E&M looks into how young European women understand (in)fidelity and their experiences of cheating or having been cheated on.
Nowadays when someone thinks of the word millennials, things like cellphones, social media, unemployment and debauchery come to mind – at least if we subscribe to tabloid depictions of our generation. There is obviously some truth in these superficial catchphrases: needless to say, we are a generation that is increasingly more sexually liberated than our elders.
Justine, 29, France
We in the West grow up in a culture that puts fidelity on a pedestal: Disney princesses meet Disney princes and they overcome the odds to live happily ever after, right? I even left a partner once as I fancied someone else and took it as a sign that I obviously didn’t love them anymore… It turns out things are a tad more complicated than that. Yes, cheating often hurts the person who is cheated on and causing pain is wrong (think Emma Thompson’s character in Love Actually), but is it really the act of having sex and/or developing a connection with another person that hurts, or the lies that so often cover up infidelity (that gold heart necklace purchased in secret and hidden in a pocket)?
bell hooks writes in All About Love that ‘trust is the foundation of intimacy’ and love, because it creates emotional vulnerability, requires constancy for us to feel secure and whole. Now bear with me for a second: imagine that your partner is unfaithful in the sense of sleeping with someone else, but without lying, distancing themselves, taking anything away, or withdrawing their time, attention, and care from you – could you deal with that? I believe now that it is deception and a host of associated unkind behaviours that undermine self-esteem and foster jealousy, and that love and spiritual loyalty can indeed coexist with sexual infidelity, just as there can be hurt and betrayal without infidelity.
Having been in both exclusive and open relationships in my twenties, I have come to value respect, honesty, and a commitment to nurturing someone’s growth over “keeping it in their pants.” After all, lust will tempt even people in monogamous relationships, so maybe what matters more than fidelity are truthfulness between partners, self-forgiveness for being attracted to someone else, and acceptance of the natural waxing and waning of feelings. Being more tolerant of ourselves and others, we have the power to become more loving. Because this is what it should be about: not social norms born out of a capitalist agrarian civilisation where men lease women’s reproductive system in exchange for goods and services, setting up both in an artificial economic relationship; but love.
Friederike, 29, Germany
Growing up and falling in love for the first time and experiencing my first serious relationship, I always thought of cheating as something that is the lowest of the low and only someone with a cold, cold heart could do. As I am older and have had my experiences, I am a bit more chilled and understanding. On the one hand, yes, oh my god, it hurts. On the other hand – I have to say, that I have been in situations myself where I could not claim the moral high ground, and thus I know what it feels like not only to be tempted, but to also give in and let it happen. Never without guilt, but with age definitely with less of an ‘this is the end of the world‘ view on it. Once I knew how surprisingly quick it can happen, even just having a short crush on someone else although you are in a stable and loving relationship, I became more understanding.
I think my future approach is that I wouldn‘t necessarily want to know the full truth if it‘s only one slip. Think of it as having a coupon, maybe? So, if it‘s an accident, don‘t tell me. If it‘s happening repeatedly behind my back, it‘s a different story. If I am doing it repeatedly behind my love‘s back, I am clearly with the wrong ‘love‘ and I am at fault for not addressing underlying issues within the relationship that‘s clearly missing something.
But let me tell you, if you stay up all night, drinking and laughing and telling your life story and inner dreams and wishes to a beautiful stranger – I will feel more betrayed and threatened as if you‘d just spent a casual, random night of lust.
Kate, 22, UK
More than often fidelity seems to be a stick to beat women with. In Love Island, my current tv obsession, the ins and outs of romantic loyalty are continually rehashed. Where women can be attacked for ‘stealing’ men when they aren’t even in relationships, men are commended for playing the game. The onus is on women to be the gatekeepers of their sexual morality when men get a free pass.
I never hear (in)fidelity used as anything other than as an accusation. Having been on all sorts of different sides of relationship distress the question of fidelity is never the important one but always the one that hurts. Fidelity is something fragile and easily broken, rather than something built and shared. Maybe the Love Island warning against ‘putting all your eggs in one basket’ is best applied to fidelity; the full weight of a relationship should not rest on its foundations.
Nicoletta, 23, Italy
After decades of high-school heart ache filled with, “Can you believe they sent that on MSN”, or “Why did they hang out at lunch time”, “I can’t believe they did that!” and “This must be the end of the world” I think I am finally getting over my Beverly Hills 90210-esque relationship with infidelity. Don’t get me wrong – the thought of it is still extremely painful, daunting and I don’t wish it upon anyone. I also think as a generation, we are used to getting everything we want – and receiving attention when committed to someone else we tend to forget what it is to say no to something because of a responsibility or a loyalty. Yet the pain of being the perpetrator or victim of this violation of loyalty is unmeasurable – so is it really worth it?
Having been both a victim and a perpetrator in the past, reflecting on this brings on a very Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde kind of crisis. As we get more and more connected with innumerable texting apps and constantly meeting new people with internships and courses, abroad or at home, combined with the fact that we are more sexually liberated – infidelity has become easier yet no less painful. So I may be less dramatic than when I was in high school (after all 90210 is still a classic) – but this hasn’t and won’t make infidelity less of a sore spot.