Last Tuesday evening, I jumped into bed to watch a film. I landed on The Worst Person in The World, a Norwegian film that chronicles the quarter-life crisis of a young woman, Julie, living in Oslo. Set in four chapters, the second chapter, titled ‘cheating’, captures the conundrum of infidelity in the modern world.
One evening, frustrated and bored in her life and relationship, Julie crashes a wedding where she knows no one. There she meets Eivind, who is the kind of approachable, good-looking guy you expect to see at weddings. The chemistry is instantaneous.
The rest of the scene plays out as a series of exchanges between Julie and Eivind talking about what constitutes infidelity, as they attempt to avoid cheating on their respective partners. Does holding hands count? Sniffing each other’s armpits? Sucking cigarette smoke from each other’s mouths? Or what about peeing in front of each other? Within the course of a night, Julie and Eivind develop the kind of intimacy it takes most couples a minimum of six months to cultivate.
The duo part as the sun begins to rise. Eivind tries to tell Julie his name. She doesn’t want to know.
Walking away, Eivind calls out to her, “We didn’t cheat.”
“No. Not at all.” Julie responds.
As Julie begins to walk away, her face drops from a flirtatious smile into a hollow self-loathing. As someone that has cheated, I knew this feeling all too well.
A while later, when Julie and Eivind reconnect serendipitously at her work, they spend an afternoon together kissing in a park. Julie immediately goes home and breaks up with her partner. The reason she gives? She needs time to be alone to ‘work out who she is.’
Within the first 30 minutes, the film has summed up the nuance of infidelity and the lies we tell ourselves, and the truths we ignore, about why it happens.
What constitutes cheating?
I’m always fascinated by the blurry views that surround infidelity. What is acceptable to one person, represents a deep betrayal to another. As I asked around, for some, “a flirtatious interaction crosses into cheating at penetrative sex”. For others, “emotional cheating is far worse than anything physical”. Two members of a couple gave me radically different answers, which resulted in an argument that I’m sure still continues.
No one was able to articulate to me what cheating is, but most people had an intuitive sense of where their comfort zone with person-to-person cross-pollination ended. The tricky thing about cheating is that while you may know your line in the sand, there are zero guarantees that the line of your lover sits in the same place.
This ambiguity is particularly stark in a world of cell phones and the internet. Social media, shame-free access to porn, and the ability to send disappearing messages, all provide additional fertile ground for issues of faithfulness.
Some women I’ve spoken to feel deeply hurt by partners watching porn or liking the images of tanned and taught Instagram models. At first glance, this could seem controlling and prudish. But given how women’s sexuality is portrayed in much of porn and popular culture, I can understand why it feels like a betrayal.
Why we cheat
Adultery has existed since ideas of marriage and monogamy were invented, yet this extremely common act remains poorly understood. When I asked people why they had cheated, a murky pool of answers emerged. Some were in happy relationships. Others were unhappy. Some had lashed out in response to frustrations with their partner. Some experienced transformative personal growth as a result of the illicit relationship or encounter. Even in open relationships, affairs occurred.
At a dinner party, my bringing up the topic created an immediate frisson in the conversation, and I noted how many people have been on both sides of the story. I’ve heard from countless people, of all identities, who are resigned to philandering as unfortunate, but inevitable. Some women saw female affairs as a rebellion against a culture that has normalised male infidelity, and labelled mistresses as ‘homewreckers’.
The ugly truth
In the wake of infidelity, the focus on the trauma of the event seems to detract from an attempt to uncover the motives and meaning behind it. Counterintuitively, affairs have a lot to teach us about relationships. They reveal our personal and cultural attitudes about love, lust, and commitment—ideas which have shifted dramatically in the last century.
Despite this, we seldom acknowledge or grasp this opportunity to evolve post-affair. Maybe because it requires us to face the feelings and insecurities humans are so adept at avoiding. Perhaps because confessions are so often met with a kind of anger that prohibits conversation.
Psychotherapist Esther Perel says, “one of the most uncomfortable truths about an affair is that what for Partner A may be an agonizing betrayal may be a transformative opportunity for Partner B.”
The revelation of an affair forces couples to grapple with unsettling questions: What does fidelity mean to us? Can you love more than one person at once? Can we learn to trust each other again? How do we negotiate our emotional needs and our erotic desires? Does passion have a shelf life? And can one relationship ever fulfil all of our needs?
A new fidelity frontier?
Towards the end of The Worst Person in The World, Julie and her ex-partner reconnect. Sitting under a leafy tree, he asks if she met someone else before their relationship ended. She confesses. What happens next is a moment of humility; she’s honest, and, although upset, he’s empathetic. She affirms him by confirming what he knew to be true, and he relieves her of the guilt she appears to be carrying.
To all of this, some respond with, “To hell with monogamy!” However, I don’t argue against monogamy. I’m not evolved enough, maybe, for an open relationship. Most of us aren’t. I also don’t trust our ability, or desire, to give up the illicit. Why I don’t argue against monogamy is that part of having great moments, I fear, is having both.
When it comes to infidelity, you’re on one side until you’re on the other. This is why I think a healthy dose of compassion could go a long way.