Liza and I have been trading writing assignments. I gave her “jealousy,” and she handled it winningly (I recommend reading her thoughts on it). She gave me “cheating”: “I'm curious about your history with cheating--only on T, or was it a pattern in relationships? When was the first time it happened, and what did it feel like afterward?”
The short answer to the question is no, it wasn’t a pattern. In my relationships prior to T, I only cheated once, a few months into a relationship when I was 17. It was devastating to both of us, and I never did it again. Including through a long, sexless relationship in my 20s that looked a lot like a 20-year-old marriage (as opposed to a marriage between 20-year-olds).
But the “cheating” that I did on T (and let’s be clear – T’s and my relationship began after I had already headed down the rabbit hole of commercial sex) never had a “start” (other than the moment at which I allowed her first to believe that we were “exclusive”). It had inflection points – when she and I first started dating, I was going to strip clubs for lap dances, getting handjobs in massage parlors, but no more. Later, I began getting blowjobs, first in strip clubs, then in massage parlors, and later still, in “sugar daddy” relationships. And later, I began fucking. Each of those “points of inflection” mattered, on one level – I noticed as I passed it – but on another, it was inconsequential, more of the same.
I’ve always winced at the word, “cheating.” It feels such an unsympathetic, incomplete description of what surely is a complex behavior, reducing it to one meaning – the betrayal of the other – when in fact it has many. It’s not just that it’s unsympathetic to the “cheater” – I think it unsympathetic to the partner of the “cheater,” to the relationship, to the underlying realities in the relationship.
I didn’t exactly “cheat” on T so much as never tell her about the underlying reality that predated her and that my relationship with her – much to my chagrin – didn’t extinguish. I don’t say this to excuse myself, only to say that it always felt to me inaccurate to reduce what I was doing to “cheating,” as my motivation had so little to do with her, and the consequences were so much more than simply infidelity. “Cheating” seemed overly harsh: it made it seem as if it were something I was doing to her, rather than – as I experienced it – as if it were a terrible tragedy that was happening to me. AND, that had a bad impact on her. And at the same time, it seemed almost to trivialize what was in fact a mammoth tragedy in the context of our relationship. Lots of people cheat. What I did was something far worse: I led a secret, double life.
Also, women and men tend to think about cheating differently: men tend to be threatened more my sexual betrayal (by their spouses), women, by emotional. I took some refuge in this: I never betrayed my wife emotionally. There were a couple of minor instances of crushes – the Secretary, the Historian, a masseuse who loved role play (about whom perhaps I’ll write one day). But, until L, no one I cared about deeply, no one who felt like an emotional event, rather than (or in addition to) a sexual one. Also for another post, this represents just one of the ways in which L has changed me (notwithstanding her sense that she hasn’t) – opening me up just a bit to the possibility of emotional exposure.
This is why, through much of my betrayals, I told myself that I wasn’t cheating, that the complete (or almost complete) absence of emotional content to the sex I had rendered it somehow cleansed of the stain of “cheating.” It’s a commonplace in happy ending massage parlors for everyone to rationalize away from the words that describe what’s happening: the women aren’t prostitutes (because they’re not fucking), the men aren’t “cheating” (because they’re not fucking). I met men in 12-step programs who believed that they weren’t cheating because all the sex they had was paid. And even outside of 12-step programs, get ten conventional men in a room with no women around, and they’ll ALL tell you (or each other) that fucking a prostitute doesn’t “count” as cheating. Or that oral sex doesn’t count. (Ask Bill Clinton.)
And here – I’ll make it more complicated. Many women feel that if their husbands look at porn, that’s cheating. Or flirting is cheating. To me, cheating is doing anything that your partner believes you’re not doing. (Or, not doing something they believe you are.)
By that standard, I was cheating on my wife from the day I met her. And though, with one exception, when I was 17, I didn’t cheat on previous girlfriends, I did, from the time I was, say, 20, never have a relationship with a woman that wasn’t characterized by secrecy and shame around sex (mostly involving porn and fantasy). If you’re looking for a pattern, that’s it: I believed, from the time I was in my early 20s, that my sexual desires were shameful, and so I sequestered them away from my partners.
This put a low ceiling on the level of sexual satisfaction available to me (or to them), and laid the groundwork for the devastating betrayals to come.
Thanks, Liza, for the excellent question.