There Is No Universal Definition Of “Cheating”

A very disturbing thing I found here.

Every time I read a women’s website or magazine these days, I come upon a headline that demands to know, “IS THIS CHEATING?!?!” Is sending flirty Facebook messages to someone else cheating? Is sending them nude pics cheating? Is flirting cheating? Is there a chance you could actually be cheating on your boyfriend and not even realize it?

Technology seems to exacerbate these existential questions because it keeps giving us new ways to violate our partners’ trust (but, on the flipside, it keeps giving us new ways to be sexual). Coming up to someone in person and stripping naked is one thing; sending a nude photo of yourself to them is another (or feels like another). And so we have to have these endless conversations about what exactly cheating is.

Here’s the thing, though. If you’re reading a magazine article to find out if you cheated or not, you’re doing it wrong, because it can’t answer that question for you. The only person who can tell you that is your partner.

Nobody else can tell you what “cheating” means in your particular relationship because it’s different in each one. In monogamous relationships, most people take the “default” definition of cheating, which includes any sort of sexual contact with someone else. But even then, what about flirty Facebook messages? What about “emotional cheating,” when you have feelings for someone else (even if you don’t act on them)? Some people count these things as cheating; others don’t.

Monogamous relationships can have a lot of wiggle room, too. I’ve known many couples in which one partner is straight and the other is bisexual, and the straight partner doesn’t mind if the bisexual partner hooks up with people of their own gender (as long as it’s just hooking up). Long-distance relationships can also have certain “rules” for what the partners can do while they’re apart.

In non-monogamous relationships, there’s an even greater variety of configurations and definitions of cheating. Some couples restrict which types of sexual acts they can do outside of the primary relationship, or they specify that sex without barriers outside of that relationship would be cheating. Some people form triads or group marriages and forbid all sexual contact outside of that established group. Some decide that you can only hook up outside of the relationship at certain events or in particular spaces, or if your primary partner is present and either watching or participating.

Meanwhile, in other non-monogamous relationships–for instance, mine–the boundaries aren’t about specific acts or people, but rather about communication. If my partner or I act secretively about other people we’re seeing, we’re cheating. If we’re not considerate to each other in terms of making plans with those other people, we’re cheating.

But people don’t just come to these agreements by separately reading Cosmo articles about what cheating is and then never discussing it.

So, if you’re unsure of what counts as cheating in your relationship, you have three options:

1. Say nothing and avoid all activities that could possibly be considered cheating, thus potentially missing out on some great opportunities;

2. Say nothing and do whatever you feel like doing while convincing yourself that your partner wouldn’t see it as cheating, thus potentially, you know, cheating on your partner;

3. Ask your partner what they would like the boundaries of the relationship to be.

I can see why that third option might feel awkward or uncomfortable. If you ask your partner, “What are our boundaries as a couple? What could I potentially do that would make you feel like I cheated on you?”, there’s a chance that your partner will interpret that as you “looking for permission” to get involved in some way with other people. But if they understand the importance of communication in relationships, they’ll see it for what it is–an attempt to make sure that you’re on the same page and that neither of you will be hurt by a misunderstanding about relationship boundaries.

That’s also why it’s a good idea to have that discussion at the beginning of a relationship rather than once it’s been going on for a while, but late is definitely better than never.

The great thing about a discussion like this is that it also allows for discussing things that aren’t “cheating” per se, but nevertheless feel like a violation of boundaries. For some people, it’s not “cheating” if their partner flirts harmlessly (as in, with no intentions for anything else) with someone else, but they wouldn’t feel comfortable if their partner did that right in front of them. For some people–it’s hard for me to imagine this myself, but I’ve heard of it–it feels “wrong” somehow if their partner dances with someone else at a party. Some people would want to know if their partner develops a crush on someone else, but that doesn’t mean it’s “cheating” if they do. Nevertheless, finding out that their partner has been keeping a new crush secret would feel like a violation of trust.

All of these nuances can be made clear by a conversation about boundaries.

