A is acting out.
Sometimes, Partner A cheats on Partner B and in doing so realizes that the relationship with Partner B is really in its death throes, and that gives them the clarity to formally break things off with Partner B. Sometimes we’ll just stay in a dying relationship until there’s a catalyst like that.
Sometimes, Partner A is discovering they have sexual needs that Partner B cannot meet. Perhaps Partner A realizes they are gay, or realizes that they have a specific fetish. Partner A and Partner B aren’t going to be happy with one another and again, sometimes it takes a catalyst to realize what’s going wrong in the relationship.
That’s Not Poly
There’s a particular type of cheating that I’ve unfortunately been party to. That’s where the person–usually male–who says, “Oh, yeah, I have a girlfriend/wife, but it’s ok, we’re poly.” I have been with a couple of men who pulled this one on me. My ex fiance did this to me.
The first time this happened to me, here’s how it went. I went out with a Pagan guy in another city. A couple of months later he was going to travel to Chicago for business and he asked if he could see me again and stay with me. I said sure. During his six hour drive to Chicago, his girlfriend messaged me on Yahoo messenger. She begged me not to sleep with her boyfriend. She’d broken into his computer and found my contact info; apparently this wasn’t the first time he’d cheated on her and she was suspicious.
She, like her boyfriend, was Pagan. She thought I was actively aware that he had a girlfriend, and that I was party to the cheating. She had gotten incredibly angry and thought I was a total hypocrite. I was already starting to teach leadership at that time. She had decided that any group I was a part of must also be hypocritical, and she had (in her anger over all this) decided to not go to any Pagan events because all Pagans were hypocrites and cheaters. Obviously she was really upset.
The truth was, I didn’t know that he was cheating; he’d told me he was polyamorous.
I talked to her for about five hours and tried to help calm her down. We discussed her fears about STDs (women in her family tend to get ovarian cancer, which is often caused by HPV, and condoms don’t protect from HPV). And we discussed how often he’d done this and I observed that if he’d done it that many times, he probably wasn’t going to stop cheating.
When he arrived at my place, I informed him that he was welcome to sleep on the couch and I wouldn’t kick him out on the street, but that we were going to have an unpleasant conversation.
Lying About Abuse
Sadly, that’s not the only time I’ve been duped by someone lying about the status of their relationship. My oft-mentioned ex fiance and I got together while he was still with his wife. He’d described his relationship with her as being “in name only” just for the sake of raising the kids. For reasons I won’t get into, it seemed realistic. Only later I realized it’s because he was really good at lying, and I was really good at falling for it, to my deep embarrassment.
After a week or two, I realized that his wife was not on the same page with him on this and I confronted him about that. He broke down crying and “revealed” how abusive his wife was, how crazy, and that she tried to attack him whenever he tried to break up with her, or she’d threaten suicide or threaten to take the kids.
And…I believed him.
I told him that I couldn’t be with him until they were clearly separated. Weeks later he was, and she vanished from the city with the kids. He made it sound like she’d all but kidnapped them. I’m ashamed to say I believed his lies. In truth, his wife was at the end of her rope from dealing with his abusive, insane behavior.
Years later, that was me. I was hearing from women he’d flirted with to the point of sexual harassment. I was hearing from women he’d had sex with; he had lied and told them that he and I were poly. Months after he left, I started hearing from his next girlfriend that he’d already cheated on her. Gods know what STDs he exposed me to. I remember waiting to get tested, dreading what I’d find out. And then I thought about his ex wife, and how she’d gone through all of that, and how I had believed him, believed his lies.
The problem with cheating is, it’s a lie. And repeat cheaters seem very comfortable with lying in order to get what they want.
Flirting as Sport
I was a guest presenter at a festival where there was a guy who later told me he was flirting with me. I didn’t notice because I can be generally clueless, but I also kind of shut off any “flirt engine” when I’m teaching. He began flirting with me online. I asked him if he had a girlfriend and he said yes, but implied that their relationship was ending or that it may already have ended. The flirtation dialed back a bit, and then I didn’t hear from him for a while.
I saw him at another festival and asked him what had happened. He said that he was incorrect, that his relationship was not ending. I said that I had a problem with him flirting like that when he wasn’t yet clear of another relationship. He said, “Oh, my girlfriend’s ok with flirting as long as it stops there.” He went on to say that he found flirting to be a high art form and he was determined to become a master of it.
I pointed out that I didn’t really find I was getting the benefit of an art form, I was just being jerked around, and for that matter, was his girlfriend aware he’d been flirting with me or had he lied about that too?
While this just brushes the borderlands of cheating, it sure didn’t feel right to me. I also have some issues with the idea of flirting as an art form, and I’m having trouble putting my finger on what creeps me out about it.
I want to give this guy the benefit of the doubt–he’s a nice guy, fun to talk to. But this whole scenario just felt off to me. Maybe I’m overreacting because I’ve been duped a few times.
Covering for a Cheater
I’ve heard people tell me that if they are seeing someone who’s cheating, it’s not their responsibility, it’s the cheater’s. And I’ve also heard people tell me that they knew a friend of theirs was cheating, and they not only didn’t say anything to that person’s partner, they helped cover for them.
If you do this, you are complicit. You are a part of the lie. Think about it this way; if you help a cheater cover things up, and that person’s original partner contracts HIV because of the cheating, you bear some responsibility for that. How would you feel?
We Didn’t Have Sex, it Wasn’t Cheating, Right?
Just because two people didn’t have sex, doesn’t mean that there isn’t cheating. The core of the cheating is the lying. It’s doing something outside of the scope of your agreements with your partner(s) and lying. And, I include omission as a lie in this circumstance. Starting a relationship with someone new, even if it’s “just” online, is still cheating.
