When Cheating Isn't Wrong - this isn't one of those times

When Cheating Isn’t Wrong

I’m going to go out on a limb here, and disagree with the usual polyamorous ‘party line’ as it were, and say that cheating is not always wrong. Now, before you get outraged and condemn this as nonsense, do let me explain myself.

Firstly, I am not saying that cheating is ever the ideal choice of action. I do not encourage, condone or forgive those who cause harm to those they love by cheating on those they love. Communication, consent and compassion are far more likely to solve problems in a relationship than cheating ever will. I do not, however, blindly condemn those who engage in non-monogamous encounters without the consent of their significant other. To say that something is always wrong would, for starters, be a very two-dimensional approach; and it would never sit well with my incredible aversion to absolutist ethics. In short – humans and the lives we lead are not so simple that one can judge all actions based on a pre-defined set of rules, without consideration of context.

For the context of this article I’m using the definition of cheating as generally understood by most people; the betrayal of trust in a relationship by engaging in sexual behaviour with someone other than your lover(s – yes, poly people can still cheat) without their consent. I’m not going to go into further depth by analysing all the non-sexual betrayals of trust that can and do occur in relationships, though I believe the same principles can apply when analysing their ethical value.

Let me give an example of an instance in which I believe that cheating on ones partner can be considered as not necessarily ‘right’ as understood by the usual right/wrong dichotomy most ethicists use, but at least not wrong.

I introduce a hypothetical young lady to you. This young lady has a new partner, but this partner is incapable of fulfilling her sexual needs at the current time, because of issues that partner has. The issue has been discussed, and her partner is working, slowly but inevitably towards solving this problem – but the partner does not consent to her fulfilling her needs elsewhere. Clearly the best path for her is to be patient and wait for this to work itself out – her long term happiness with her partner being guaranteed that way (hypothetical situation, remember? Other issues may cause problems, but we are only examining one issue here). Humans being humans, (particularly young ones) she finds this extremely difficult, and there are always more than two options in any situation of this kind. She could wait for her partner to solve the issue; she could go out and sleep with miscellaneous people with no connection to her life – risking both her relationship and her health; she could go to an escort; she could have an affair with one person attracted to her whose sexual health is known to be fine – which may result in significant hurt being inflicted on the other person she brought into her life if they become emotionally attached.

What this woman wants is someone to help her with her sexual frustration for a time without risk of hurting that person, or risking ruining her relationship. Fortunately, she is on very good terms with an ex-partner who has a clear view that sex and emotions are not necessarily things inevitably entangled, and whom she trusts to keep her confidence without fault. She clearly explains to this person what she needs, and they engage in occasional sexual activity when her patience is wearing thin with her current partner. The individual with whom she is having the affair (for want of a better term) is fully aware that they only fulfil a physical need, but are happy to do this for someone they consider a close friend – though they did attempt to dissuade the young lady initially, they were convinced that it was the best for all. They tell absolutely no-one of their encounters, maintaining complete secrecy.

When her partner has conquered their problem and their sexual relationship fulfils both their needs, she explains this to her other sexual partner, who congratulates her and they no longer have sex. Everyone is happy with this outcome.

Yes, this is a rather special situation, in which all the risks were kept to a minimum, and no-one was hurt at the end of it. This is a rare occurrence where cheating is concerned, but the variety of life does allow for such things to occur. Should the young lady have simply been patient and waited for her partner to come to terms with their issues? Quite simply, yes. That would have been the best option, as I said. But did this course of events lead to a long and prosperous relationship, where her patience with her partner was aided by the fulfilment of her sexual needs? Yes. The ideal path of waiting was not one she felt was open to her, admittedly by her own lack of patience, but it is my opinion that people’s failings are not things that should be condemned if they are being dealt with responsibly – only flaws that people fail to recognise and refuse to work on should be condemned.

So, the young lady had her needs fulfilled and was able to help her partner through their issues with great compassion; her partner was not harmed because of the great lengths taken by her and her other sexual partner to maintain secrecy; the other sexual partner was not harmed, and was able to provide support for their friends. So if one takes the outlook that the consequences of ones actions dictate their ethical value, this hypothetical situation has not done any wrong.

The young woman acted out of compassion for both her partner and her other sexual partner, choosing the path of least risk to all, while striving to have her own needs fulfilled. The person with whom she had an affair also acted out of compassion for a friend. If one takes the view that motivations define the correctness or otherwise of an action, then one must concede that they acted in a manner that was not without merit. Certainly they can be called out in the fact that they both also acted selfishly in putting the feelings of her partner at risk in order that their needs be fulfilled. Having said that, dealing with ones flaws is a difficult thing: had she not fulfilled her sexual needs, would she have run out of patience with her partner and hurt them more so than this course of action?