Prescriptive definitions of cheating (i.e. “this is what cheating must mean for everyone”) don’t serve anyone. They keep people stuck in a very restrictive version of monogamy (not that there’s anything wrong with monogamy, as long as you consciously choose it). They allow for misunderstandings that hurt people, such as when one partner thinks flirting with others is okay and the other feels like it’s cheating. They prevent people from creating their own relationship models that work best for them, and encourage them instead to conform to the dominant cultural conception of what a committed, “faithful” relationship is.

Edit: A reader and fellow blogger, Patrick, noted that the part of this post that deals with relationships between straight and bisexual people might be reinforcing the stereotype that all such relationships involve an agreement that the bisexual person can hook up with others of their gender. I definitely don’t want to reinforce that stereotype, so I asked him how I might have rephrased that in a way that was clearer and less stereotype-y. He suggested this:

“I’ve known many mixed-orientation couples (one partner is straight and the other is bisexual), and in some of them the straight partner doesn’t mind if their partner hooks up with people of their own gender (as long as it’s within their negotiated boundaries).”

I like this phrasing a lot more, so I decided to append this here. A huge thank-you to Patrick for pointing this out and suggesting an improvement. :)

Giving Thanks

This is a sappy personal post.

This is not your typical Thanksgiving post, so first of all, you should read this and understand what this day actually commemorates. Hint: it’s not a happy awesome feast with Pilgrims and Native Americans and all that.

However, I still celebrate it in my own way because I think it’s important to have a day set aside for giving thanks. And sure, I could do that any day of the year. But doing it on the same day as everyone else does it feels more meaningful.

It would be nice if someday we started a new tradition of giving thanks on a particular day without associating that day with genocide. However, for now we have this Thanksgiving Day, and I’m going to celebrate it.

First of all, I’m thankful for writing. I’m thankful for having had the privilege to learn how to do it well and to be able to make time for it. Writing has always been one of the few things that can lift me out of my own mind, if only for an hour or so. The urge to write is like a phoenix–it burns like a fire and just keeps resurrecting itself if extinguished.

Writing has always been a key part of my development as a person. I’ve kept journals since I was 11 or so–that’s more than a decade of constantly watching myself grow and reexperiencing my own life. Whenever I’m not sure if I’ve really gotten better at this whole life thing, I can reread my old writing and see that I have.

Writing for an audience is something I’m a bit newer to, but even that I’ve been doing since high school. First it was mostly poetry and fiction; then I switched to personal narratives (like the one that got me into college!) and fiery op-eds.

I’m thankful for the change I’ve already made with my writing. I’m thankful that others have benefitted from it. I’m thankful that this matters.

I’m thankful for the internet. Go ahead and laugh. I know, it’s terrible and keeps us from enjoying “Real Life” and spending time with our families and whatnot. For me, though, that hasn’t really been my experience of it. The Internet has brought most of the other good things in my life to me–friendship, love, knowledge, inspiration.

I’m thankful for feminism, skepticism, and the rest of the ideologies I subscribe to. The reason I’m thankful is because it’s a personal thing. Feminism showed me how to find fulfillment in my relationships and taught me that I don’t have to take shit from anyone. Skepticism taught me not to automatically accept everything my brain tries to tell me, which is very useful when you have depression. Both helped me find a world beyond my own self.

I’m thankful for Chipotle, Red Bull, Diet Coke, Milanos, and Cheez-Its. Because I thought it’d be good to take a moment to appreciate the things that, for the most part, have sustained me this quarter.

And now, here comes the rainbowvomit part. Watch out…

To all the fellow activists I have met–I can’t even begin to explain how important this has been for me. I’ve met people who sued their schools when they were teenagers. I’ve also met people who are in their 30s, 40s, and beyond, and are still fighting for the changes they want to see in the world.

