Not too long ago I was out at my local bar tipping a few back with my friends when a lighthearted conversation turned a bit serious and got me to thinking (I hate when that happens). One of my friends had drunkenly made out with a fellow patron at the bar a few weeks earlier. We were all giving her a hard time—you can’t do something like that at your local bar and not expect to receive a good ribbing about it—but she took the teasing in stride. Then she shared with us that the make out session ended abruptly because the guy confessed to having a girlfriend. This being a local bar, most of the people there any given night, including the cheater and his girlfriend, live in the immediate vicinity. My friend went on to talk about how, after never having seen this guy before that night, she has since seen him and his girlfriend walking around on the streets fairly often (isn’t that the way it goes anytime you don’t want to see someone again). I asked her if she was tempted to tell the girlfriend, who some of us casually know, that her boyfriend was a douche’, to which she said, “No.”
I guess what got me to thinking was that no one in the conversation, myself included, really took issue with that answer, but it also struck me as odd that we were now a table full of people knowing something about this girl’s life that she was, for lack of a better word, entitled to know. So, for me, this raises the question: Aren’t we all accessories to cheating? Haven’t we all—at the very least—allowed a cheater to “get away with it?” I mean, I can certainly say that I have zero interest in going up to this girl I barely know and telling her that her live-in boyfriend is a cheater.
I know I’m not alone in having witnessed or helped someone cheat on their partner, or known that a friend had cheated or, even—in what is the most complex of all these cases—witnessed a friend’s significant other cheat, and not told the friend about it. So, why do so many of us standby and let this happen given that it’s universally agreed cheating is wrong and that getting cheated on sucks? Aren’t all of the silent witnesses out there helping to create a society that allows it?
I remember when I was a lot younger and would watch television shows where the main storyline was someone being caught cheating by someone who knew the cheating bastard’s partner. The storyline would drag on and on as the person consulted other mutual friends and internally debated whether they should tell the betrayed partner or not. I couldn’t wrap my head around this. “How is this even an issue!?” I would say to myself. “If I caught my best friend’s girl cheating on him, I would tell him right away.” This wasn’t because I was “tattletale,” as my older sister would have you believe about me at that age. It was because it was the right thing to do. It was as simple as that. It was the Golden Rule, if you will, because the only thing I could imagine being worse than being cheated on would be having my friends know about it and not say anything. (By the way, as far as I go, I still feel this way, so feel free to spy on my next girlfriend and report back to me.)
But somehow, on the road to adulthood, the complexities of life, love and relationships started to creep in on me and something that used to be a no-brainer, black and white issue became hopelessly gray. For some people, I’m sure the lines start to blur because they themselves cheat for one reason or another. And I’m sure just about all of them still think of themselves as good people, or at least, redeemable people who still deserve a chance at happiness and a chance to handle their indiscretions on their own terms without having someone outside of their relationship blow it up. These people, I would guess, would follow their own version of the Golden Rule and similarly seek to stay out of other people’s business.
For others, I’m sure the issue of whether to tell or not relates to their own definition of what it means to cheat or what kind of cheating is a “tell the partner” kind of offense. Is it heavy flirting? Is it kissing? Or does it have to be something more? Regardless of how each of us defines cheating, even if we catch someone doing something that violates our personal sensibilities, don’t most of us still not tell? In my experience, the answer is most definitely yes. In fact, from what I’ve observed, telling someone that they are being cheated on must rank right up there with telling someone they have cancer. But since cheating isn’t terminal, most people would just as soon not share the bad news.
I know for me, the decision to tell or not to tell comes down to four factors: how far into a relationship the people are, how good of friends I am with one or both of them, whether or not it’s a chronic problem or a one-time slip-up, and the gender of the friend being cheated on. I don’t think anyone would have a problem telling a friend they aren’t that close with that they saw the girl he had just started dating in the VIP section of a club tonguing down some wannabe-Jersey-Shore cast member on Friday AND some other dude Saturday (Btw, Steve, email me. We need to talk). But if that same thing only happens Saturday night and the girl is a girlfriend of three years and living with your not-so-close friend, you might be a bit more eager to turn a blind eye, not blow up his life and hope she just had a momentary lapse in judgment.
However, if this is one of my close male friends, that equation changes, and I would tell him no matter what. I think it’s easier to tell a guy he’s being cheated on than it is to tell a female friend, and I think this is true even for girls. Maybe this is sexist on my part. Maybe it’s the result of watching too many daytime TV shows and teen dramas. Whatever the case may be, when it comes to men, the chance of misdirected anger seems much lower. I’m very certain my good guy friend isn’t going to get mad at me for telling him. Anything a guy might do after that initial reaction that doesn’t involve kicking the cheater to the curb can be equally as stupid and illogical as anything a girl a might do.
On the other hand, when it comes to telling a girl she’s being cheated on, I can’t help but to think of all the firsthand accounts I’ve heard about friendships that were ruined when the girl sides with the boyfriend out of some misplaced sense of loyalty. “He would never do that to me! You’re a liar! I never want to talk to you again!” which just seems like a crazy reaction to me because, really, how often do people lie to their friends about someone cheating on them? This is real life, not Gossip Girl.
I’ve never written an ambiguous article where I don’t have a clear point to make or a solid conclusion to drive home (Well, I’ve never purposely done that). But I find this subject of cheating to be a difficult and unbelievably complex topic, even if I don’t have a fully formed point to make about busting cheaters. On the one hand, and like I said earlier, I feel like I would want to know if I was being cheated on. On the other, I know many people turn a blind eye towards cheaters and that society, as a whole, seems to have decided cheating is an issue best left for the couples to deal with. Even in bringing up this subject and writing about it, I feel like I’m breaking some kind of social code, and I really feel like this is the most taboo thing I’ve written about, and this is coming from someone who writes about race and politics all the time. I’m going to chalk up my personal awkwardness in writing about this to the fact that, unlike a lot of things I write about, this directly affects everyone in a way they have seriously thought about. Everyone has either cheated or feared being cheated on.
Believing that cheating is wrong might be one of our few universal morals, but it’s also one of the most violated ones. Even those who haven’t cheated, I think, can understand how it happens. While I’ve personally never cheated or been cheated on—which might simply be due to the fact I’ve had so few relationships and none of them have lasted very long—I do have some idea how hard relationships are to maintain. I can easily imagine what it’s like to have a bad fight with your partner, hit the streets with your friends to take your mind off it, have few too many drinks and give in to a person who has just the right words. I can also see where that’s none of my business, but at the same time I’ll say you better not do it while dating a friend of mine.
Side Bar: I don’t think a cheater ever fully gets away with it. I believe in something I call “Cheater’s Karma.” Simply put, it’s when people who cheat finally meet the right person and are ready to fully commit but blow it by being untrusting and crazy jealous because their past indiscretions make it impossible for them to trust anyone else. In other words, they know what kind of stuff they were up to when they didn’t answer their phone right away and now assume the same of the person they’re dating.