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Jul 04 2008

Is Cheating Ever Okay? The Blowfish Blog

Cheating
I have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the question of whether cheating in a monogamous (or supposedly monogamous) relationship is ever ethically acceptable. My thinking on the question has been changing, and as is my wont, I’m using the blog as a place to think out loud about it. The piece is called Is Cheating Ever Okay? and here’s the teaser:

But as the years have gone by, my thinking on this has been changing. My thinking has been changed a lot — or rather, has become clarified — by a series of columns that sex advice columnist Dan Savage has been writing about sexless marriages and relationships… and the unfairness of denying your partner sex and then getting outraged when they seek it elsewhere.

And my thinking was put into sharp focus by, of all places, a recent episode of “Secret Diary of a Call Girl,” and a passing comment made on the subject by the main character, the call girl Belle.

The comment:

“Yeah, he’s married. But his wife hasn’t had sex with him for five years, so I suppose they’re both breaking the marriage contract.”

Which is the crux of my new, revised thinking about cheating.

To find out what my new, revised thinking is about cheating, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

8 comments

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  1. 1
    Roi des Foux

    I’ve thought about this quite a bit from the other side of the question: is it right to be the cheatee(the person who has sex with the cheater)? The conclusion I’ve reached is that it is acceptable. You should help people keep their promises, and you certainly shouldn’t be trying to make them break their promises (i.e. don’t seduce them), but you are under no obligation to try to MAKE people keep their promises. In fact, if someone comes up to you, sane and sober, and says, “Let’s fuck,” saying, “No, you’re not allowed to decide whom you have sex with,” is incredibly disrespectful.

  2. 2
    Jon Berger

    Just a quick comment on the legal point, since you brought it up and since it’s actually kind of relevant. It’s not actually true, in contract law, that a breach by one party automatically justifies non-performance by the other party. This is the very important distinction between a “breach” and a “material breach”; the latter term is, in fact, defined as “a breach sufficiently profound as to justify the other party’s non-performance.” The point is that some breaches are non-material. They’re still breaches, and the other party can still sue for them, but the non-breaching party still has to do what he promised or HE can be sued.
    For example, let’s say I agreed to sell you 100 widgets at $100.00 each, and I agreed to deliver them to the loading dock of your factory, but in fact I dropped them off by the front door. Now it’s your turn to perform: your performance consists of sending me a check for $10,000. Is your performance excused by my breach — that is, can you say “come pick up your damn widgets, I’m not paying you a penny, contract or no contract”? Most likely not; most courts would probably find the delivery to the wrong door to be a non-material breach. If you had to pay your workers $100 to carry the widgets around to the loading dock, you could sue me for $100, the damages resulting from my breach. But you still have to complete the transaction. My expectation from this contract is the profit I make on the sale of 100 widgets, and I can still sue you for it if you back out, even if you’re also entitled to some limited damages due to my breach.
    (“Can’t I just pay you $9,900?,” I hear you cry. No. That’s a whole other Contracts lecture, the one about “setoff.” Let’s not go there. I find this stuff fascinating because I had like the coolest Contracts prof ever, but I doubt if anyone else does.)
    The reason I say it’s slightly relevant is the question you raise about, if five years of no sex is a valid excuse for cheating, then how about one year, how about one month, how about one night? And of course the related question of how much non-performance is justified: a full-scale affair, a one-time fling, etc. I don’t have an answer, but it’s the same basic question that contract law addresses with the material/non-material distinction. The law, having identified the problem, metaphorically throws up its hands with respect to the actual solution and says “that’s a question for the court to decide on a case-by-case basis,” but it’s still sometimes helpful to analyze what the question you’re trying to answer actually is. So within your contract analogy, that’s the question: when does a breach become material?

  3. 3
    Rebecca

    I continue to believe that the issue with cheating is not the sex, it’s the lie. If you say to your spouse, “If this relationship remains nonsexual, I will seek sex outside of the relationship,” and then do so, I think that could be an ethical choice. But I’m not sure “cheating” is the right term for it in that case. In fact, I’m not sure we have a term for that.

  4. 4
    J. J. Ramsey

    Jon Berger:

    Just a quick comment on the legal point, since you brought it up and since it’s actually kind of relevant. It’s not actually true, in contract law, that a breach by one party automatically justifies non-performance by the other party. This is the very important distinction between a “breach” and a “material breach”; the latter term is, in fact, defined as “a breach sufficiently profound as to justify the other party’s non-performance.” The point is that some breaches are non-material. They’re still breaches, and the other party can still sue for them, but the non-breaching party still has to do what he promised or HE can be sued.

