Is it ever okay to cheat on a partner?

A reader questions whether dishonesty is justified if it prevents conflict


Ask Kai: Advice for the Apocalypse” is a column by Kai Cheng Thom to help you survive and thrive in a challenging world. Have a question? Email [email protected].

Dear Kai, 

Is it always wrong to cheat on your partner, or are there some circumstances in which it’s okay? Let me explain. I’m a gay man in a sexless relationship with my partner of 22 years. It’s a long story, but essentially, we met in our late 20s at a very different time in both our lives, and we did start out having sex—a lot of it. Since then, we’ve lived together as common-law partners and adopted and raised a kid. The adoption process was extremely stressful due to the homophobia we faced as gay prospective parents, as were the first few years of adjusting to our new family structure with our son. In that process, my partner and I went through a lot of conflict, and we essentially stopped feeling romantic toward one another, though we work well as co-parents and we both have good relationships with our son. 

I appreciate my partner a lot, and I feel a lot of compassion for him. He’s been through hell as the child of extremely rejecting religious parents. A part of me will always care about him. But the truth is, I’m not in love with or even attracted to him anymore, and I highly doubt he’s in love with me. We’re essentially very polite, highly functional, emotionally distant roommates. It’s been a long and lonely road, and I’m a very sexual person. I’m not getting any younger, and I want to feel that excitement and intimacy again before it’s too late. 

I would propose an open marriage or polyamory, but my partner has always been extremely resistant to those ideas. He still has a lot of conservative beliefs. And while I would consider separation or divorce, I’m afraid that it would bring even more unhappiness down upon us. I don’t know how he would react, but I can’t imagine it being anything good. And I’m worried about how it would affect our son, who is still living with us (though he may move out for university soon). Sometimes I meet good-looking guys, and I think about how much easier it would be to just start something new and keep it a secret … is there any way this could be okay, or am I just fooling myself? 

Lonely And Desperate

Dear LAD,

You find yourself trapped in a terrible dilemma, and I empathize with you deeply. Of course you long for aliveness and intimacy. Most adult human beings do, and one of the enduring challenges of monogamy is that it forecloses most roads to intimacy in any situation where one’s romantic partnership has become hostile or distant. Despite the long-standing social stigma around cheating, a huge number of people in committed relationships cheat—which I think is reflective of a society that has not yet learned how to support the healthy pursuit of intimacy across the span of adult life. 

 

The erotic spark that awakens when a sexual or romantic partnership first begins naturally waxes and wanes over time. As our life circumstances change, so does the physical and emotional quality of our intimate relationships, and in your case, LAD, it sounds like some highly stressful events and trauma might have intensified this process. So is cheating—which, to be clear, I define as any intimate or sexual action with another person that intentionally breaks the agreements of a committed relationship—ever the answer? This is a question primed to release an avalanche of impassioned opinions from all possible angles, and I imagine there is a grain of truth in all of them. 

My own perspective is that your question is really two questions, LAD. In the first place, you are asking about ethics—is cheating ever ethically permissible, or at least the lesser of two evils? And in the second, you are asking if cheating is a viable solution to your current problem? 

In regard to the former, I will be frank: I don’t think that one can reasonably argue that cheating is ever ethically “good.” Outside of cases of intimate partner abuse, I generally believe that there is always a more ethically sound way to navigate unmet relationship needs. However, I think that the scale of harm caused by cheating is extremely contextual, and in many cases either not terribly severe or relative to other forms of harm occurring in the relationship. For example, if one person is being habitually put down or denigrated in their relationship, taking comfort in having an affair with someone else might be considered the lesser offence. In regard to the latter question, I think that cheating can sometimes be a practical solution, though not an ethical one, to unhappiness in a relationship—it depends on what is most important to you, how skilfully you can manage the aspect of deception, and what you hope to get from the experience. 

“What does erotic happiness really mean to you? And what are you willing to risk in its pursuit? ”

Regardless of what you end up deciding, LAD, what I’m really taking away from your letter is that the status quo of your relationship no longer feels acceptable or sustainable for you, and there is a part of you that is both yearning for and demanding change. It seems inevitable to me that you must at some point make a move that will radically transform the way you are currently living, and whatever move you make will incur significant emotional and relational risk. So the real questions are: What does erotic happiness really mean to you? And what are you willing to risk in its pursuit? 

