Where do you draw the line on infidelity?
Maya* met Tonya* through mutual friends at a party about 10 years ago. They hit it off from the get-go, became close as they found out more about each other and got together soon after. About eight years into their relationship, Maya, 38, realised she had the hots for someone she’d met at work and couldn’t stop thinking about her. This other person, we’ll call her Alice, was also in a long-term relationship and, although the two of them had never touched physically, nor even acknowledged the mutual attraction, Maya spent a lot of time thinking about Alice, meeting up with her every so often, texting and emailing.
Maya was in a monogamous relationship and sex had all but petered out. Although she told Tonya about Alice, she chose not to tell her how aroused and sexually alive she felt when they got together. Maya wasn’t sure if her desire was love or lust, or perhaps both. Was she flirting with Alice or just responding to her provocative banter? Maya worried about these feelings and wondered why she continued to meet Alice despite feeling committed to her partner. Was she being unfaithful? Was she trying to get a flavour of what she felt she’d lost in her long-term relationship? She didn’t dare talk about it with Tonya for fear of hurting her, or risk of losing her. They had never spoken about the “what if” if one or other of them fancied someone else. They were monogamous and apart from celebrity crushes, expressing desire for anyone else was off limits. Maya knew she didn’t really want to have sex with Alice, the fantasy and the shared feeling of mutual attraction was enough. Each time after they met, Maya went back to Tonya’s flat feeling guilty and aroused until unexpectedly one evening her arousal seemed to re- ignite their sexual relationship. After a year or so, Maya realised her attraction to Alice had “fizzled out” and today she says their relationship is “stronger – and sexier – than ever”.
Did Maya “cheat” on Tonya? That depends on who you ask. In a survey conducted by comedian, author and Radio DIVA host Rosie Wilby to find out what we mean when we talk about infidelity, 62 out of the 100 people who participated said they thought exchanging texts and emails constituted an infidelity of sorts. By this measure, Maya’s behaviour would be considered unfaithful. A further 31 out of the 100 participants might consider Maya’s masturbating and fantasising about Alice whilst in a monogamous relationship with Tonya to be unfaithful also.
For some in monogamous relationships then, any such behaviour involving someone other than their partner is considered suspicious. 25-year-old Lu, is typical of those who believe infidelity means “doing anything you wouldn’t do in front of your partner, or doing anything you wouldn’t tell them about”. In similar vein, Abbi, 27 explains that in her current relationship “infidelity would be anything either physical or emotional and acted upon. Basically anything you wouldn't want the other person to see. So anything from kissing, obviously sex to flirting by text to the point you had to hide the texts or encouraging someone you know is interested in you romantically.” For Isabelle*, 45, however, it’s a case of what the mind doesn’t know the heart doesn’t grieve over. “A secret fantasy is nobody else's business and a bit of flirting can be healthy so long as it stays light. We need to be realistic that we will meet people as we go through life that make us go all a flutter. If you’re genuinely, solidly happy in your relationship then it can put up with the odd head turning moment.” Counsellor and psychologist MJ Barker adds: “other people who come into our lives in this way can often help us to experience sides of ourselves that we don't experience with another person – like our partner. This is part of the reason why those relationships can feel so intoxicating, and – if we can stay with that feeling without acting upon it – it may be that we can have the kind of experience described here. However, it's certainly possible to have experiences like this openly, without having to keep it secret, and indeed to actupon it without the primary relationship having to end, so it feels a bit sad to me that Tonya had to keep it secret and not consider acting upon it.”
In her book Is Monogamy Dead, Rosie Wilby explores the responsibilities we have to each other in and out of relationships and the different ways we choose to negotiate our interactions. It’s a subject close to Rosie’s heart, driven by her own experience and expectations of intimate relationships and triggered by the heartbreak she felt after four important relationships that didn’t work out and the one she found herself in with Jen*, who gave her love, companionship, consistency – and sex, if she wanted it. Only Rosie didn’t. The sex bit, that is. But as much as she cringed at the thought of sex with steadfast Jen (having not gotten over her last girlfriend) she couldn’t bear to lose the deep bond of friendship they’d developed over the years. The catalyst that rocked her out of her false sense of security was realising a close friend and serial monogamist was having an affair shortly before she jumped ship from the long-term partner to the new paramour.
This wasn’t part of the deal, she thought. “This was someone sizing up and trying out their next partner while they were still in an existing relationship. It was a kind of non-consensual non-monogamy.” She wondered how many other self-proclaimed ‘serial monogamists’ actually adopted this rather more duplicitous model. So Rosie did what most of us would never do: she went forensic on love, sex and relationships, used the treasures she found in her research as material in a string of sell-out one-woman shows which she performed around the country. She found out how to “consciously uncouple”, she listened and learned from academics and friends, from people in poly relationships, and learned how to start thinking and doing relationships differently.