The actions taken by the young lady, and her sexually involved friend, can be judged to be wrong only on the basis that they deceived her partner. This is a view only really taken by those who hold an absolutist belief that deceit is always wrong, and in this situation they would surely declare that the young lady’s lover has a right to know the truth. If this is your view, I ask you just one thing – would you inflict suffering onto these three people by telling them, when all problems have been concluded and they are all happy?

Most occurrences of cheating do not play out like this – secrecy is a difficult burden, and most people are incapable of keeping such things between just two people. In most cases the partner will find out, great amounts of pain will be inflicted upon all parties, and the act of cheating is always an unwise choice because of this. I do not advise anyone to take this path, but I provide this examination as food for thought to those that would judge harshly on those that cheat.

15 thoughts on “When Cheating Isn’t Wrong

  1. I’m not one to dictate what’s right or wrong, but this scenario works well if no one feels guilty and no one spills the beans. I reckon in this situation it’d all blow up in the young lady’s face somewhere down the line.

    Morally, though, I’ve got no problem with it. I probably wouldn’t want to put myself in that situation, but there are many situations that most people find to be wrong that I’m okay with. It’s not deceit or guilt I have a problem with that stops me doing things, it’s the hurt and other connected consequences.

    The bit about it being particularly young ladies is a strange bit, as I don’t see why younger women are more likely to want sex. But then, perhaps I’ve just known different people to you. 🙂

    • I wasn’t implying that young ladies are more likely to want sex, but I needed a hypothetical someone and I felt that using a male protagonist in my little fiction would, unfortunately, probably result in more people instinctively using the old line ‘they just wanted sex’ (as though that were a bad thing anyway) as an opposing argument to my points. I will be handling that little cookie of a preconception in the future…

      Also, my reference to young people being particularly prone to this kind of thing was a reference more to youth’s lack of patience compared to older generations: not true across the board of course, but one tends to find more patience with time.

  2. There is absolutely no shame in taking frustrations and lack of sexual gratification into your own hands, so to speak. I agree that taking absolutist approach to morals and boundaries can be and is in many cases close-minded. However in terms of selfishness, deceit and respect on this occasion I have to completely disagree. This ‘young lady’… who some part of me says has a name and may in some ways be in your circle of friends.. Had the choice of dealing with her frustration with herself or asking for the ‘help’ of her sexually active friend.

    I am not ignorant. In fact, I know a great deal more about this subject than many, on a biological and scientific level, women are more likely to cheat in circumstances like this – particularly when their body is ovulating and the circumstance presents itself. It’s written in our history to choose the man with the most sexual potency in our group, given the chance, even in a long term relationship. Even if the intention is not to conceive, the body’s intention always is the same – choose the safest haven for the relationship, the man with the best support network and most reliable love… and deceive him into thinking any child borne of the relationship is his. 10% of all children have been raised by a man who thinks he is the father but who isn’t. These are animal instincts and got us were they are today. To say that on an emotional level this is correct or just is, however, the topic of this blog. I’m part of a monogamous relationship. You are party to poly-amorous relationships. This in itself is going to split our opinions greatly, simply due to our differing preferences and opinions. I accept that on many levels you believe this to be right. But on this occasion you must understand that the majority of people confronted with this view will disagree with you. There is no correct answer. Your answer for yourself… Your opinion and your view for yourself Is the correct one for YOU.

    I disagree. For my life, for my joy and future and for the circumstances as the apply to me, I wouldn’t condone deceit. If I was left incapable of gratifying my partner for months I would give him outright consent to seek it elsewhere, providing I knew it was happening and he could give me all of the gory details… Everyone gets thier own kick. I do know, however, That If my partner was rendered incapable he would find it incredibly difficult to deal with the repercussions, known or unknown, of infidelity. It is a matter of pride, deceit, selfishness and respect. I feel that no matter how much the young lady in this article (presuming she is theoretical… assuming she is not…) believed she was working in the best interests of all involved, she wasn’t. Simply working hard to conceal infidelity isn’t just to cushion the blow. It is working on the complete lack of faith in the other partners ability to deal with such a blow or indeed have the right to know that the partners young lady has been having sexual interactions with another. This partner has the right to choose the best partner available to him/her.. If this persons loyalty is number one priority then having a partner who has cheated, successfully or not, the person has a right to know.

    In any case, I would advise this young lady, and many like her, to skilfully and imaginatively take matters into their own hands.

