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. :)

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.

On Taking People’s Word For It (Or, When Not to Argue)

“You’re not really depressed, you just get sad sometimes.”

“You’re not really a lesbian, you’ve just had some bad experiences with men.”

“You’re not really an atheist, you’re just questioning your faith. You’ll find God again.”

Why do people say these things?

Everyone I ask seems to have a story about a friend or family member who just cannot accept what they disclose about themselves and insist that it’s not true–without any evidence.

From a skeptical perspective, that bothers me. Most of the time, when someone makes a statement, it’s possible to (intelligently) dispute it. If someone states a fact–i.e. “It’s 70 degrees outside”–you can dispute it if you have evidence against it–i.e. your thermometer reads 80 degrees. If someone states an opinion that can be supported by facts–i.e. “Mitt Romney would be a good president because he has business experience”–you can counter it with an opposing statement that is also supported by facts–i.e. “Mitt Romney would be a bad president because his ideas about fixing the economy would actually worsen the situation for the middle and lower classes and also because he is a huge lying douchecanoe.” (But I digress.)

However, if someone makes a fact-based claim that they have firsthand knowledge of and you do not–i.e. “I don’t believe in God” or “I am a lesbian”–you cannot argue. Sorry, but you can’t. You have no evidence.

You can, if you want to be an asshole, tell them that they’re going to hell or that you find that appalling or that you hope they change. But you cannot claim it isn’t true.

(Likewise, feelings are not up for debate. If someone says they’re sad, then they’re sad. If they say they feel embarrassed, then they feel embarrassed. “But you don’t really feel that way–” Yep, they do.)

But what if you have a Real Legitimate Concern that it’s “just a phase,” or that they’re misinterpreting things somehow?

First of all, examine where that concern is stemming from. Is it because, in your heart of hearts, you really really don’t want this person to be who they say they are? If so, you should probably keep your Real Legitimate Concerns to yourself, because you may* be a bigot.

If it’s because this person has a history of going through “phases,” it’s more reasonable of you to gently express your concern, but be kind about it. Most people stop going through phases eventually, and this could be it.

However, even if it is a “just a phase,” that doesn’t make it any less legitimate. As people grow and mature–this is a process that lasts a lifetime, by the way, rather than stopping at some arbitrary age–they change. Religious people may become atheists; atheists may become religious. Political identities change. Mental health changes. Even sexual orientation and gender identity can change. That doesn’t mean that a person’s past identities were fake or “lies,” and even if you believe that what they’re telling you now will not always be true, the kind thing to do is to affirm who the person is right now.

And if you’re “disagreeing” with what someone says about themselves because you’re concerned about possible repercussions for the person if they identify that way (such as being bullied for being gay or ostracized by family for being an atheist), remember that the onus is never on victims of prejudice to hide who they are. It’s on the rest of us to learn how to treat them like human beings. If you’re spending your energy on trying to get people to hide who they are when you could be spending it on encouraging people not to be bigots, you’re doin’ it wrong.

Depression presents a special case. When someone discloses to you that they are depressed, it may be extremely tempting to try to persuade them that they’re not “really” depressed because you think that this will help somehow. However, you can’t will an illness out of existence anyway, so you might as well accept what they’re telling you and try to be supportive. For many people (like me), identifying themselves as “depressed” is a relief, because the alternative is to believe that it’s just your personality and that you’re destined for a life of misery. That’s a topic for a whole other post, though.

In general, asking questions is better than making statements when someone’s telling you something personal–it shows that you don’t presume to know more about their experience than they do. However, there are definitely right and wrong ways to go about it. “So how did you realize you were a [insert identity here]?” is worlds better than “But how do you really know you’re [insert identity here]? I mean I had a friend who said they were [insert identity here] but they changed their mind later/were only doing it for attention/were just going through a phase! Are you sure?”

Remember, though, that it’s not the person’s job to provide you with Sufficient Evidence that what they’re saying about themselves is true. Sure, people lie about themselves sometimes. But presuming that someone is lying when they’re actually not is a pretty easy way to ruin a relationship.

If you have someone in your life who insists on disagreeing when you disclose something about yourself, here are some of my favorite ways to respond (warning: snark may not be suitable for everyone):

  • “Interesting. How did you learn to read minds?”
  • “You’re probably right, you know me much better than I know myself. Tell me, am I hungry right now? Should I go eat?”
  • “How do you know that?”
  • “Actually, yes, I really am [insert identity here].”
  • “Citations or GTFO.”

*You may! I said you may! That doesn’t mean you are. It’s a distinct possibility, however.

