A too broad and too narrow definition of cheating

A few months ago, an attorney friend asking me if I’d ever “cheated” on my wife. Being a legalistic sort, I asked back, “what do you mean by cheating?” He didn’t think it was a question that needed clarification.

In this culture, he’s right–which is a shame. A definition that considers all adultery cheating is too broad. As I explained in a blog earlier this month, and as Esther Perel has discussed in her recently released second book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, an understanding of adultery that cleaves “guilty” perpetrators from “innocent” spouses is simplistic and counterproductive.

Yet, if this definition of cheating is too broad, it is also too narrow. Every time we tune out our spouse in the middle of a conversation to check our twitter feed we cheat our spouse. Every time we diminish our spouse’s dreams because they aren’t our dreams we cheat our spouse. Every time we talk harshly to our spouse because we are tired, stressed, or otherwise engaged, we cheat our spouse. Making adultery the one and only way one can “cheat” one’s spouse not only fails to acknowledge the dynamic that leads to much adultery, it also fails to acknowledge the myriad ways that everyone cheats on their spouse every single day.

The modern wedding vows (which removed the “obey” from the wife’s pledge) are typically “to love, honor, and cherish so long as you both shall live.” Nothing explicit about monogamy there. Now, outside of an open marriage, one wouldn’t argue that adultery fails to honor or cherish one’s spouse. But there are numerous ways one fails to love, honor, and cherish one’s spouse that one is likely to accomplish before finishing breakfast. When we tune out our spouse when he or she needs an ear and a bit of compassion, we aren’t cherishing our spouse. When we denigrate or diminish something meaningful to our spouse because it isn’t meaningful to us (perhaps it even disgusts us), we aren’t honoring our spouse. When we yell at our spouse, roll our eyes at our spouse, or talk harshly or sarcastically towards our spouse, when we are critical of our spouse in ways that demean him or her, we fail to honor our wedding vows.

To answer my friend’s question in the way he intended it and to answer it accurately is to conisder two very different questions. The modern wedding vows are clearly aspirational. It is the nature of aspirations that we continually fail to meet them. The mindfulness necessary to fulfill these vows is difficult, but such mindfulness is vital to sustaining a strong and loving marriage. It’s when we stop putting in the effort to love, honor, and cherish our spouses that we truly cheat them of what we have pledged. Years–even decades–of a closed heart and a sharp tongue are way more damaging to a marriage than simply joining one’s genitals with some third person on one (or even multiple) occassions. A culture that considers the latter, but not the former, cheating, is not a culture designed to sustain strong, long-term marriages.

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