    • First of all, this is indeed a hypothetical situation, not to do with people I know. I have been in, and been made aware of similar situations, but I did not wish to take a real example, drawing instead on my various experiences.

      I entirely agree that deceit was not the best choice – that was never my intention here. My point is that such action should not be dismissed as entirely selfish & wrong.

      Your point that the young lady would be acting on an assumption that her partner could not deal with her sleeping with someone else is something I would challenge though. If she had already discussed it with her partner then she would know, rather than assume this, and it is precisely out of respect for this that one would seek secrecy in order to allow both of them to deal with their issues without ruining their relationship.

      I think we agree plenty on this, and it’s certainly not just our relationship models that make our opinions differ where they do. As you say, we must all do what is right for us.

    • Katie, if I were more suited to dedicated relationships right now I’d be 100% in agreement with you. If you love someone and they love you, the trust is very necessary as an important part of a loving relationship. To hold back the information is to disrespect and show a lack of trust in a partner, and whether or not that makes for hurt later on (depending on who finds out), it’s a major flaw in the love and trust part of the relationship.

      I’m still not saying it’s wrong, but I am saying that a relationship like that is not at all what I would want, and if my partner felt they couldn’t tell me the truth in that highly relevant situation (I’m asexual), I’d be furious and very, very sad.

  3. ‘Tis true that people make assumptions based on gender. Sucky. Even people who should know better say stuff like, “women are more emotional and less interested in casual sex” and stuff like that, blarrrrg!

  4. While consequences of an action are of course important in judging wether the action was right or wrong, I don’t believe that you can just say that since in this example the couple continued to have a good relationship after the cheating, the cheating was justified. There are other ways to satisfy ones sexual needs than having sex with another person. Nobody really *needs* to have sex, and betraying your partners trust is not ok just because you want something he isn’t willing to offer you. I don’t really get it how this would not be wrong in your opinion? Are you really arguing as I understand it, that cheating is not wrong as long as the partner does not find out and therefore does not get hurt?

    Committing to a monogamous relationship and promising faithfulness and then breaking the promise is disrespectful towards the partner. If one feels that ones need to have a sexual relationship with someone is so great that one can not commit to a relationship that has no sex, then one should not commit to such a relationship.

    • That is indeed what I am arguing – but the sense in which I am using ‘not wrong’ is a matter for another post. In short, I do not feel that those who cheat without harming others should be condemned for their actions, nor feel guilty themselves. To me, respect is not about blindly keeping promises that may result in suffering, but about cari ng enough to do even what may make one uncomfortable to make things work.

      As I have said, this kind of course of action is not ideal by any stretch of the imagination, but people take time to deal with things, and a great deal of change can require difficult transitions. This is not a case where one person wants something the other simply cannot give – in such instances I agree entirely that to struggle to commit to such a relationship would be doomed to failure. The case I present is where two people are aiming for the same target – in this case a strong, dedicated relationship, and the lengths to which one may have to go in order to attain such a thing may strainthe usually accepted boundaties of morality.

  5. Personally, I would find my partner having a sexual ‘pact’ with another and not telling me initially painful (especially as I may be open to such ideas if it was discussed with me). However, I would find it easier to forgive a sex ‘pact’ than loving texts and picnics in a park. An emotional betrayal will always, in my eyes, damage far more in a relationship than a purely sexual one. So I think interesting points have been raised, but am undecided upon how I would react in given situation.

  6. As a person who has experienced having more than one sexually dysfunctional partner, I find this point-of-view disgusting. (At first I thought this article was going to be another one about how cheating is breaking agreements, and as such agreements of non-monogamy make sex with other people often not cheating.)

    Relationships are based on shared values, honesty, and respect.
    If you’re in a relationship with someone -anyone- and they don’t want you to have sex with other people, either respect them enough to not have sex with other people, or be honest enough to end the relationship.

    Don’t use sexual dysfunction as an excuse to cheat on someone. Also don’t use someone’s busy schedule to cheat on someone. Or someone’s dislike of going to the opera. Or someone’s love of garlic. Or someone’s tendency to be “more of a cat person, really”. Don’t break your agreements- don’t cheat, and don’t try to “justify” it by making it about what *you* say you need.

    I’ve had two different relationships with people who had sexual dysfunctions. In the more recent relationship, the fellow and I agreed to be poly and open before we ever ended up in bed. He has consented to the others I’m involved with, and the things we do together. While he doesn’t request all the gory details, he has a general idea of what I get up to; I don’t lie to him, or keep things from him.