How to Have Sex Like They Do in the Movies

My recent post on consent got me thinking about how open communication about sex isn’t just important because it establishes consent, but also because it’s what makes sex great.

A man meets a woman–it’s always a man and a woman.

He is tall and handsome–she, thin and beautiful.

He cracks a witty pickup line with a confident smile, and she laughs and moves in closer.

Some amount of time passes–the amount depends on the kind of movie this is–and finally they are alone, almost always in his apartment. Without much (or any) invitation on her part, and without any prior discussion of matters sexual, the man kisses the woman, who responds passionately as though she’d been waiting for this very moment the whole time. They have sex. Few if any words are ever exchanged. But the sex is awesome anyway. It’s like they’ve been searching for each other their whole lives.

Does this ever actually happen? I mean, really, does it?

…not really.

Seriously. Observe a moment of silence for that script. Give it a eulogy. Stop searching for it.

I mean, I guess you don’t have to. If you dedicate your whole life to the search, you may eventually come across a person with whom you fit like two adjacent puzzle pieces, just like that. A person who just happens to share your favorite sex positions, who gives head just the way you like to receive it, who loves to be tied up while you love to do the tying (or vice versa), who feels ready for increasing intimacy at the exact same pace you do, who doesn’t have any triggers or STIs that you might need to discuss first, who shares your fetishes, who comes the easiest from whatever it is you already love to do most. A person who can do and be all this, without ever having to talk about any of it with you.

You might come across a person like that, but I doubt it.

Besides, you could have that kind of sex without finding that person at all.

Say you’ve met someone you’re attracted to. Maybe you’ve known them for an hour, maybe a year. Doesn’t matter. You’ve flirted with each other, and that tension is definitely there. Maybe you’ve gone on “dates,” maybe you haven’t. Regardless, this is a person you absolutely want to fuck.

So tell them!

Ridiculous, right? Aren’t you supposed to “get” them drunk? Shouldn’t you send signals and make sexual innuendo or just grab them and make out with them?

That’s what our pop culture would have you think, but as it is about many other things, it’s wrong.

Here’s the thing: nobody who really wants to have sex with you will be turned off by you telling them you want to have sex with them. In fact, they’ll probably be turned on. They may be a bit shy and embarrassed at first, because this kind of genuine, open forwardness about sex isn’t something our culture encourages. But they’ll probably get over it if they really want you.

Likewise, nobody who really wants to have sex with you needs to be drunk to do it. Having a few drinks may loosen them up and put them at ease, but if that desire wasn’t there already, no amount of alcohol will put it there–at least, not genuinely. And also, sex with a drunk person is not actually legal, since a drunk person cannot consent.

So, hopefully your would-be hookup buddy agrees that sex with you would be an awesome thing. Hopefully they’re also open and comfortable with talking about sex, because, unlike the movies tell you, communication–more so than “chemistry” or “the moment”–is what makes sex great:

“So how do you like to come?”
“It’s easiest for me if I’m getting myself off…with a little help. You?”
“I like to get head.”
“Good! I like giving it.”
“How do you feel about doggy style?”
“I love it. Could I handcuff you while we do it?”
“Actually, handcuffs make me a bit uncomfortable. What if you tied me up with a scarf instead?”
“That works!”

This isn’t something that most people are used to, except perhaps in the context of an established and ongoing sexual relationship. First of all, despite our sexualized culture, sex is still considered dirty and “inappropriate” for casual conversation by many people. Since it’s such a supposedly private and shameful thing, many of us will never discuss it with anyone but the closest of friends (and partners). Someone that you haven’t even slept with yet probably doesn’t fit the bill.

What this means is that many people feel a reflexive discomfort with talking about sex, a discomfort that they assume is “natural.” But it’s not. It’s a consequence of us being taught from birth that sex and penises and vaginas and butts are shameful. And so we’re ashamed.

Second, our culture–for example, the sorts of movies that I mentioned–teaches us that you don’t need to communicate about sex in this way for it to be great. In fact, it says, too much talking about or during sex is just weird and a turn-off (remember that awkward scene in The Notebook where they nearly have sex for the first time? And also that awkward scene in the pilot episode of Girls?). Furthermore, someone who is Right For You will supposedly Just Magically Know what you like Because Chemistry, so talking about sex shouldn’t even be necessary.

But it is. Not only to prevent assault, but to make sure that the sex you’re having is truly cinematic.

Why I Think Proselytism is Wrong

I was so happy to see this outside the psychology department.

The whole controversy on our campus surrounding Cru and their “I Agree with Markwell” campaign has gotten me thinking about proselytism. (Proselytism, in case you don’t know, is just a fancy word for trying to convert people to another religion.)