    That’s not just a legal rule, either. It’s pretty much a codification of how we behave in practice with more informal agreements.
    I think that your line of reasoning can be pretty dangerous, especially since cheating on a relationship, as opposed to upfront non-monogamy, means going behind someone’s back, and that is bound to invite a loss of trust.

  5. 5
    More Anon Than Usual

    I’m with Rebecca.
    My own current relationship has had some long nonsexual periods due to depression and medication, and my man has coped with great kindness generosity. We’re still not back to normal, and may never be. But this is exactly where monogamy and non-monogamy agreements become important, and may need some renegotiation.
    Also, please note that I was not *choosing* to break the contract. How does that element of choice affect your argument?

  6. 6
    Kit

    Something I’d say is that if a relationship is sexless for a long time, that isn’t just a sex problem, it’s a relationship problem. You need to talk about that, and to my mind, just going outside the relationship for sex can be a bit of a band-aid rather than a solution. If need be, renegotiating the relationship to something that suits both of you, or ending it, are both possible solutions. But if your wife doesn’t want to sleep with you, getting no sex is not the only problem you have, and your chances of solving it are greatest if you address the whole relationship, not just the lack of sex.
    I’m a bit skeptical about Belle’s position; it’s not exactly dispassionate. Dismissing what a wife might think is an essential job skill for a sex worker – but would she have turned him away if his wife was still sleeping with him? I doubt it. I suspect she would have come up with a different justification. That doesn’t mean she has no point, but she definitely has an investment in considering the marriage dismissable.
    In fact, if someone comes up to you, sane and sober, and says, “Let’s fuck,” saying, “No, you’re not allowed to decide whom you have sex with,” is incredibly disrespectful.
    But you say exactly that every time you turn someone down for any reason! People aren’t allowed to ‘decide who they have sex with’; they’re allowed to decide who they want to have sex with, and then have sex with them if the other person wants it too. A one-sided decision gets a long jail term.
    If someone in a relationship did that with me, and I turned them down, I wouldn’t be saying they couldn’t decide, I’d be saying I could decide who I had sex with. The question isn’t ‘Should this person cheat on their partner?’, it’s ‘Should I have sex with someone who’s in a relationship?’ Saying it’s their decision plays down the fact that it’s also yours. You’re free to do it, but the attached person is not the only one making a choice.

  7. 7
    Mephit

    I’d agree with Kit, especially re. Roi de foux’s comment.
    And I’d also go along with the notion that it’s the deception in cheating that is one of the worst things. I think there’s a difference in saying to your partner, ‘I need sex and if we can’t eventually go back to having a sex-life, I want to be able to go elsewhere for it’ and just going off and hiding it.
    I think that if a partner refuses to consider getting help to restart the sex life after some time, then perhaps going elsewhere is acceptable, but doing it on the sly – I still don’t think so. Cheating is one thing (bad, in my book), having an “open” relationship is another (fine, imo).
    There are times in relationships when sexual compatibility does waver and expecting it to stay constant throughout is too optimistic. I think declaring sex a contractual obligation is a bit too black & white. In any relationship there are going to be dry times.
    For example, when a woman has had a baby and perhaps she is breast-feeding, she’s tired out and feels like her body is no longer her own – her husband wouldn’t be in the right of it to go and screw someone else in the meantime. It’s circumstances they created together, so they should work on it together.
    It’s the deception angle of cheating that I stick on. If you go into a relationship, I think your primary duty to one another is to communicate and that would involve talking about why sex has gone out of the window in the first place and tackling that – only if the partner was totally unwilling to discuss or deal with the problem would I think being unfaithful was permissible. And then it shouldn’t be concealed.
    The lack of sex problem is right there in front of the couple as an issue, iyswim, and so should any extra-curricular sex be.

  8. 8
    The Countess

    I commented at Blowfish. One possibility if the lack of sex is a permanent thing is for the couple to open up the relationship. I have cheated when I was younger – I was a single woman dating married men – and it wasn’t really the best thing for anyone involved. The problem with cheating is the lie.
    I think that considering polyamory or looking at more creative ways to have sex – maybe sensation play like massages and using various sex toys – could help a sexless relationship. Maybe it doesn’t have to be “stay sexless for the rest of your life” or “cheat”. I hope there are more options than that.

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