    In the first relationship, we were monogamous. I took care of my own needs, while we worked on his issues. Towards the end of the relationship things had started to get sorted in the bedroom, though by then we discovered that we had some very different ideas of a future together (kids, marriage, how we were going to live, where we were going to live). Gradually the relationship met its natural (and amicable) end.

    Also, I’m really irritated by the following sentence:
    “The actions taken by the young lady, and her sexually involved friend, can be judged to be wrong only on the basis that they deceived her partner.”

    Only. She “only” deceived her partner. She didn’t kick a puppy down the stairs, or mass-murder the population of a small Eastern European country. She didn’t rob an old lady at gunpoint, or throw a 5 year old child into a burning barrel of trash. She Only deceived her partner- because that makes it alright then. Because Only deceiving your partner is great for a relationship. Because Only sneaking around builds a foundation of trust, mutual respect, and understanding. Yeah- Only.

    There’s also the question of would I ruin the “happiness” of the three people in this situation? If I knew the people, I probably would. I would tell the cheated-on party “your partner has more interest in her own gratification than in respecting your wishes” because it’s obviously true. Also, such a woman is likely to find other instances to ignore her partner in pursuit of her own wants, and I suspect in the long run he would be better off without her. If I knew the person who helped her cheat, I would very probably slap him and ask him what the hell he was thinking. You Mileage May Vary.

    • I believe you misread the sentence that irritated you. I did not intend to imply that the act was of no consequence, nor did I actually apply the word ‘only’ to the cheating. I am saying that only one moral perspective would attribute wrongness to the behaviour I described, not that the action should be dismissed.

      Your perspective is exactly the black or white perspective that I am attempting to illustrate has its flaws with this hypothetical example. I find that saying that one must either pick a relationship or sex with other people to miss quite a lot of the complexities of people and their interactions with each other. Certainly, breaking off the relationship is always an option, but people have the capacity to change, especially when motivated by strong emotions towards someone else. The ways which people choose to effect that change are not always the best, but that does not negate the aim or intention of such a path. I believe that anything which may help people come to a better place in their life, no matter the judgements others may make on the exact actions, is a positive thing.

      I agree that excuses are inexcusable as a sole reason for cheating – there is nothing worse than hearing someone attempt to blame the other person in a relationship for their own actions. One must take responsibility for what one does. But in such an instance where one is aware that it is ones own flaws that cause a course of action that one would not normally wish to do, should one be condemned for attempting to deal with it in the best way possible, acknowledging that flaw and working towards the goal of eliminating it? The assumption that people only cheat out of pure self-interest is one that I challenge vehemently – the majority of human beings are not so simple, and not all can deal with such internal conflict as well as you have. In the example I give, to end the relationship would have caused suffering that was avoided by the short-term actions of the young lady. Certainly is was not the ideal path to take, but I am of the opinion that sometimes greater ends can indeed justify otherwise unsavoury means.

      The fallacy that because one has done something once they are likely to do it again is not only a logically unsound assumption, but also a dangerous one to implement in real life. To act upon the presumption that someone will act in the same fashion again cheats that person of their chance to continue their journey of change in an environment that supports them. I have personally experienced people warning others of things I have done wrong in the past, and it is a particularly unpleasant thing to go through, especially if one has gone to great lengths to change behaviour & thought patterns in order to overcome such weaknesses. I would never hold it against someone to warn other of past actions, but I am always glad when someone decides to make their own mind up about someone’s nature, taking into account those warnings and being cautious. People can change, do change, and no action towards such an end should, in my opinion, be devalued.

      I’m glad to hear you dealt well with the challenges that you have come up against in relationships, but I don’t believe that those who make different choices about how to deal with their issues should be judged harshly. Just because someone lacks the same strength or certainty that you have shown in your behaviour does not negate their admirable desires.

  7. Humans are devious by their very nature, I have met not one person who shares everything with anyone in their life, in fact I don’t think it is healthy to share everything about me with anyone.

    Katie? Would you feel the same disgust about a man or woman who kept their financial problems from their partner secret in order to protect them? Is ALL deception wrong on ALL levels? (Not at all having a dig, I just like asking questions)

    • @Meeps
      As a person who got evicted rather unexpectedly when her live in boyfriend bounced the rent checks behind her back, yes.

      As for humans being devious by nature: I would suggest you’re probably hanging with the wrong group of friends.

  8. I have a sound group of friends but thank you for the suggestion.

    Humans are naturally devious, as is all life on this planet. Deviousness is defined by a skillful use of (arguably underhand) tactics to achieve goals. Everything on this planet will use any means at its disposal to succeed/continue living/reproduce etc etc. Due to the social nature which has developed within the human race we now deem this an unattractive quality and so it is generally suppressed.

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