When Swetlana – a 24-year-old screenwriter and filmmaker – saw her boyfriend after the first wave of COVID-19 receded, she was surprised to find herself not quite desiring him or his company. They had been in a relationship for nearly two years, and were unable to meet during the lockdown for over seven months. And yet, all she wanted from him was space.
“I’d fallen out of love with him,” she told VICE. “And I went out of my way to distance myself from him, to the point where I’d become cold, without explaining to him why I was feeling this way.”
But Swetlana came to understand her own emotions better when she met her flatmate’s friend. “It was like the movies – she really made me feel as old as the universe simply with her presence. It was magical.”
Alongside setting her off on an exploration of her queerness, Swetlana’s attraction to someone outside her relationship made her dive into how she felt about cheating on her partner, too. “Nothing happened,” she said, but figuring out what to do when you feel like cheating was tough on her.
The research capturing the dynamic nature of cheating in relationships has always thrown up varied results. According to a 2017 study published in the journal ScienceDirect, infidelity is the main cause of divorce, and men and women had similar rates of cheating. This broke the popular stereotype of uncontrollable horniness being an exclusively male affliction. But then another study from the Institute for Family Studies (IFS) found that men are more likely to cheat as they age, particularly after 30.
As research for her book Chasing Masculinity: Men, Validation and Infidelity, author Alicia M. Walker interviewed 46 men who had cheated on their partners. She told VICE that while the discovery of being cheated on can be “devastating,” the “black and white” approach to cheating doesn’t help. “Many folks are cheating because of some unmet need; they have something that they just cannot keep going without, and they don't want to break up an otherwise happy, loving relationship,” she said.
On the basic level, while there is no “right” or “wrong” to cheating, what it does is willfully ignore the personhood of the betrayed party, denying their right to make an informed choice about who they are with. There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to spend your life voraciously pursuing multiple sexual partners. There is, however, something wrong with withholding from someone information which, if revealed, would change their decision to be with you.
So, if you’re tempted by the prospect of an extra relationship, get some notes on how to navigate the multilayered canvas of loyalty, desire, and cheating:
1. Move beyond victim-blaming
Intimacy coach Pallavi Barnwal told VICE that not everyone who cheats is necessarily a “perpetrator” and the person cheated on a “victim.”
“We need to understand that infidelity is as old as marriage,” she said. “When we start thinking about cheating in the victim-perpetrator binaries, we reduce everything to a blame game out of which nothing constructive can possibly come.”
Give yourself the permission to fantasise about others – it’s often just an indication that you’re alive and have totally natural desires. But think of it as a way to figure if this is just a passing attraction, a reminder to invest more in your relationship, or indicative of something deeper.
Marriage counsellor Shwetambara Sabharwal added that shaming oneself for having the thought of cheating does more harm than good. “It’s important that you don’t rebuke yourself for having these thoughts, as judgement is never a healthy place to begin with when it comes to relationships.”
2. Choose your support system wisely
In Swetlana’s case, the urge to be with a woman while she was still in a relationship with her boyfriend made her understand the nuances of queer love, and that she was queer in the first place. But it took her quite a while to get there.
“All I knew was that I needed some space from him,” she said. “I made the mistake of first approaching my straight, cishet friends. They would all tell me to go on a date with the woman and forget about her if it doesn’t work. But when I spoke to my queer friends about my attraction to her, they told me that it was totally valid. And I just broke down.”
She added that every relationship, and the reasons to cheat, come with their own set of nuances that can’t possibly be understood by everyone.
“Similarly, if you are in an intercaste relationship and feel like cheating, you need to seek someone who understands that unique dynamic. The same goes for interfaith, interracial or age-gap relationships. Every relationship has different triggers and different ways of understanding what is truly cheating.”
3. Communicate clearly
Shreya, a 25-year-old brand solutions manager, said that she had started feeling neglected in her relationship, and the fact that she was getting the attention she craved from a colleague at the workplace only made her boyfriend’s indifference more acute.
“I never cheated on him eventually because saving the relationship mattered to me more,” she told VICE. “I told him in precise words why I felt neglected in the relationship. In such situations, you cannot be vague and generic with what you are saying. You can’t assume that your partner should understand why you are feeling a certain way even though it might be very obvious to you.”