It’s that latter group of people that has particularly impacted me. For most of my adolescence and my college years, adults–by which I generally mean, people more than a decade older than me–were the people I dreaded interacting with. They were the people who rolled their eyes at me, told me to just wait till I’m older and working a shitty job and hating my boss. They said I’d “grow out of it.” They said it’d be different once I have my own kids. They said I’d stop caring. They crushed my dreams to such an extent that there was a period of time when I actually wanted to be a housewife–I thought that that’s how awful the world of work would be.

Now, I get that many young people are too flighty and idealistic and could probably benefit from being gently brought back down to earth once in a while. But as everyone who actually knows me ought to know, I am not such a person. After living with depression for nearly a decade, I have to fight to be optimistic and to see a purpose in life other than just making enough money to get by and popping out some children so that I’m not lonely in my old age.

That’s where meeting older people who still have that passion has really helped. The grown-up activists I know are wiser and more experienced than me, but they still value my ideas. More importantly, they’ve shown me that there is a way to be an adult while still being youthful.

To my partner–it’s weird writing this knowing that you’re going to read it, so I’ll just speak directly to you: thank you. I won’t say that life would be miserable without you, because that would be unhealthy (not to mention false). I was happy before you, and I’ll be happy after you—if there even is an after. I hope there won’t be.

But I will say that life with you is richer, sweeter, and more colorful. Thank you for the hug at Union Station; thank you for the phone call after that terrible date; thank you for those summer nights when we stayed up talking till 5 AM. Thank you for making me read The Fault in Our Stars (remember, if you don’t say the honest thing, it never becomes true). Thank you for that ridiculous night with the crappy wine. Thank you for making plans for the future. Thank you for worrying while I was in Israel. Thank you for asking me what you can do if the depression comes back. Thank you for making me make the first move. Thank you for refusing to own me and for never expecting me to shrink myself so that you can look taller standing next to me. Thank you for letting me be as independent as I need to be. You are the epitome of that timeless bit of advice: “If you love somebody, set them free.”

Yes, I just quoted a Sting song at you.

Deal with it, sweetheart.

And, finally, to my friends–I just don’t know where I would be without you. You are my proofreaders, my confidantes, my debate partners, my cheerleaders, my support system, my chosen family. Everywhere I go, physically and mentally, you go with me.

Things I learned from my (mostly) new friends: you can say, “Please stop that, it’s hurting me.” Feelings don’t have to make sense. Sometimes you need to be confrontational. There are worse things in the world than being a bit snarky. Just because someone didn’t mean to offend you doesn’t mean you can’t be upset about it. You don’t have to pretend to be okay.

Thank you for that. Thank you also for the Sunday night Google hangouts, the typos, and the hugs. Thank you not only for helping me, but for accepting my help in turn. Thank you for telling the rest of your friends about my blog. Thank you for showing me that going out and drinking and doing Young People Things doesn’t have to be uncomfortable and coercive. Thank you for helping me see that the people who say things like “Calm down” and “It’s not such a big deal” and “Stop complaining” are wrong and I don’t have to listen to them or keep them around in my life. Thank you for talking about me behind my back, because with you, unlike with anyone I’ve known before, I know that it’s going to be positive. And thank you, of course, for all of the <2.

Few of my friends live near me. They’re mostly scattered all over the country. People make fun of those of us who spend a lot of time online, but here’s the thing–not everyone has the privilege of being physically near the people they love. I never really found that at Northwestern. I found it through writing and activism.

And so, in writing if not in person, I thank the people who help keep me strong and passionate.

On Ending Friendships Over Politics

After the election last week, I saw exactly three reactions to Obama’s victory in my Facebook newsfeed.

The majority were shouts of glee and sighs of relief, whether because Obama was elected or because Romney was not. Count me among those.

A tiny minority were pictures of crying Statues of Liberty, Bible verses, and promises to move to another country. (Which one? I’m guessing not any of the ones with socialized healthcare.)

A slightly larger minority were the ones ruing the “divisiveness” of politics and the “hurtful discourse” and the fact that “friendships end” over the “bitter comment wars” on Facebook. Laments like these are usually uttered by the sort of holier-than-thou moderates whose numbers, for better or worse, seem to be shrinking with each election cycle.

