When I was in high school and college, I was always amazed at the number of kids who decided that it was a perfectly good idea to try and date more than one person at a time. I was even more amazed at the risks that some of them took in sleeping with a different person every weekend. They carried around this ability to bed anyone and almost everyone like a badge of honor. If the person was a man, we called him a stud and we guys many times envied him. If the person was a woman, we called her by some derogatory terms and shook our heads in disbelief.
That was then. Now, most of my friends and colleagues are older, wiser, and they take better care of themselves and those around them. A lot of them are married or in long-term relationships, and they take care of those relationships. But, once in a while, I am surprised to find out that one of them cheated on their partner or their partner cheated on them. If the cheater is the man, I shake my head and feel ashamed to be of the same gender. If the cheater is the woman, I shake head and feel bad that the relationship was so bad that she found refuge somewhere else. In either case, I try not to judge.
I try not to judge because we’re all adults now, and I’ve come to understand and respect the principle that respecting other people’s right to make mistakes is a foundation of civilized living. Sure, we punish crimes, but we don’t collectively punish mistakes. (Though the argument could be made that infidelity is a crime against society.) People are people, and we all have this great, big universe inside our heads. When two universes collide, it’s hard to stand outside that collision and judge.
“Try” is the operative word in “I try not to judge.” Hey, I’m human, and I have been known to say some very bad things about cheaters. Heck, I hope that some very bad things are said about me if I cheat on my wife. (To be honest, I know that not only words will be said but actions will be taken. I may not be seen or heard from ever again.) But that’s just me holding myself up to a higher standard. I hope that society and people around me hold me accountable to that standard because I have a responsibility to my family and friends. I’m not the villain in the story, and I don’t want to become it.
But let me go back to what I was writing about. Of the handful of adults that I’ve known who have cheated on their spouses or long-term partners, none have been cavalier about it. They’ve all been ashamed and felt guilty for doing it. Of the even fewer who I’ve known have come clean about their affair, every single relationship has ended. From my limited example and small sample size, cheating leads to divorce. Period. But what led to the cheating?
Based on the same experience, I’ve come to notice that the cheating episodes were preempted by a breakdown in the relationship. There is less respect, less love, and less trust. There’s animosity, anger, and the relationship is not between two people who love each other (and themselves) as much as it is a relationship of convenience. You have these couples who have been split apart by the demands of life and stopped talking to each other and relying on each other to deal with life in and out of the house for a long time. They then find or look for someone outside the relationship to satisfy their needs, whatever those may be, and they cheat. At least that’s how it’s gone with my friends and acquaintances.
Based on those experiences, and what I’ve read in the literature about infidelity, my wife and I took several steps from the very beginning, even before getting married, to have a stronger relationship that can withstand whatever life throws at it. First, it was all about communication. Ask our friends, my wife and I talk and talk and talk and talk some more. Some of the time we talk about serious things, when those conversations need to be had. Other times, we talk about our daily experiences and share our hopes and fears. Three AM talks are the best.
We also agreed to actively seek counseling at the first sign of trouble. There are many benefits to having an objective observer and listener with whom to talk to and unload any and all frustrations. We can do that together or individually, but we’ve promised each other to do it. In times of trouble, like when what happened in April happened, we hold each other accountable to seek a counseling session and have a depressurizing talk. It’s like going to a doctor for a cold.
There’s also a lot of mindfulness and honest discussions on what we need and what we want. She wanted me to be happier with work, so I left the toxic environment of the health department and went to school. I’m happier in that respect now. She also wants me to work out and get healthier, so I’m working on that. She needs me around for a long time because we have plans and things to get done. I want her to be more relaxed and not so wound-up about life, so she takes time to go with me to the movies or a park.
This is not to say that there are no temptations in life or that our relationship is perfect. It’s not. There’s no perfect relationship. But we’ve acknowledged that we’re in too deep and getting along too well to mess it up by not listening to each other, growing apart, and then eventually breaking each other’s hearts out of some physiological need. If it ever comes to that, we will have been lost to each other for a long time before. But I’ll work hard, each day if necessary, so it doesn’t come to that.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.