Now–I’m not suggesting that people in a partnership can’t have friendships. But I think most of us know when things are shifting from “just friends” to “sexual tension.” And yes, of course, just because we fall for someone doesn’t mean we don’t sometimes get attracted to other people. But there’s a big difference between acknowledging we think someone’s hot, and acting on it in a way that’s outside our agreements with our current partner(s).
And as we’ve already covered, there are those times when some folks might begin to establish a relationship with someone new, and in doing so, realize that their original relationship isn’t working for them.
When Cheating is a Useful Sign
I have two friends. Woman A was in the middle of a divorce, Man B wanted to be in the middle of a divorce but hadn’t broken things off with his wife. Now…when I met Man B, he was kind of a gregarious, flirtatious guy. He had represented his wife as his “ex wife” but I later found out that she wasn’t aware that she was his ex. Woman A and Man B are both part of the same magical/spiritual group, and that group has guidelines about dating within the group.
Woman A and Man B started having sex. They lied about it to their spiritual group and to friends for about a month before they fessed up. However, it took them almost another two months before Man B came clean to his wife.
Ultimately, this seems to have led to good things. Man B was able to finally break things off with his wife and move into his own place, Woman A finalized her divorce, and the new couple is very happy together. This was definitely one of those situations where it became a catalyst. Sometimes, marriages are just unhappy but it’s hard to break up.
I had something similar happen; when I was married in my early 20’s, my husband and I opened up our marriage so he could explore some kinks and fetishes. We got more distant the more time he spent with his new friends, that catalyzed me to end things. Last I talked to him, his boyfriend was moving in with him and things were good. Sometimes a breakup is a win win, and sometimes it can take that attraction to someone new to make it clear that the old relationship is over.
When it’s a Red Flag for Predators
On the other hand, a consistent, repeat pattern of lying is a pretty solid red flag. If someone is pathologically lying to their partner about who they are having sex with, I can’t really trust them in to be honest about other things in a position of group leadership. In some cases, the problem is compulsive behavior.
The phrase that gets tossed around a lot with cheaters is “sex addiction.” I used to refer to that with my ex fiance, but what I’ve learned from a friend of mine who is a sex therapist is that the actual therapy professionals who specialize in sex therapy don’t recognize sex addiction.
The best way I can put it is that the behaviors associated with what’s called sex addiction are often symptoms of something like a personality disorder or some other mental illness. People with Borderline Personality Disorder, for instance, can have very poor impulse control. They go on shopping sprees, they have sex without protection, they cheat, they shoplift, they drink or do drugs, or they cut themselves…there are a number of behaviors that they will engage in that are related to impulse control problems. The sex and cheating is a symptom, not a diagnosis.
That being said, I’ve found that some of the criteria for sex addiction (which you can find online with a little googling) are a good indication of when the behavior is problematic. As I’ve written about in my sex and ethics pieces–sex isn’t bad. Wanting sex isn’t bad. Putting your partner in danger by having unprotected sex and not telling them is bad. Seeking out new relationships compulsively because without it you have no sense of self is bad.
In essence–sometimes, cheating is just a sign that a relationship is over. And other times, cheating (particularly repeat cheating) can be a red flag for certain mental illnesses, or just bad behavior.
My former partner cheated on me several times during the course of our relationship, and I’m ashamed to admit that I kept making it ok. I’d tell him I’d stay with him if he’d go and do therapy, and he’d be contrite and go…until he stopped. I fell into that old, old relationship trap, “If he’d only see that he’s hurting me, he’d stop. He’ll change, if I’m patient.”
Him lying to me and cheating on me hurt me emotionally. It had the potential to hurt me physically. And it hurt some of the women he was with (some were students/community members, some were women he was counseling as clergy) and it hurt some of the women he was flirting with to the point of harassment (they felt they couldn’t come out to Pagan events any more).
Someone who is lying and harming their partner by lying, and repeatedly engaging in this pattern, is probably eventually going to make some really bad leadership decisions. Someone who is a repeat cheater is going to put themselves and their needs first whether that’s because they have poor impulse control, or because they genuinely believe that the people they pursue somehow owe them sex, or if they are just a jerk.
Cheating is a crappy thing to do to someone. If it’s the cosmic clue-by-four that your relationship is over, ok. Take that and run with it and do the decent thing and break up with the person you’re with. If you somehow think that cheating is ok, then I’ve got a real problem with that. And people who are compulsive, repeat cheaters have no business being in a position of leadership because they can’t be trusted.
These days, if I’m dating someone who identifies as polyamorous, I do my due diligence to be sure that they’re actually in a polyamorous relationship and not lying to me. Because if I’m sleeping with someone who’s cheating on their partner, guess what–I’m party to the lie. I’m harming that person by my actions.
Cheaters are harming their partners. In some cases, it becomes emotional abuse and duress for their partner. Let’s not sweep cheating under the rug and call it being sexually free and empowering, let’s call it for what it is. It’s a lie. It’s a failure of integrity. Sometimes we make mistakes, sometimes things shift in a relationship, but if it’s happening over and over, that’s a real leadership red flag. If it’s happening in a way where the leader is sexually harassing people, that’s a clear sign that this is a problem.
If that leader is pressuring newbies, students, or group members for sex, or if that person is not taking no for an answer, then we’ve started to cross over from bad behavior and lying into potential assault and rape.
I’m not saying every cheater is sexually assaulting people, however, I am pointing out that sometimes there are patterns. And what I’m always asking for is for each one of us to keep our eyes open. Don’t look away. Don’t sweep it under the rug. Don’t pretend it didn’t happen. Don’t look away.