The topic of infidelity in relationships popped up unexpectedly. What started as an innocent joke at a friend’s party last weekend eventually escalated to a full round-the-table survey. Each guest present was asked if he or she had ever cheated on a girlfriend or a boyfriend.
The results were thought provoking. Not counting myself (whose answer those of you knowing me in person will guess, anyway), all but one girl confessed to have systematically cheated on a partner. She, too, stumbled somewhat on the definition of cheating at first – but, after the majority had settled on having slept with someone while in a relationship with someone else, she reiterated her stance: “If kissing doesn’t count, then no, I’ve never cheated”.
I am not known as a hardcore conservative in romantic matters. Yet the results were nothing short of a revelation. Was the whole world regularly cheating on their partners? Confused, I asked the party’s loudest propagator of infidelity how it was possible to sleep with someone if you were in love with another person. Sleeping aside, how was it comprehensible to even let the idea of another person crawl into your head when it was – presumably – occupied by someone already?
The explanation did not make itself wait. “Simple”, he said. “You just don’t mix love and sex”.
No alarms, no surprises
On my journey home, I gave the matter a deeper thought. It occurred to me that I should not have been surprised by the results at all. Cheating was not as uncommon as I, in my denial, was trying to present it.
Some recent memories came crawling in. During the past couple of years, I have met three interesting men. Three men with decent credentials: diverse backgrounds, interesting lifestyles, cool hobbies and satisfactory ability to keep an entertaining conversation for at least an hour (very few score highly on this one, hence the emphasis). I won’t even mention cute. They were three interesting packages, each in his own right: three nearly perfect men.
Nearly perfect except for one thing. One tiny detail they all had forgotten about at some point of their lives. All three had girlfriends. Surely it would be too much to expect three perfectly eligible men NOT to have girlfriends. In fact, I would have been unpleasantly alarmed had they been single. In a natural course of things, the older I get, the more men around me are taken; and the best candidates get snatched first.
Let us proceed in order though, starting with Guy Number One – a highly intelligent individual, rising banking star and tolerable conversationalist. After we had shared several chats of escalating intimacy, he reluctantly confessed he was in fact not single. Quite the contrary: he was living with his girlfriend of seven years and felt the pressure to propose from every angle. Family and friends’ Christmas messages had long stopped focusing on Christmas proper and instead wished them to “finally get married next year”. Hint, hint.
My first reaction was a sorry feeling. The situation was frankly looking dire for Number One. Dire because he had no intention to marry his girlfriend of seven years. Dire because all their friends were expecting them to. Dire because the girl had left her home and followed him to a different country. Simply kicking her out was not really on the table.
But behold; things were looking even worse for the girlfriend. In a streak of landslide sincerity, Number One went on to admit that he had cheated on her eight times. EIGHT times in seven years, with eight different women. Things weren’t going great between them, you see. He couldn’t face splitting up from someone who loved him so much though, so he cheated on her behind her back instead. Impeccable logic.
At this point, I excused myself and left. Perhaps more cheating buddies came after the eighth, but I didn’t follow up.
“Yes and no”
Enter Guy Number Two. A passionate traveller / photographer residing outside London with whom we quickly developed regular correspondence and more or less regular face-to-face contact. He had finally asked me to join him on a 10-day holiday. Sadly, the dates weren’t convenient; I declined and suggested to visit him in a month’s time instead, which he welcomed. The necessary arrangements had been made, and things were heading steadily to a happy end.
Except I suddenly had second thoughts. A female Facebook user left some public comments which made me doubt Number Two’s single status. The not-quite-just-friendly-anymore correspondence we had developed, the visible side of his everyday life and the joint holiday offer had all led me to make certain conclusions about Number Two’s availability. The time had come to question it though and, without further ado, I put the question straight: was the Facebook person his girlfriend?
He could have said yes. He could have said no. He could have said I was talking nonsense. He could have said he didn’t know what I was talking about. He could have said anything – except for what he actually ended up saying.
Yes and no.
Yes and no, he said. Things were apparently not going great (recognise that classic phrase?) and the two of them were taking a relationship break. They were sort of together but sort of not at the same time. It’s like they were allowed to see other people but hadn’t officially split up. It was moreover a long distance relationship. It was complicated. I was promised more details when I would come to visit in one month.
Except I didn’t come to visit in one month. I mean, seriously – would you, in my place?
A “splitting” request?
Finally, Guy Number Three. A sweet, not overly talkative guy blessed with a pair of wonderful blue eyes. A friend who’d leave funny comments on my Facebook; a friend because I knew he was a lost case. For he, too, had a girlfriend, who moreover looked like a supermodel on my background. I was not going to waste my time with Number Three at all. I just resorted looking at a photographed version of those blue eyes before going to sleep sometimes. Dreaming, after all, is not a crime, especially for a single girl.