Celebrity relationship expert and couples therapist Esther Perel writes in her book The State of Affairs that the act of cheating or having an affair is “a window, like no other, into the crevices of the human heart.” While Perel is more equivocal on the moral dimension of adultery than I can completely get on board with (for example, suggesting that affairs can be good for a relationship), I do agree that both the idea and action of cheating, as well as our emotional responses to it, tell us a great deal about who we are and what we want.

Cheating, or having an affair, in an unhappy relationship often seems on the surface like the path of least resistance. You get the pleasure of sexuality with a new person and, most couples therapists would say, the thrill of experiencing yourself in a forbidden role that’s very different from the one you inhabit in your primary relationship. What’s more, at least at first, there aren’t any major consequences. In contrast, having a frank conversation with your partner about your unmet needs is almost inevitably going to be unpleasant at the very least, and any possible rewards for doing so are unclear and usually relegated to an uncertain future. Framed in that way, LAD, it’s no wonder why so many people choose the affair. 

Yet if we look more deeply at the risks and rewards presented by the two options, we can uncover a more complex reality. Cheating usually does feel good in the short term, and its forbidden nature tends to only enhance this, because the forbidden zones of desire are generally very sexy to most people. Yet forbidden pleasures require secrecy by definition, and the psychological impact of long-term secrecy tends to be shame and damage to one’s own self-concept; that is, seeing oneself as a bad or unlovable person. 

How would you feel about yourself needing to keep a secret from your partner, your son and potentially many other important people in your life, indefinitely, LAD? And, imagining that you were to start a long-term secret relationship with the “other man” (or men) in your life—how would he feel about having to be kept a secret? Even if you were able to keep up with cheating indefinitely and never get caught, there are consequences to consider. 

Of course, affairs sometimes are discovered, and the risks posed by that possibility are significant. In the first place, your partner may feel betrayed, deceived and emotionally harmed (it’s also possible he won’t care; that does happen from time to time, but this isn’t something I would bet on). He may also react in ways that are painful to you—people who have been cheated on sometimes initiate acrimonious divorces, talk badly about their cheating partners with others or engage in other punishing behaviours, and those who have cheated often have to live with the added pain of feeling that those acts of punishment are somewhat justified. There’s also your son to consider, and how he might be impacted by the knowledge that you cheated were he to find out—how the way he perceives you and feels about you might change, and what that might be like.

So cheating comes with many risks, LAD, as well as many unknowns. At the core of the issue, I believe that cheating can be understood as a person’s attempt to create the life transformation that they need to feel happy. This is usually paired with the desire to avoid the painful experience of seeing oneself through the eyes of one’s partner as abandoning them or giving up on the relationship. Yet the truth is that cheating often requires feeling bad about ourselves anyway—and it creates a minefield of potential additional risks as well. 

Transformation is always risky and frightening, LAD, whether we choose the route of direct confrontation or the path of circumnavigation and deception. I must admit that I come down on the side of direct confrontation, because it allows the braver parts of ourselves to shine. Transformation always calls upon us to be courageous, and it invites us to grow even through pain toward a better happiness. So this is the real question, LAD: as you move toward changing your life, who do you want to be?


Kai Cheng Thom is no longer a registered or practicing mental health professional. The opinions expressed in this column are not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content in this column, including, but not limited to, all text, graphics, videos and images, is for general information purposes only. This column, its author, Xtra (including its parent and affiliated companies, as well as their directors, officers, employees, successors and assigns) and any guest authors are not responsible for the accuracy of the information contained in this column or the outcome of following any information provided directly or indirectly from it.

Kai Cheng Thom is a writer, performer, and social worker who divides her heart between Montreal and Toronto, unceded Indigenous territories. She is the author of the Lambda Award-nominated novel Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl's Confabulous Memoir (Metonymy Press), as well as the poetry collection a place called No Homeland (Arsenal Pulp Press). Her latest book, Falling Back in Love with Being Human, a collection of letters and poetry, is out now from Penguin Random House Canada.

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