The importance of honesty was drilled into me as a kid, but I’m not sure I really understood it until much later in life. I used to think of honesty in terms of things you should not do. Don’t shoplift or steal. Don’t lie. And never, ever cheat (on tests, at games and sports, and especially on other people).
As a result of experiences my mom had in her own young life (with a cheating father who left her mom virtually destitute and went on to marry his secret girlfriend), this last one was clearly delineated to me. I remember watching General Hospital with my mom after school, and she’d be downright disgusted when Carly or Sonny or Brenda would cheat on a significant other. “That’s horrible,” she’d mutter, loud enough for me to hear.
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I grew up understanding that cheating on a spouse—in any form—is a transgressive act that is rightfully condemned as just about the worst thing you can do in a relationship. Growing up in the eighties and nineties—in the Fatal Attraction/Bill and Monica era—meant knowing that adulterers deserved public shame (plus a little attempted murder or congressional impeachment) when they cheated.
I still held that belief well into my adult life. When friends uncovered a cheating partner or spouse, I’d routinely advise them to throw the bum out. That understanding was a guiding principle throughout my life and in my relationships. I believed that if you are an honest person who loves your spouse or partner, you don’t cheat, simple as that.
That line of thinking surely put me in good company. But here’s the rub: While most people would emphatically say that cheating is wrong, a shocking number of people do it anyway. In a 2021 study conducted by Health Testing Centers, just under half of individuals—a staggering 46.1%—admitted to cheating in a relationship.
Why We Cheat
In her 2015 Ted Talk, “Rethinking Infidelity,” psychotherapist Esther Perel boiled down what cheating on a partner means in society and how much weight it carries. “Adultery has existed since marriage was invented and so too the taboo against it,” she said. “In fact, infidelity has a tenacity that marriage can only envy, so much so that this is the only commandment that’s repeated twice in the Bible—once for doing it and once for even thinking about it. How do we reconcile what is universally forbidden but also universally practiced?”
When I first heard Perel’s talk in 2015, I was intrigued, but I was still so convinced that there was no grey between the decision to be faithful or the one to cheat. Even the reasons for cheating confounded to me. I thought people cheated because they were bored or fell out of love with their partner. It never occurred to me that you and your partner are a fledgling tree whose branches can grow in opposite directions through the years, even if you still love the other to the root.
Making Exceptions for Adultery
But on the way to my forties—nearly 15 years into my marriage—I began to question my sexual orientation. That’s when my clarity around cheating on a spouse grew a little murky. For a few years, I lived on the safe side of the line—I was just thinking, fantasizing, and imagining what it would be like to be with a woman. I consumed every morsel of lesbian junk food I could scrounge up online. I began writing lesbian fiction, playing out my fantasies in the form of stories to the tune of about 100,000 words or so. My husband eventually discovered my secret trove and confronted me about it. What was this? Was it a threat to our marriage?
I adamantly assured him that it wasn’t—I was just fantasizing. Don’t we all do that to some degree? But when I met a flesh-and-blood woman who quickened my pulse and made me feel the things I’d only ever imagined feeling, I found myself in an existential moment. I was so confused about how I could love my husband while craving this woman so completely. I felt things with her I had never felt before, things I wanted to feel. And I hated myself for it.
Engaging in an Emotional Affair
I slinked into an affair with her, first emotional and then pushing the boundaries physically, wearing righteous indignation as my armor. (“She’s just a friend. What, now I can’t have friends?”) But she wasn’t just a friend, and I began compulsively lying to my husband, but mostly to myself. I went on fake coffee runs and sat in parking lots of churches, grocery stores, and parks just to steal an hour on the phone with her. I was drowning in a haze of deception, self-loathing, and desire, pulling my marriage under with me.
The world accepted me when I came out—even though my marriage became collateral damage to my new clarity around my sexual identity. Most people seemed to agree that I couldn’t really know whether I was truly gay unless I got to test the waters with a live human woman. To my surprise, almost everyone I knew gave me that grace, even though I had deeply wounded the man I built my life with and profoundly disrupted the lives of our sons.
I’ll admit that the consensus that my affair was morally acceptable because it was with another woman was a relief. However, the woman I was falling for was living in a parallel universe: She was already an out lesbian in a same-sex marriage and was condemned for having an affair with me by almost everyone she knew. My affair was acceptable; hers was shameful. This left me wondering who wrote the rules of marriage and relationship morality and whether it’s time to ditch them and start anew.
Getting Honest About Affairs
There was one person who didn’t show me any understanding: my husband. He didn’t really care if I was “gay.” He cared that I broke our vows to each other. He cared that he suddenly had to question the veracity of our lives together, of every touch and every promise. I came to see that morality is very much in the eye of the beholder and perhaps completely beside the point.
Through my very painful divorce and in reinventing myself, I learned a lesson I will carry with me in everything I do for the rest of my life.
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I learned to trade honesty for Satya, a Sanskrit word that means being truthful in your core. It dawned on me in recent years that I could have never stayed in my marriage because I wasn’t thinking, speaking, or acting with integrity. Truthfulness isn’t a technicality, I learned. I had to get real with myself on a fundamental level—in my foundation—in order to share my life with someone, male or female.
What I know now is that before we can make a lifetime vow with another person, we have to make one with ourselves. I don’t know if I’ll ever get married again, but I do know I will never cheat on myself again. And, chances are, that will mean I am an honest and reliable partner—someone whose words and deeds can be counted on and trusted. And I can live with that.
Jess Downey is an award-winning writer and editor from Philadelphia. As the editor of Real Woman magazine, it is her mission to share the stories of women who are thriving, overcoming, and inspiring. She has contributed to Runner’s World, Destinations, Women’s Health, Yoga Journal, and told stories from inside a women’s prison and an operating room. She lives with her partner, two sons, and the most exuberant jack Russell/chihuahua you will ever meet, and she doesn’t mind that Eagles fans threw snowballs at Santa Claus.
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