I have an opinion on most things, and when I’ve made my mind up about something, it’s pretty hard to change it (some people call this stubborn, I call it...convicted).
But the one subject where you’ll find me perching on the fence is cheating, and I’m on my own in this respect, if some of the comments the end of yesterday’s IHTM story are anything to go by. Frankly, I just don’t get it -- relationships are so complicated, I can’t understand how anyone can have a black and white view on the matter.
Then, this morning a press release popped into my inbox informing me that “half of all Brits think affairs are an acceptable part of relationships in certain circumstances.*”
Yes! This was exactly the sort of ambivalence I was after! In fact, I think this sums up the British point of view on most things. We’re pretty chilled out about what other people get up to, but we know we’ll never be as cool about it as the French, so we’re not going to try.
But it did get me thinking -- what are these certain circumstances where cheating gets a free pass? When is it OK? I’ve played every part in the cheating triumvirate and I still don’t know the answer.
In fact, it brought up a whole series of sub questions:
- Can there be degrees of cheating?
Is it OK to cheat on your newish boyfriend when you’re not that serious? Is cheating with an ex worse or better than with a total stranger (I’d personally find it worse, but other people I’ve spoken to think it would be more acceptable)? Is it OK to cheat if you’re about to break up with someone anyway? Is it OK if one of you is French?
Actually, this reminds me of an incident a few years ago where I was getting the last train back from interviewing cricketing legend Ian Botham in Birmingham (don’t laugh), and a really hot, Gallic-looking guy in a black polo neck and overcoat (I’m not making any of this up) started eyeing me up across the carriage.
He then Bluetoothed my phone (give me a break, it was 2006) a picture of a question mark, before he eventually came over and started talking to me. After 20 minutes of interesting, if slightly surreal conversation, the train pulled into Euston, where we both stood up to leave.
"Before zis goes any further," he said [imagine the French accent if my terrible written impression doesn’t help], "I must tell you somezing. I am married."
I was only 23 and a bit baffled by the whole thing, so I just said "Oh, OK, well never mind, best be off then," and ran off in the opposite direction as fast as my daft little legs could carry me.
This isn’t to demonstrate how virtuous I am (far from it), but more that to a French guy, chatting some girl up on a train, and blithely telling her he’s married before cracking on to her is perfectly normal behaviour. Maybe he got away with it because he was so ruddy hot. Or maybe it’s that the attitude to zee extra maritals in France is totally different, and everyone’s a lot happier for it.
- Is it acceptable to cheat if you fall in love?
Sometimes the love of your life isn’t the person you’re with, and when you meet that person, you’re pulled together by a magnetic force that neither of you can resist. In this situation, you might end up doing a bit of cheating before you tie up all the pesky loose ends of your past, but YOU CAN’T FIGHT TRUE LOVE, right?
But what if you then fall in someone else, and find their magnetic force totally irresistible? Do you only get one free pass for the Falling In Love clause?
- Is it better or worse to have a drunken and regrettable one-night stand or to have a long-running emotional affair?
Is a drunken one-night stand the end of an otherwise perfectly happy relationship? What about if you find yourself more interested in emailing and going for lunch with a male work colleague than you do in having dinner with your partner at the end of the day? Someone can have an emotional affair for years and deny it to themselves and everyone else, but does that make it less of a betrayal than a grubby drunken fling?
- What about if you’re The Other Woman?
This is inevitably the point that riles most people. The Other Woman, that sexually manipulative, competitive, UNSISTERLY whore bag. Unless of course, he didn’t tell her about his wife/long term girlfriend. In that case she’s a victim too, so that’s OK.
This is where it gets tricky, because I tend to subscribe to the premise that women have it hard enough without turning on each other -- we should all spend a bit more time being nice to each other. So, going around stealing other women’s boyfriends or husbands is certainly not cool.
But what if you didn’t want to steal him? Or what if you fell in love? Or what if it was none of those things, and you knew he had a girlfriend but you did it anyway because you were drunk or lonely or bored? What if you do charity work, rescue nuns from burning buildings and raise orphaned baby monkeys in your back garden, but once had an affair with a married man -- does that make you the worst of the worst?
And why is it that a woman cheating on her boyfriend with another guy is more acceptable than a single woman having an affair with a married man, even though she’s not the one in a relationship?
Why is the tempter so much worse than the tempted? Is it worse to hurt a woman than it is to hurt a man? Men screw each other over every day, women screw men over every day, what’s the difference between that and a woman doing the dirty on a fellow member of the sisterhood?
The point I’m trying to make is, every single relationship, affair, one-night stand or whatever is different. No one knows what really goes on in other people’s lives, and one set of rules certainly doesn’t fit for everyone. I found some of the comments in yesterday's article really difficult, because without knowing the tiny and subtle nuances of someone’s relationship and fully understanding the character of everyone involved, you’ll never really get a full picture of who’s happy and who isn’t and who’s manipulating whom.
It’s an inescapable fact that if you’re cruel enough about it, cheating on someone can cause them more pain than anything else you could possibly do. On top of which, serial cheaters can be highly manipulative, charming and adept at getting their own way, and they’re the sort of people who get away with it again and again.
But, before we start flinging rocks at each other, maybe we need to remember that life isn’t black and white. Relationships are tricky, affairs are tricky and life is really bloody tricky -- and I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s led a blameless one.
*In the interests of balanced reporting, it's only fair to point out that the survey was conducted for a website called Maritalaffair.co.uk, so it's possible they had a teeny bit of an agenda.