She added that “elaborating on the details” of your unmet needs or discontent in the relationship plays a key role in communicating with your partner. “Don’t sugarcoat anything. Your partner must have a full picture of why you are feeling like cheating.”
4. Probe why you want to cheat
Barnwal said that the desire for “the other” often challenges the domestication of a relationship, particularly in marriages, which she said have not evolved to accommodate the multi-layered nature of desire.
“In some cases, it might just be a fantasy,” she said. “And while fantasies might work wonders for reinvigorating a dead relationship, it is important to acknowledge them as fantasies and then have a healthy dialogue with yourself and your partner about it.”
Sabharwal, the marriage counsellor, said introspecting on the reasons behind your temptations is vital. “You need to ask yourself what your unmet needs are. Are you avoiding something in your current relationship or looking for approval or validation from another one? Be honest with yourself about this. Separate fact from fiction.”
5. Introspect if you are in an enmeshed relationship
Barnwal described an enmeshed relationship as one where the couple end up becoming a single entity to the point where they end up losing their individuality, and the concept of having a personal space and healthy distance disappears.
“In a recent survey I conducted, many people shockingly preferred an enmeshed relationship (represented through category C in the diagram below),” she said. “If you are choking each other with love and obsession, you are bound to feel stifled and seek out other avenues of space outside your relationship. If you are in one such relationship, it’s better to sit with your partner and work around setting healthy boundaries.”
Arvind, a 22-year-old lawyer, said that he was in an enmeshed relationship owing to insecurities from his partner who wanted relentless assurances from him that he would not cheat or leave her. “I told her that giving her assurances multiple times everyday was literally giving me a headache,” he told VICE. “She responded to that by saying that if I loved her, I shouldn’t have any problems in giving her assurances. It had gotten really toxic. This eventually culminated in a break-up.”
6. Build a value system
Even though Arvind wanted to cheat on days when his partner’s possessiveness became too much for him, he consciously held back. “I asked myself whether I truly cared and loved her and whether it was the same from her side – the answer was always yes. That itself would stop me from cheating – the relationship was important to me because there was genuine love and care.”
Sabharwal said that having a value system in place, customised to one’s own needs and desires, helps structure one’s life. “Not morals,” she clarified. “Morals are rigid, unchanging, and static. But I might have a value system where I minimise pain and mess, build trust, and make decisions where I don’t sabotage myself.”
She added that there was no right or wrong way to go about building a value system, but that having one helps us steer clear of impulsive actions.
“So, for instance, if I have a burning need to cheat, but if I have committed to the empathy and value of my relationship, I can postpone acting on those burning needs, take a step back, and think twice,” she said.
The idea of a value system, she explained, permeates nearly every other aspect of our lives, and the same must be applied to relationships. “Even if you’re on a weight loss plan, there is always a larger goal and a structure to go about it. That is a value system too, where you have minimised junk food and other temptations from your life. You need to ask yourself what kind of life you want to live, what the larger expectation from a relationship or marriage is, and then structure your value system accordingly.”
7. Consider alternative models of relationships
Not everyone is wired for exclusive, committed, monogamous relationships, and many might argue that as a species, we’re really not built for monogamy. A significant part of the introspection and self-work proposed by Sabharwal and Banrwal also deals with understanding what works for you in the long term.
“Sometimes, exiting a relationship is also repairing yourself,” said Sabharwal. “The term ‘serial cheater’ is also a misnomer, as instead of oversimplifying such behaviours, we need to understand why needs are shifting, and why it is that people keep falling in the cheating cycle.”
In some cases, the answer might lie in seeking alternative models of relationships – polyamory (multiple partners romantically and/or sexually with consent), throuples (three partners together), swinging (an open relationship that is sexual and with consent), queerplatonic (relationships that are not strictly romantic and sexual but rooted in companionships and friendships), and more. You needn’t even adhere to any of these relationship models that have a name, and simply work on one that works for you and the one you love.
“Let the urge to cheat allow you to go on an odyssey of self-discovery,” said Barnwal. “You might just discover what truly works for you and what doesn’t.”
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