This was triggered by rasilio’s post about cheating. Trust is a really big deal for me.
Betrayal damages trust. Even little betrayals. I’m almost fanatical about telling the truth with Sam, even when I know it will be a hurtful truth. I need to know that he’d be just as honest with me, so I treat him as I want him to treat me. I’m very blunt about telling someone “I feel betrayed due to X. That action violated our agreement Y.” I find that it greatly improves the relationship in the long run. And some breaches of trust are so big that there are no second chances, no possibility of working things out.
I agree with almost everything rasilio said about cheating, about what it is and what it isn’t. I disagree on one thing, though — no, we don’t all cheat. There are, in fact, people who are extremely careful about living up to their commitments. That’s in spirit as well as going by the absolute letter of any particular agreements. It is unfortunate that people who are very careful about fidelity seem to be less common than those who will betray their partners or business associates, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
Nobody’s perfect, and I don’t know ANYONE who hasn’t at some point betrayed someone in some way, big or small. But there are people who are really conscientious about it — often as a result of seeing the harm even minor infidelity can bring.
Even if it were true that everybody cheated, it wouldn’t make it okay. It wouldn’t excuse even one minor lie by omission. Cheating isn’t something that’s okay if the person you’re cheating on cheated on you. Ever. And I seriously believe that it is every bit as harmful to the one doing the cheating as to the person who is being cheated on and their relationship, even if nobody else ever finds out about it. Someone who is unfaithful will reap what she has sown. The universe takes care of that, one way or another, without our help. It doesn’t matter if you call it karma or the rule of three or just “what goes around, comes around.” I’ve seen it happen. Trust me here. Please.
While I know that it’s possible for someone to consider something that happened innocently to be cheating, I don’t think it’s common. I can only think of two examples of which I have personal knowledge—and I find one of them questionable! When that kind of accident does happen, it’s almost always a sign that there hasn’t been enough clear communication as to the explicit agreements in the relationship, and that the parties to those agreements just don’t know each other as well as they thought they did.
Case in point (I can tell this story because the other person in it is dead, and it cannot possibly hurt him or anyone else who is alive.) When I met my second husband, I was in a very socially active period of my life. And while I’m an introvert, I managed to wear the extrovert mask just about any time I was in a social setting. I flirted with absolutely everyone—it was just my normal way of interacting in those situations. It was fun. I liked the attention, the other people liked the attention, it was harmless all around. While we were dating, he never objected in any way—in fact, he seemed to enjoy watching, though he’d seldom join in. I acted exactly the same in front of him as when he wasn’t around.
The weekend after our honeymoon, we attended a party. It was a gathering of people whose company we’d enjoyed many times in the past. I acted normally—for me. And he got really, really upset. We had to leave early—he was absolutely in a rage. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong—had someone said or done something that I didn’t notice?
In his eyes, I’d been unfaithful because I flirted with an old friend (not even an old lover!). It wasn’t anything he hadn’t seen hundreds of times before, but now we were married. And as far as he was concerned, marriage changed everything. Completely. I was no longer permitted to flirt. With anyone. Ever. Period. It was not open to discussion, compromise, nothing. I was not, in fact, to have more than very superficial conversations—much less friendships!—with any other male. That’s just how it was supposed to be.
Do I think I betrayed him? No. But I know I hurt him, and I apologized for it. I changed my behavior afterward, although it was not easy. Flirting after I knew how he felt about it would have been infidelity. Despite the fact that I had no way of knowing about his expectations, my behavior damaged the trust between us. I wasn’t unfaithful, I didn’t deliberately hurt him—but I did hurt him.
Yes, we should have had far more detailed discussions of precisely what marriage meant to us before we got married. Failing to do so with as much my fault as his. And if I were a different person then, maybe I would have insisted that we have those discussions immediately, and either come to something we could both live with or end the marriage. I tried to do all the changing, ended up severely depressed, and the marriage ended several years later — but most of the reasons reached back to that failure to make implicit agreements explicit.
When someone cheats on you—really cheats, doesn’t act in ignorance like I did above—you have several choices. You can forgive and forget (I’m not good at that one anymore, at least partly because I don’t agree that forgetting is worthwhile). You can work out the issue in question so that both of you can go forward. You can change the relationship to something else, or end it. But you can’t excuse betraying him or her in turn. There’s no amount of sophistry that will make it okay.