I too decided to conduct some research for DIVA on this subject, admittedly with a far smaller sample, and discovered some interesting facts. Respondents told of their deal-breakers – whether in mono and poly set-ups – as well as the joys and sorrows of their mistakes. In Rosie’s survey 94 of the 100 surveyed said they felt that having sex with someone else would constitute infidelity, 76 believed that kissing someone was crossing the line and 73 said falling in love with someone else without any sexual contact was also a no-no. Lower down the list of deal-breakers for those in monogamous relationships was “staying up all night talking to someone else – 31”, “masturbating while thinking about someone else – 14”, “fantasising about someone else – 7” and ”looking at porn alone – 4”. Only three said they felt none of these behaviours constituted a breach of contract and two said they had ”never been in a monogamous relationship”.
The results suggest that most of those who took part in the survey think within with a monogamous relationship model yet, as 37-year-old Katie observes, often those in monogamous relationships don’t openly discuss their boundaries at all. “I think problems arise because people don’t communicate around this and instead make huge assumptions about what the other person’s boundaries are based on what their own are, and what might be commonplace within their group of friends, family or community,” Katie explains. “I think the additional problem for same-sex female relationships in particular is that platonic friendship behaviour can sometimes overlap with relationship behaviours depending on the dynamic between the friends. Is it infidelity for example to kiss your best friend hello on the lips, and is it different to kiss a person you fancy or flirt with hello on the lips? And until we really start to deconstruct actions and feelings, thinking through romantic, sexual, platonic, friendship, love we will always struggle to communicate about these things and what makes us comfortable or uncomfortable, happy or unhappy.”
MJ Barker is unsurprised by the findings of Rosie’s survey. “From my experience as a relationship therapist, and researching monogamy and non-monogamy, it's clear that the rules around fidelity are very unclear. Studies have found that monogamous people often go in assuming that they both know and agree what is meant by monogamy, and then realise later on that they have different ideas. Looking at online porn, flirting, and being friends with an ex are common examples which one person would regard as infidelity and the other wouldn't.”
In their book Rewriting the Rules, MJ suggests “it's helpful to locate yourself on a spectrum of 'emotional monogamy' and 'physical monogamy' because those things are different for different people. On the emotional scale it's about whether you want only one person who is emotionally a lot closer to you than other people in your life (perhaps a partner) up to the other end of the spectrum where you have several close people at an equal level. On the physical scale one extreme would be forbidding any physical closeness with anyone who is not a partner, to the other extreme of having sexual relationships with anybody you're attracted to.”
It’s this kind of reflective behaviour that can be helpful in ensuring that partners are clear about what kind of relationship they’re really after. In previous relationships, when boundaries weren’t discussed Katie admits she “kissed other people whilst in relationships and decided the best of course of action is to come clean. I’ve done the same and kept it hidden. For me, it never affected how I felt about the person I was with, but it might have affected how they felt about me. I’ve ended one relationship because my feelings for another person became stronger than the feelings I had for the person I was with.”
Although she is not currently in a relationship, in the future, Katie says she wants to do things differently. “I know where my boundary preferences are – somewhere in the region of ethical non-monogamy flexible – and I would communicate this with any potential partner and negotiate clear boundaries we are both happy with. If you can’t do this, it doesn’t bode well for a healthy relationship anyway, does it?”
Self-described “stay-at-home mum” Isabelle says she didn’t negotiate boundaries with her partner. Acknowledging that there was a problem in the fabric of their relationship felt too hard to broach, so when she had an affair with a friend while her partner worked long hours it was only a matter of time before she was eventually found out. The couple fought, cried and shouted as they tried to figure out what to do. “We had kids and they had to come first. Somehow we did manage to resolve things over time. That whole crazy period feels like a lifetime ago and we now continue to co-parent our children and we live across the road from each other. We still do family birthdays and even Christmases together. I don’t know how we got here but I am bloody glad we did. One thing’s for sure, I’ll never do anything like that again. In future, if I feel my relationship is in trouble I will be honest and try and be a grown up about it..”
Discussing relationship boundaries can feel difficult for some, particularly so if the relationship is based on assumed (rather than negotiated) monogamy. Asking for one’s emotional needs to be met can be bound up with shame, even in poly relationships where there’s an expectation that boundaries will be discussed, but says MJ “It's important to remember that there's no 'right' place to be” when it comes to where you sit on the spectrum of your emotional and physical preferences and “people will often be at different places, and may move around over the course of their lives. Once two or more people know where they're each at they can have a conversation about what their relationship agreement will be. This might involve one person moving closer towards another, or agreeing to compromise, or recognising that you're in different places so there'll be different agreements for each person in the relationship. If this is too difficult it might require the relationship changing or ending to encompass those differences.”
Ironically, after challenging the idea of monogamy in her comedy show and book, Rosie has come back to embracing it in her new relationship. 'But it's a very different kind of monogamy,' she says, 'taking on board many of the values of communication, consent and compassion that were so key to the people I spoke to who were in poly, or multiple, relationships. In my old version of 'monogamy' there just wasn't enough talking, negotiating or truly hearing one another.'
Rosie Wilby's book Is Monogamy Dead? is out now.
*Names have been changed.