The guy must have had telepathic abilities, however. After several rounds of drinks with friends one night, he opened up a bit about his official relationship. Like a lightning on a clear day, he announced that he was planning to split up with his girlfriend in October. For, due to some administrative matters, she’d have to leave the country then, never to return. The poor thing was not blessed with an EU passport, you see, and could not hang around the UK at mind’s delight.
I would expect anyone splitting from a serious partner to be at least marginally sad about the fact, devising plans to reverse the inevitable. Yet the issue seemed settled. Number Three and his other half were splitting up in October, not a day earlier, not a day later (I was tempted to ask for the exact timing but bit my tongue). Things were not going great (of course they weren’t) and he was looking for an excuse to end the relationship.
I will not bother telling you what happened later. It suffices to say that Number Three made it unmistakably clear where his true preferences were. And the girlfriend? It is not even September yet, so they are still together. Inshallah, if I waited just another month, the blue eyes would finally be mine. Not sure what you think, but something inside is giving me a feeling that I won’t.
Having said that…
The three guys in question did not have much in common. In fact, they were different in quite a number of ways. They came from different countries, spoke different languages and worked in different fields. I met them under three completely different sets of circumstances. Even their eyes were of different colour. No, despite the common perception, I do not always go for blue-eyed men.
The only thing the three did have in common was the lack of guts to split up with the girlfriends they did not love and were not intending to marry. In the meantime, they had guts enough to fool around with other women. My personal definition of cheating does not only focus on sex; the closest I could describe it would be a romantic physical experience with someone who is not your existing partner. Romantic physical experience can be kissing, holding hands or even sharing an intimate drink. If you think this sounds harsh, just imagine your partner having a giggly drink together with a cute colleague. You get the idea.
Even with this in mind, I will not go as far as labelling any of the three as cheaters. Who am I to stigmatise? I will not even bother judging the guys; if anyone, I should be judging myself for not seeing through them quicker and – especially – for not learning properly from my early mistakes.
After three mishaps, the lessons are indeed a legion. Thy shalt not waste a second on a taken individual goes without saying. The less obvious lesson – yet none the less useful for that – is never believe a potential romantic candidate who suddenly proclaims things are “not going great” with their second half. Tell them to discuss the matter with their mother instead. Noble feelings like compassion from your side are better invested elsewhere.
If, moreover, the person in question goes on to present exuberant excuses why they drag on a painful relationship despite dancing on the verge of separation (expiring visas, job situation, compassion for the other, peer pressure, long distance, relationship breaks all fit the bill) – run for your life. Don’t fool yourself; you won’t be helping the poor darlings to solve their life problems. For these are mere excuses for their own lack of guts to make a responsible move.
And for all you hot-and-cold individuals unable to break up with the partners you have no serious plans for, I have another message. Surprise – engaging a third romantically minded party in your tête-à-tête will not straighten your ailing relationships. Cheating is seeking elsewhere the thrill long gone from your existing lives. It doesn’t address any of the issues you and your partner have been having. It is running away from your problems – not solving them – while creating more problems for others.
As a final word, I wish we would all SPEAK more. Discuss the existing problems openly with our partners instead of letting the mess escalate in silence. Open up to our best friends and closest relatives if we need help. Involve a professional. Work together on the bits we can still save. Break up if we do not see a future together.
And if we end up looking for a passing thrill – nothing more than a mindless escape – first make this clear to whomever we are engaging. For, God forbid, the other party might just end up falling in love – and, before we know it, there is not one but two people seeking explanation to our ever changing behaviour. A parenthesis desperately trying to make it to the table of contents; isn’t that just sad? The things are not going great sounds like peanuts in comparison.
Before I forget though
A former colleague invited me for coffee the other day. Amid the usual inquiries about our common buddies, I asked my counterpart how his girlfriend was doing. I remembered they had been together for 12 years and felt obliged to show some interest.
His reaction would defy any description. A combination of disappointment, resentment and physical pain ran across his face. In my head, I desperately drafted an apology: for something terrible must have happened to the girlfriend. At the very minimum, she must have contracted a terminal illness and was nearing her final days. I bit my tongue over and over again. How insensitive was it of me to ask questions like this?
Finally the former colleague took a deep breath and composed himself enough to speak: “I do not have a girlfriend, Anna. I have a wife now. But…”
Whirlpool memories flashed through my brain. I could barely control laughter. But? “Things are not going great?” I helpfully suggested.
And, to my (now perfectly uncontrolled) laughter, the curtain fell.