Finding out your partner has cheated on you is often devastating. Regardless of your relationship style (monogamous, non-monogamous, polyam), partners can cheat. Any time a person violates the pre-agreed upon boundaries of a relationship, that is cheating.
As a society, we talk about cheating in salacious ways. Its office or church gossip. It’s watching Cheaters, or daytime talk shows. It is seen as a terminal point for a relationships. When famous folks cheat, we rarely understand why their partner would stay with them.
We don’t talk about the realities of being cheated on/cheating and what it looks like during a relationship. So, dear reader, I’m about to get deep into dealing with cheating in a relationship and options for how to handle it.
Reliable statistics on cheating behavior are hard to create. Survey methodology relies on self-reporting. This means people must decide whether or not to disclose on a survey or to a researcher if they have cheated. Obviously, even in anonymous surveys, some people who do cheat will not admit to it. Second, unless the survey or researcher specifies what they mean about cheating, people may not disclose even if the behavior would have counted as cheating within the relationship (the classic “We were on a break” dispute in Friends highlights how two people in a relationship can see behavior differently).
Additional difficulties figuring out who cheats comes with the heteronormativity of fidelity studies. Most of these studies are conducted on married or previously married heterosexual couples. Obviously, this leaves a fair number of us out of the studied population.
Taking the above into consideration, most surveys put the figures around 13 percent of women and 20 percent of men admit to cheating in a relationship at some point. For people under 30, women tend to report cheating more than men. The trend reverses once people get into their 30s.
Talking About Cheating in Relationships
Many couples do not address the issue of cheating until someone has strayed outside the boundaries of a relationship. This means that the first conversations about cheating, fidelity, and other tangential issues only get addressed after boundaries have been transgressed. Trying to deal with the pain of being cheated on/found out and negotiating about these topics makes the conversations fraught and very painful.
Talking about cheating and fidelity prior to it happening can have several benefits for your relationship(s). First, you and your partner(s) have the opportunity to reach a common understanding about what you mean by fidelity, relationship, ethical non-monogamy and more. Second, you have time to do some deep thinking about how you want to react if you find out your partner is cheating. Third, this early work sets the stage for remaining true to the person you want to be in a relationship.
What Questions Should I Ask Before Someone Cheats?
First, you and your partner(s) should actively decide the boundaries of the relationship.
- What are your expectations around monogamy?
- If you are non-monogamous, what are the boundaries around bringing in a new person to the relationship?
- What are your expectations around safer sex with your partner and between your partner and other people?
- At what point in a developing friendship is your partner expected to disclose that the relationship may become intimate?
- Is your definition of cheating limited to sexual intercourse or do other intimate behaviors count as cheating for you?
Having open and honest discussions about these topics sets you and your partner up for clear expectations of behavior. When someone violates these boundaries, it is not done accidentally or because you never talked about them and just expected your partner to have the same expectations as you do. This makes is easier to decide how to react if your partner cheats.
Even if you are submissive and have negotiated power exchange when it comes to your Dominant choosing other partners, you should have some boundaries and a way to check in with your partner about their behavior. I know plenty of submissives who have an agreement that their partner may choose to sleep with whomever they want, without restrictions. However, there are times the submissive may have an issue with the choice of partners (e.g., the individual has toxic traits, the individual is disagreeable, the individual loves causing drama for the dominant). Establishing a protocol for checking in with your dominant to express your concerns is important for maintaining the health of your relationship.
What Kind of Person Do I Want to be in This Relationship?
Developing a clear idea of who you want to be in the relationship will help you stay true to your authentic self during conflicts.
- Do I want to support my partner’s happiness, even if that means accepting another partner in his life?
- What do I expect in terms of my partner’s actions when it comes to protecting my physical and mental health?
- How much am I responsible for my own happiness versus what my partner provides?
- What do I think fighting fair looks like? How do I make sure I fight fair?
- How do I want to respond when my boundaries are violated?
- If I find out my partner is cheating on me, is that worth ending our relationship for without question? Are there times I could forgive cheating? What are my boundaries around this?
What Do I Expect from My Partner if They are Caught Cheating?
- Do I expect my partner to be apologetic about cheating?
- Do I expect my partner to tell me the truth when confronted about cheating?
- What level of disclosure about the relationship(s) they engaged in do I expect?
- Do I expect them to tell me about the sexual details?
- Do I expect them to get tested for STIs prior to having sex with them again?
- Do I expect them to leave our home?
Buffering a Relationship from Cheating
There is at least a ten percent chance your partner will cheat on you during your relationship. Having the questions above answered prior to that happening can provide you a buffer against the pain and trauma which often accompanies finding out a partner has been unfaithful.
Keeping true to your authentic self and who you want to be in a relationship will allow you to remain grounded. Even if the relationship ends, if your partner is less than gracious and kind, you can remain impeccable with yourself. You will be able to leave knowing you did what you could and did not violate your values in the process.
Having clear boundaries and expectations set prior to any cheating occurring will allow you to clearly state what boundaries and relationship rules were violated. Neither you nor your partner can claim it was, “simply a misunderstanding.” This ends much of the fighting couples experience when the pre-work has not been done.
Finally, if you make the decision that sexual intercourse with another person is not enough to end a relationship, you will already have a roadmap back to the relationship you want. Being able to clearly state, “I need you to get tested for STIs before we sleep together again,” or “I need you to see a therapist to address the issues you have leading you to cheat,” based on your earlier decisions and your desire to remain true to your needs and authentic self allows you to be firm and kind at the same time.
For tips on fighting fair, check out my piece, “Above the Belt: 7 Tips for Fighting Fair” on Wellcelium.
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