I can’t remember the details of the first time I cheated. I know I was 15, dating a boy who was friends with a lot of my friends and I snogged someone else anyway. Word spread, our friends found out and I became a social pariah for a week, until everyone moved on like they do when you’re 15. The boyfriend was upset – I remember his face, disappointed not angry as he broke up with me. Then he slept with my best friend, which was kind of a big deal since we were all virgins. I was devastated, but hey – I didn’t have a leg to stand on.
You’d think the lesson I’d take from this is that what goes around comes around, but that’s not what happened. I’ve cheated in almost every relationship I’ve been in. There was my first significant boyfriend at 17 – six months in, I stayed at a friend’s house and one thing lead to another. I never confessed. Then there was my first significant girlfriend at the age of 18 – we dated for a year and then, too pathetic to pluck up the courage to end it, I slept with three other people in a week to force my own hand. “It’s just not working anymore,” I told her, at the tail end of my rampage. And then there was the first “adult” relationship of my life – we’d moved in together, but were drifting apart when I developed feelings for someone else. Caught between two people, I decided to test run my second option. Let’s just say I crashed and burned.
Before anyone starts bandying the word “sociopath” around (and trust me, that’s usually what happens next), let me make it clear – I do feel guilty. Profoundly guilty. It starts in my stomach, rises through my body and lodges somewhere in my throat. It makes my hands tremble and my adrenaline run. A sensation that treads the line between exhilaration and anxiety. It’ll last for a few days after I’ve cheated, and then I come down off it; the guilt fades away as time erodes the risk of being found out. Afterwards, I’ll act cold and distant, willing the person I’m with to breakup with me. A friend said it makes her do the opposite – she acts kinder in a bid to atone. Nope. I even used to encourage my boyfriend into situations where he might cheat on me back, just so we could be level pegging. He never did.
Sometimes, I’ve paused to contemplate the consequences before I cheated; ‘How will this make you feel after?’ ‘How would it make them feel?’ ‘What about everything you’ve built together?’ But the thought is only ever fleeting. Truth be told, I never conduct a proper risk analysis because I’m too caught up in the moment, or just… drunk.
Cheating makes me feel like my moral compass is smashed and it makes other people feel like they’ve wasted years of their life on me
For a while I worried that I just specifically got off on situations that were prohibited, that this was an intrinsic part of my sexuality – fucking people I wasn’t allowed to. But then, that didn’t account for how much I crave all the best things about relationships – the intimacy, the security, the familiarity that they offer. I used to lie awake at night on a regular basis wondering: Will I ever reconcile wanting both of these things? Why do I have to choose?
One of these nights, in a guilt spiral I stumbled across a TED Talk by an anthropologist named Helen Fisher. It was called: ‘Why we love and why we cheat’. I guess a lot of people found themselves in the same guilt spiral, because the video has 9 million views. In it, Fisher explains that love is comprised of sexual attraction, romantic affection and deep attachment, but that those things aren’t mutually exclusive –sometimes you can just feel one or two of them, and sometimes you can get them from multiple people, which is a large part of why we cheat. That’s how I felt. Which didn’t make it any more socially acceptable.
“You should try polyamory,” an ex once suggested (she was being serious, not having a dig). Similar to me in her desires, she went down the polyamorous route about a year after we broke up, and has wound up with a girlfriend she sees on Tuesdays, another on Thursdays, and the freedom to do whatever she likes in between. “It’s not for me”, I said adamantly, when she told me about her set up. Privately, I worried I’d get jealous. I know. How’s that for a double standard? Even more privately, I worried the reason it wasn’t for me was because if I was polyamorous, then my infidelity would be condoned…
In the past, I’ve talked to my close friends about cheating – either needing to confess, or looking for the scolding I deserve. I’ve been met with mixed responses. A few of my friends could be classed as serial cheaters, and pin it down to “human nature”. I ask them why they do it and one says she’s always cheated on boys with girls because she hasn’t wanted to properly address her sexuality. Another jokes that it sounds pretentious however she puts it; “A streak of hedonism?” she offers. “Or an inclination to destroy?” a male friend shrugged; “I just can’t help it”. The faithful ones are quick to point out that I’ve never been cheated on, or at least, not to my knowledge. “If it had happened to you, you’d know how it feels,” they say. Then there are the disinterested ones that aren’t afraid to say what you really don’t want to hear, which is the simplest question of all: “Why don’t you just stop doing it?”
I don’t know. I look for patterns and patterns turn into excuses. Sometimes I’ve felt insecure and relished the attention. Sometimes I’ve done it as a test of my feelings. Sometimes the pressure of being something to someone else just felt insurmountable – like I was holding on to something too precious, bound to drop it. Other times, I’ll admit it: I’ve just been greedy. Whatever the reason, the outcome is always clear: cheating makes me feel like my moral compass is smashed and it makes other people feel like they’ve wasted years of their life on me, and it seriously throws into question my relationship with alcohol. It has, over the years, become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, and one that I finally feel ready to break with.
Someone I admire recently told me that, if the twenty years she has on me have taught her anything, it’s that with age you stop thinking you can or should have it all, and you relax into yourself and stop seeking external sources of affirmation. She also said that, as life experience and tragedy swallow you up, you start to realise that loyalty is more important than anything in the world. Her words made me look at that question again, the one I used to turn over in my mind: Will I ever reconcile wanting the benefits of being single and in a relationship? Why do I have to choose? I realised I hadn’t thought about it in a while, and suddenly it seemed overwhelmingly childish.
As I approach the six month relationship mark with someone, I'm no longer asking why I have to choose between being single and in a monogamous relationship, but feeling lucky that I get the choice to be in a relationship with this person at all. I intend to meet them halfway, and that means putting loyalty first.