Here’s the thing. True friendships can withstand lots of things, including things more severe and “divisive” than a few debates over Facebook. If your friendship ends because you argued about who has better ideas for fixing our economy or whatever, the problem was probably not the argument. It was probably the friendship.

I’ve gotten into some pretty heated arguments with friends before, about politics and about other stuff. In the end, if I really care about that friend–and usually I do–I try to smooth things over by telling them that I still respect them as a person, and, usually, that I still respect their opinions even though I disagree. I make sure they’re not personally hurt by anything I said. And the friendship goes on.

If instead I find myself reaching for the “unfriend” button, it’s probably because I just didn’t care about that friendship enough. But that said, this happens very rarely.

Furthermore, you might be surprised to know that some of us don’t want friends who think we should be forced to carry a rapist’s baby to term, or that we shouldn’t have the right to marry who we want because “marriage is sacred.” These things aren’t just political anymore. They’re personal.

A person who not only believes these things but actually tells them to me despite how hurtful and alienating they are probably isn’t someone I want to keep as a friend. I’m not interested in being friends with people who consider me a second-class citizen.

On that note, it’s surprising sometimes how personal our political issues have become. I would never end a friendship over a disagreement about, say, economics or foreign policy, but I would absolutely end it over racism, sexism, or homophobia. Now that “-isms” play such a big part in political affiliation, an argument that starts out about the Affordable Care Act can turn into an argument about whether or not women should “just keep their legs closed.” By the way, if you think women should “just keep their legs closed,” you’re no friend of mine.

Finally, I don’t see how ending a friendship over significant political differences is any worse or less legitimate than ending it because you hate each other’s sense of humor or lifestyle, or whatever other reasons people have for ending friendships. If you don’t feel close to someone anymore and don’t want to be their friend, you shouldn’t have to be. You don’t owe friendship to anyone. I get that it sucks if someone you considered a good friend suddenly wants nothing to do with you just because you disagreed with them, but it’s even worse to have to pretend to be someone’s friend for the sake of not being “divisive.”

Stephanie Zvan wrote something very wise about this:

If you’re talking about reconciling relationships, however, ask yourself what you’re doing. Are you gearing up to apologize to someone who you feel was arguing from a good place when you got a bit testy with them? Are you mending family bonds that are important to the kids in the connection? Are you letting back into your life someone who’s spent the last several months telling the world that your rights matter less than theirs? Are you accepting one more apology from someone who gets abusive every time you discuss something you disagree on?

The differences matter. Not everyone is someone who should be in your life if you want a decent life. Sometimes strife is freedom.

 

Truth is, there are a lot of potential friends out there. While it’s important to expose yourself to different perspectives and opinions, there is absolutely no reason you should have to remain friends with someone whose politics you find deplorable.

I’d much rather be “divisive” than have to see bigoted crap all over my Facebook, which I consider my online “home.” Just as I don’t have to have bigots over for dinner, I don’t have to have them in my newsfeed.

Onset

[Content note: depression]

In a few weeks, I will pass the nine-year anniversary of the onset of my depression.

I could figure out the exact date if I wanted to, because I know it was on Thanksgiving. But I won’t, because I don’t want that date to become frozen in my memory forever.

I don’t think most people can get it down to a single moment like that. In fact, there’s probably quite a bit that’s spurious about my interpretation of things. Really, my depression probably began with my genetics, or with the cognitive distortions that I already had even as a little kid.

But, that said, there was a moment after which everything changed. I’ve never really written or spoken about it until now.

I used to dance ballet. I was pre-professional and often performed with our local professional troupe, as did plenty of other kids and teens. That fall, I was cast in The Nutcracker, in the role of Clara. That’s the main role. It was an honor so momentous for me that all of the successes that followed it paled in comparison. I still remember standing in the center of that stage with over two thousand pairs of eyes all looking right at me. I will never forget. I will never experience a feeling like that again.

