“Is there an ethical way to cheat on your spouse” ran the email headline I received from a book promotor earlier this month. My immediate thought was “Sure, and there may be a livelier way to be dead too.”
The first definition of cheat is “to deceive or trick”. How can there possibly be a way to do that ethically, defined as “morally correctly”? This goes far beyond the popular oxymoron of logical fallacy or pretty ugly. The rest of the promotion began: “No longer are dating sites solely for those looking for their soulmate and future spouses. Now they include ways to either cheat on your spouse or at least have them involved in the act.”
Well yes, there are all sorts of dating web sites. There are those that specialize in immediate hook-ups, a host of them that purport to be dating and mating sites (soulmate searches?) and now a few that are specifically set up for married folks to find lovers. Different people use them for different purposes. I am not at all putting down those who use online meeting sites. My only daughter met the man who has been her husband for the past 15 years on a specialized online matchmaking site. My issue is with the public relations person who thought that “is there an ethical way to cheat on your spouse?” would be a provocative headline that might sell more of whatever s/he is selling. My answer is “Of course there isn’t! What an absurd question.”
Those who are familiar with some of my essays here over the years (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sex-sociability/201302/cheating), (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sex-sociability/201305/monogamy) and with my Sexuality Forum (www.askisadora.com) know that I have written on several occasions about open relationships – committed relationships wherein the couple has agreed-upon rules for sex outside their relationship. I even did my Master’s Thesis on the topic. When both parties have a specific understanding and stick to it, it can work very well.
What constitutes cheating will differ within every couple. Some allow or even encourage flirting, friendships or love affairs; others consider masturbation as violating monogamy. What I hear often in my counseling office is one outraged partner accusing the other indignant one of cheating when “all that I did was….” or “there was no actual sex involved”.
The best rule of thumb I know is that if your partner would feel cheated upon if s/he knew what you are doing, then for this relationship whatever is going on is cheating. If it needs to be done in secret, if one feels guilty doing it, then unless it is openly discussed and some resolution reached, it’s cheating. I might not see it that way. You might not see it that way. The ones who get to define it, though, are both parties in that particular couple.
So, back to the email headline that so incensed me. In no stretch of the imagination can there be ethical cheating. If your partner or spouse knows about whatever you’re doing for sexual thrills then it’s not cheating. If you have a monogamous agreement and s/he does not know and you’re doing it anyway, then it’s not ethical. I can think of no gray area.