Sex & Relationships

Could Cheating Save a Relationship?

Cheating should never be the go-to solution. But what about as a last resort?
My column from last week, Is Cheating Ever Okay? -- the one suggesting that cheating in a sexless relationship might be morally defensible -- generated more comments than any other column I've written for this blog. By a considerable margin.

And based on the content of the comments, it seems as if I need to do some clarifying, and go into this in a little more detail. This is a complicated question -- that's the main point I'm trying to make, actually -- one that I'm still figuring out myself, and it's going to take more than a couple of blog posts to resolve it, even in my own mind. But I want to take a little time to explain what the heck I'm talking about, and address some of the main themes that came up in the replies.

First of all: Lots of people said, "Why don't you just talk about it with your partner? Don't go cheating. If you're not happy with your sex life, try to work it out."

Yes. Of course. I totally agree. It is no fair reneging on monogamy in a sexless marriage if you haven't told your partner there's a problem. I even said so in my original post (she said, trying to keep the peevish tone out of her voice). But apparently I didn't say it clearly enough, or at great enough length, or close enough to the top of the page, and it somehow got overlooked. So I'll say it again: If you're in a relationship where your partner has unilaterally turned off the sex, and you're considering cheating, you have some responsibilities. And one of those responsibilities is to make a scrupulous, good-faith effort to fix the sexual problems with your partner, and try to find a solution that works for both of you, before you go a-wandering.

What's more, you have to try hard, and you have to try more than once. If you tell your partner, "What's with the lack of sex?" and they say, "Yeah, well, I don't think I want to have sex anymore," you can't then shrug your shoulders and go running to the nearest singles bar or online hookup site. You have to make it very clear that this is a real problem for you, one that's making you unhappy. I'm not sure you should necessarily give them an "If you won't ever have sex with me again, I'll find someone who will" ultimatum -- in my experience, most people don't respond well to ultimatums -- but you have to make your feelings clear, and you have to keep trying. Cheating isn't a go-to solution. It's a last resort.

But what if you tell your partner there's a problem, and they aren't willing to talk about it? Or they don't see it as a problem, and aren't willing to do anything about it?

What would you do then?

Several other people pointed out that sometimes people's libidos go through temporary dry patches, due to childbirth or depression or other stressful situations. They argued that part of a longterm monogamous commitment is being willing to accept that, and to accept celibacy until things get better. And again, I quite agree. I even said so in my original post. (She said, again trying to keep the petulant, "Could you please at least read what I write before chiding me about it?" tone out of her voice. And failing, probably. Sorry about that.)

I'm not talking about that. I'm not talking about long but temporary dry spells. I'm talking about one partner unilaterally turning off the sex in a relationship -- permanently. Or at least, with no willingness to discuss it or deal with it, and no end in sight.

What would you do then?

And lots of people said things like, "Why cheat? Isn't open non-monogamy a better option?"

Yes. Of course it is.

But it's not always an available option.

Not everyone is willing to be non-monogamous. Or even to consider it. Some people apparently do think that, because they've given up on sex, their partner should, too. In the letters to the sex advice columnists on this topic, one of the themes that comes up a lot is that the partner who's turning off the tap thinks sex is something you do when you're younger, early on in the relationship; that the drying up of sexual desire is normal; and that it's unreasonable to expect or indeed want sex past a certain point.

What would you do then?

And other people have suggested that the only honorable options in this situation are (a) open non-monogamy, and (b) break-up/ divorce. A lot of people said things like, "If you're not happy in your sex life, why would you even want to stay together?"

But that assessment is not always accurate, or fair, or reflective of reality. What if you have kids? What if you have a business together? What if you have some sort of artistic or intellectual endeavor together? Splits are almost always difficult and messy, but some are more difficult and messy than others. Some splits affect more people than the ones who are splitting.

And what if you really like each other, and love each other, and enjoy being together apart from the sex problems? What if, apart from the sex, this is a relationship that makes you both happy? Is ending a relationship whose end would cause upheaval and unhappiness to you and your partner and lots of other people really a better, more honorable choice than a discreet affair? Are the only moral choices either (a) divorce or (b) foregoing sex for the rest of your life?

What would you do?

I'm going to take the most extreme situation to illustrate my point. Admittedly it is an extreme situation; but it's also not an unrealistic one. In fact, it's one I've seen described more or less verbatim in the sex columns. You're in a long- term relationship. You have kids, or a business, or some other major entanglements together: entanglements that would make a split extremely difficult and painful, and that affect other people than just the two of you. And you do, in fact, both like being coupled with each other, and would much rather stay together than split up.

Your partner has stopped having sex with you. You've tried to discuss it with them, but they either refuse to even talk about it, or don't see it as a problem. They are unwilling to change. They think sex is something you do when you're younger, and that you should just accept the disappearance of sex as a normal part of life. And they are unwilling to consider non-monogamy.

What would you do?

You might decide that your best choice is either to accept permanent celibacy for the rest of your life, or to break up. And I wouldn't argue with either of those choices, or judge you for making them. But I don't think they're great choices, either. They're also choices that can hurt people, choices that can make people besides yourself unhappy.

And I'm arguing that, in this situation, cheating is in the same category. It's not a great choice, it's a choice that can hurt people ... but in this situation, I'm not sure I'd argue with it, or judge you for making it.

Again, I know that I'm describing an extreme situation. But when trying to figure out complicated moral questions, it's often useful to take an extreme example first, and then parse backwards from there, to see where you think the line should be drawn. And I do think this is a morally complicated situation. That's the main point I'm trying to make. Cheating is not always a cut and dried moral issue, where we can comfortably scold and wag our fingers. It's often a complicated one, with extenuating circumstances.

I don't think that cheating is, to use the phrase Ingrid uses, morally excellent. I don't think it's a great choice. But I do think that, in certain situations, it may be the best bad choice available. There are some situations in life where there are no good choices, no morally impeccable choices, and all you can do is make the best imperfect choice you can.
Read more of Greta Christina at her blog.
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