That year, I was in seventh grade. School was becoming challenging for the first time, and I was starting to feel the stress that would become like blood in my veins for the next decade. There were honors classes now. There were actual papers to write. They seem so easy now, of course, but at the time I felt a little bit terrified.

I’d gotten a few C’s on tests, which was new for me. I wasn’t too concerned yet. Until that weekend.

Thanksgiving. We were driving up to northwestern Pennsylvania to see family friends. That drive was always beautiful; I sometimes miss it now. The Appalachian Mountains are underrated.

There were only a few weeks left of rehearsal before opening night of The Nutcracker. After Thanksgiving, there would be dress rehearsals and tech week. And then I would take the stage.

So I was in the car, me and my family. My little brother, now old enough to talk to me about science and girls, wasn’t even a toddler then. My little sister didn’t exist yet.

I mentioned the C’s on the tests.

My mom was appalled. She said something like this: “If you get another C on a test, you have to drop out of The Nutcracker.”

She can’t have been serious, now that I look back on it. She just can’t have been. It would’ve ruined my family’s relationship with the ballet company and I’d probably never be allowed to perform again. It was just ludicrous, a punishment inconceivable in severity for me.

But that possibility didn’t even occur to me. I took her at her word. At that moment, everything changed.

I felt that I had lost all sense of control over my life. Something so important was suddenly jeopardized by random numbers in red ink. My homework seemed to laugh at me.

I quite literally lost my mind. Not in the sense of “going crazy” as we think of it, but in the sense that my mind became an alien to me.

The things it did to me that year. I cried and cried and cried. On Sunday nights especially, as I dreaded going back to school. If I got a grade worse than a B at school, I suffered for the rest of the day, through the rest of my classes and then several hours of ballet, until I could come home, tell my mom about it, and be vindicated. She would tell me that it’s okay, I just have to do better next time, and I would nod and leave and probably cry more.

My entire sense of self-worth became contingent upon my parents’ approval, and their approval seemed to me to be contingent on those arbitrary marks on a report card. And although I’ve long moved on from grades as the markers of my worth, I remain shackled to the opinions of others–of my family especially.

It was the longest winter. The music I listened to that winter–mostly classical–still rings in my ears sometimes and reminds me. Everything was colored with those tears, that roiling anxiety in my stomach, the shame of being imperfect.

I was twelve years old.

After that school year, the Thing–I didn’t know what to call it then–mutated and grew. I gradually learned not to stress so much about school, a lesson that serves me well these days. But the Thing grabbed hold of everything in my life, tainted every relationship, sunk its ugly tentacles into every crevice it could find.

In high school the Thing mostly manifested as a preoccupation with the idea that people might not like me. In college, I stopped caring about what people thought and instead became convinced that my life is ultimately meaningless and that it doesn’t matter if I live or die.

The Thing has changed quite a bit since I first met it nearly nine years ago. For one, I call it depression now, as that is what it is. I know its signs and a few strategies that help keep it at bay.

It’s not that everything was good before that Thanksgiving in 2003, and it’s not that everything was terrible afterwards.

But that weekend was a bridge. It was a bridge between nonclinical dysfunction and a worsening, mushrooming psychopathology. It was a bridge between childhood and–if not adulthood, then something other than adolescence.

They say that we lose “innocence” when we have sex for the first time, or when we move out of the house or start paying for our own upkeep. I lost my innocence when I lost my mind.

I had pulled back the corner of the rug and finally seen what had been swept under it.

What was under it was terrible.

Living With Depression: Openness

Earlier I decided to write a series of posts about depression beyond the DSM diagnosis. The first post was about trust. Here’s the second.

Throughout my life, I have been exposed to two diametrically opposed views on openness–how much people should share with their partners, friends, and acquaintances about themselves.

The first view, which my family taught me and which various traditional views on interpersonal relationships tend to promote, is that people should reveal as little of themselves to others as possible. Openness is at best a sign of naiveté because ultimately people will misuse any personal information you give them if they have the opportunity.