In my view, proselytism is wrong.

I have two foundations for this view. One of them is my knowledge of psychology. Research in social psychology has confirmed, over and over again, that people are much more susceptible to peer pressure and manipulation than we’d like to believe. (For the sake of time and space, I’m not going to list studies here because I’m assuming most people have taken Psych 101 and have learned about them. But if you’re curious, ask, and I’ll send you a dozen.)

The success of dubious religious ventures like witch hunts and cults suggests that adding a spiritual element makes peer pressure even more potent. If people can be persuaded to do even such ridiculous and terrible things, how hard will it be to persuade them to take a pamphlet, give out their email address, come to church, donate money, gradually abandon the beliefs they’d had before?

This is especially harmful when it comes to non-Christians, who are a minority in the U.S. (and, in fact, in many other places). In many ways, it’s difficult enough as is to maintain your own beliefs and practices when the entire surrounding culture immerses you in another belief system. If you don’t believe me, talk to a Jewish kid at Christmastime. I still remember how indignant I felt when other kids got a big present from each of their extended family members and I got just one.

But in all seriousness, science typically shows that people are very suggestible. Proselytizing groups may claim that the only people who convert are people who really, genuinely, truly want to be Christians, I’m not so sure that you can always tell the difference between really, genuinely, truly wanting something, and being subtly manipulated into wanting that thing. And while I concede that Northwestern’s Cru chapter represents only the mildest, most harmless form of proselytism, I oppose any action that implies that you, the proselytizer, know better than everyone else.

Which brings me right to my next point. The second foundation for my opposition to proselytism is my moral code. I believe that, with a few exceptions, we have no right to try to alter the beliefs of others. I place religion on the same plane as several other areas of human experience, such as sexuality–things that are personal and that have no impact on anyone but ourselves. For instance, would you ever attempt to convince someone to have sex the way you have sex? I would hope not. So why would you attempt to convince them to believe the things you believe?

I obviously don’t think that all forms of persuasion are wrong. Arguing about politics is valuable and important because political decisions affect all of us. Influencing people’s purchasing decisions via marketing is necessary for our economy to work. If done sensitively, talking to someone who seems to be making a harmful decision about their career, relationships, etc. could be very helpful.

But ultimately, a person’s inner life belongs to them alone, and most people value that inner life and resent attempts to intrude upon it. I think intruding upon it is wrong.

Now, as a disclaimer, I’m not saying that mine is the best moral code in the world and that everyone should adopt it and that people who do not adopt it are Bad. If I thought that, it would make me no better than the Markwell people.

But I do think that we’d have less conflict in our society if people lived by a code such as this one, and it works for me because it helps me feel like I’m treating others with respect.

Is this moral code completely incompatible with evangelical Christianity? Yes. Christians and others who proselytize genuinely believe that others need to be saved/brought to Jesus/what have you, or else they’ll go to hell. However, it’s important to note that this brand of Christianity is incompatible with all other belief systems, including most Christian ones. In this brand of Christianity, only two types of people exist in the world: good Christians and people who haven’t been converted yet.

And before anyone goes all First Amendment on me, note that I would never suggest that proselytism should be illegal. After all, it’s a form of free speech. Laws have nothing to do with my argument.

After all, not everything that’s legal is right. It’s perfectly legal to spread rumors, use the n-word, and cheat on your partner. And yet these are things that we almost universally agree are wrong. Why? Because they hurt others.

Proselytism may not hurt in the same way that getting cheated on does, but it hurts in a more insidious way. It erodes minority traditions and belief systems and destroys trust between different religious groups.

For instance, if you ask Northwestern students whether or not they’d be willing to engage with Cru in any way, many of them will now tell you no. It’s not hard to figure out why: Cru members made their condescension and disrespect for others’ faith blatant when they expressed their wish to convert us all to Christianity. (In fact, this whole episode inspired me to join Northwestern’s chapter of the Secular Student Alliance. Apparently I’m not the only one.)

The various forms of backlash that “I Agree with Markwell” has inspired, much of which has taken on a deeply anti-Christian tone, only proves my point. While I obviously don’t condone insulting people or their religious beliefs and wish that people would be more civil, I’m not surprised that so many Northwestern students are so annoyed and angry at Cru. After all, they basically told us that we’re going to hell. Their proselytism has, in a way, torn this campus apart.

I don’t think that my moral code is one that will ever be adopted by our majority-Christian society. But I do think that the world would be a better place if people learned to leave each other alone. You may disagree.