In 2009 a family friend I hadn’t seen since I was a kid came into Chicago for a work conference and took me out for drinks. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the conversation of a woman who was a little under twice my age at the time, but certainly not what I received: an oftentimes graphic recounting of her sexual exploits—many of which were with married men—and all while in an open marriage with a somewhat reluctant husband.
Amid her manifold sordid stories, she told me one thing I will never forget: “You can bring all the toys, outfits and positions to spice things up in the bedroom … after six years, you’re still sleeping with the same person. It’s like borrowing the same library book over and over.”
I was still a year away from meeting the woman I would marry, and very much in possession of a Disney-movie-conclusion-friendly notion of relationships and marriage. “Naw, I think you just have to meet the right person,” I told her while half drunk.
But some eight years later, as I’m now on the other side of a marriage and in possession of 36 years of “wisdom,” I wonder if her words typify why people cheat on their spouses, and why infidelity will always exist in concert with marriages. My travels have led me to two perhaps cynical conclusions: Infidelity is extraordinarily pervasive, and the people seeking rhyme or reason for it all are likely to be left disappointed.
It also seems that cheating is more prevalent than ever in the media. Check the long-form piece in The Atlantic, “Why Happy People Cheat,” and CNN’s “The Changing Reasons Why Women Cheat on Their Husbands.” There’s also the ever-expanding list of high-profile cheaters, including Kevin Hart stepping out on his pregnant wife, Eniko Parrish, and actress Gina Torres reportedly wrecking one of the low-key enduring black Hollywood marriages: hers with Laurence Fishburne. And, unsurprisingly, Harvey Weinstein was married more than once during the decades of alleged sexual assault and harassment that currently have him in the meat grinder.
Attempts to uncover approximate numbers of people who’ve had affairs via studies are useless, considering that people are prone to lying about their misdeeds even under the aegis of anonymity. But one thing you can take to the bank: Someone you know who’s stunting on the ’gram with pictures of a seemingly indefectible marriage and family has fucked around on their person. It’s only an educated guess to say that the issue of fidelity will become more complicated as marriage evolves (or devolves, depending on your perspective) with successive generations.
There’s been a lot of pivotal social progression since baby boomers started marrying: Women have an unprecedented amount of social and economic freedom that makes them less likely to settle on unfit partners or stay in bad marriages. Social media has made it easier for people to explore different options—or fall back into older ones—with the swipe of a finger.
It’s as if we’re pushing back against a standard that was established when we were still dying off in our 30s. It’s far more difficult to stay sexually or emotionally monogamous with one person for the average American life span than we’ve been willing to acknowledge. Far more people jump the broom than are actually built for monogamy, and they often learn that the hard way.
Of course, cheating is no new phenomenon—married folks have sought pieces of strange since time immemorial. We all know someone’s granddad who somehow managed an entire second family while staying married to his wife. (There was lots of truth to the movie/play Fences and the most recent season of Being Mary Jane.) But folks thought differently then, and smartphones and personal computers weren’t a thing. When I see women on dating websites wishing for the 60-year marriage their grandparents had before they both died within a couple of weeks of each other, I recognize that there’s a decent chance that some bullshit happened—and was moved past—within that 60 years that would kill quite a few contemporary marriages.
It does seem that infidelity is becoming a more socially acceptable moral infraction in general. Kevin Hart gave us a dusty Instagram mea culpa, but his brand will experience virtually no negative impact. We don’t direct opprobrium toward cheaters we love; the legacies of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy remain virtually unblemished by their marital infidelities. Unfortunately, however, women tend to be judged more harshly than men for their roles in dissolving a marriage through cheating: Folks despise Alicia Keys and Gabrielle Union but essentially excuse Swizz Beats and Dwyane Wade.
I recognize that many people cheat for complex reasons, and that many who do so exist in marriages that are the equivalent of slow dancing in a burning room. But many do it to break up the sexual monotony and mundanity of an otherwise satisfying marriage, and I always wonder if those cheaters think about it from a cost-benefit analysis.
Eniko Parrish was once Kevin Hart’s jump-off and knows where her bread is buttered, so again, he’ll be OK. But cats like Anthony Weiner, who was married to a beautiful and powerful woman above his weight class and could have been the U.S. president one day, blew up his entire world—and his freedom—for repeated cheating-adjacent behavior.
That’s the reason I’ve never cheated in any committed relationship: On top of not being able to look my partner in the eye, I would perpetually be worried about getting caught (people always get caught). That didn’t stop my then-wife from keeping me on a tight leash in regards to my interactions with people in possession of a vagina, but all that accomplished was resentment, rebellion and the sowing of the seeds that eventually ended my marriage.
Truth is, there’s nothing she could have done if I’d wanted to cheat. Despite what the approach of former NBA player Doug Christie’s helicopter wife might lead you to believe, you can’t watch your partner at all times; nor should you feel inclined to. I was a homebody, work-gym-home husband, but there were many pockets of time to be a bad boy.
Despite the pervasiveness of infidelity, I would never advise anyone to use fear of it or a bad experience as a reason to avoid all meaningful relationships forever. I, for one, don’t want to imagine lying on my deathbed, regretting being alone because I was worried about being cheated on. Not worth it.