Furthermore, people should not “burden” their friends and partners by telling them about their problems. Until a partner has literally married you, they may leave you at any moment if you talk about your feelings too much, so it’s best to avoid it until you’ve got them safely ensnared in matrimony. If you must tell someone, tell your family.

The other view was the one I discovered among my progressive friends. In this view, openness is a virtue. You don’t merely have the option of being open about your feelings–in fact, you should be.

You should tell your friends when they accidentally do something that hurts you. You should be open with your partner(s) about how they make you feel. You should use “I” statements. You should, as Captain Awkward wisely advises, “use your words.”

Of course, I agree with this second view, not the first one. Or, at least, I agree with it in theory.

The truth is that when you have depression, your feelings don’t fit into the boxes they’re supposed to fit in. Sometimes, with enough patience on your part and enough openmindness on your friend’s part, you can bridge that gap of understanding, but it’s hard. I’ve been able to do it to some extent because I happen to be a great writer. But not everybody is, and neither are we always able to relegate these things to writing. Sometimes you have to have these difficult conversations in person, and in those situations, trust me–I flail and grasp at words just as much as anyone else.

What happens when you try to be open about your feelings, but your feelings are so alien and “wrong” that they don’t make sense to anyone?

Lots of frustration.

When my feelings involve only myself, it’s not so bad. I don’t think my friends truly understand what I mean when I say that seeing pictures of my family frequently makes me extremely upset (not in the trigger-y way, but more in the “fuck, I haven’t seen these people for months but I don’t want to go home and see them I am a terrible person fuck fuck” kind of way? See, it’s hard.). They probably wouldn’t understand if I told them that sometimes I grieve for random old memories as if they were people, even though I didn’t even enjoy those moments at the time, and that sometimes I feel as though I would give up years of my life just to go back in time and relive a single day of high school, even though I hated high school.

But that’s not such a big deal, because ultimately those feelings involve only me, or people that my friends will likely never meet. I can talk about them without feeling like my current relationships hinge on my ability to make myself understood.

Where my feelings involve the people currently in my life is where things get difficult. Sometimes–generally when I’m already having a bad day–something someone says bothers me a lot for no apparent reason. Sometimes I get jealous of things I shouldn’t. Sometimes someone gets a bit snappy with me and rather than assuming that they’re just stressed, I assume that they hate me. Sometimes I get another “sup” IM and I get furious because I’m already so busy and stressed and why can’t people just leave me alone unless they want to have a real conversation. (Welcome to introversion.)

I am aware that the Correct Thing to do in our sort of crowd is to Talk About It and be open about my Needs and all those other cliches. I am quite aware.

If I were a neurotypical person, maybe I would feel like I have that option.

But the burden of trying to explain my mental quirks to everybody I interact with regularly is one that I can’t even fathom, let alone take on.

For starters, people get defensive. I’ll say something like, “This is not your fault and it’s probably just because of my depression, but when you sign off in the middle of a serious conversation, I feel hurt,” and they hear “YOU ARE HURTING ME YOU TERRIBLE FUCKING PERSON.” Or they hear, “I expect you to change your IM habits to conform to my needs.” And they respond accordingly.

Furthermore, the more I talk about Feelings That Don’t Make Sense, the more I make myself sound like, well, a crazy person. Most people aren’t used to the idea that you don’t need to understand something to respect it. (Damn, I link to that article a lot.) They want to know about my feelings, but they also need to understand them. Sometimes I can’t explain them. Sometimes they can’t understand them.

So, more often than not, I choose not to disclose my negative feelings, not even when they involve another person I’m very close to. The likelihood of being understood is so low and the likelihood of starting an argument is so high that it’s not worth it, even though I feel like I “should” be open about how I feel.

And all of this is very confusing for me, because I obviously do feel that openness in close relationships is a good thing. And maybe someday I’ll discover the magic combination of words that will allow me to be open about how I feel without causing defensiveness, hurt feelings, and confusion.

But for now, living with the remnants of depression ensures that there is a sort of chasm between me and everyone else that can’t really be crossed no matter how open I am.