A recent conversation brought up the question of whether men are less tolerant of being cheated on than women. Examples were given, such as Gil Arenas’ immediate split with his fiancé for cheating, and Shaunie O’Neal’s repeated tolerance of Shaquille’s infidelity, though now the couple is finally divorced. And if men are less tolerant of cheating and dishonesty, what does that mean? Do men possess a higher level of respect for themselves and therefore put up with “cheating” less than women do? What are the underlying reasons here for what appears to be a double standard?
This question elicited the common responses: Men have a higher respect for themselves; women are afraid of being alone; men are rewarded for promiscuity; women are rewarded for fidelity; and so on.
I think that the whole phrasing of this question and conversation is unproductive, put diplomatically, or silly, on my harsher days. There are plenty of men who stay in relationships with their wives after she had sex with someone else, (the current Governor of New York is an example), and there are plenty of women who don’t when the tables are turned, (Jenny Sanford, wife of the governor of South Carolina, is an example). I know men who would say, “I do not think that my wife will have sex only with me during the life of our marriage, oh well.” Who does more of each? Who cares? We might as well ask, “Who can hold on to a hot iron the longest?” The prize for winning this contest is useless. In one instance the prize goes to who can play the biggest victim, and the other prize goes to who can win bragging rights. Again, who cares? The issue ceases to become a valid one when two people come together with understanding and acceptance.
One could argue that “dishonesty” and what we mean when we say “cheating” are the real issues (please see “Assumptions, Judgments and Lack of Imagination” – Parts I and II). And so it is a “tolerance of dishonesty” that forms the foundation of a double standard for men as opposed to women where women are expected to tolerate dishonesty. But none of that matters when we cease to make the issue of “cheating” a hot button one. The act is so pervasive in virtually all cultures that at some point it would be worth looking at whether “cheating” is something that you wish to fight with your mate about. Would your life be simpler and more relaxed if you assumed that at some point in your relationship that it was going to happen? I think that it would be.
The greater question is, “Who is in a relationship that they like being in?” When we see a relationship struggle and suffer from “infidelity,” the answer to that question is probably “no one.” And the answer usually has nothing to do with who is having sex with whom. The sex question, and infidelity itself, is only a symptom of a greater sickness. A sickness that includes the inability of both parties to have honest conversations with one another, or one where at least one partner is unable to share their real desires with the other, and so on.
When it comes to relationships, different things are important to different people, on an individual basis. If you look at your checklist of what you want in a relationship and it is topped by faithfulness, over, say, good looks or personality, then that is your preference, and it’s helpful to be honest with yourself and your potential partners about that. For my part, I will take a relationship with a woman that I enjoy being around and spending time with, most of the time (and she has another lover), over a relationship with a woman who is faithful, but we don’t get along any day, minute, or whatever. In this choice, I opt for the happiness of two separate individuals over many “shoulds” and “should nots.”
If you are perpetually single or in an unhappy relationship, I encourage you to really take a look at what is and is not working for you. Is it more important for you to be assured that no one else has “played with your toys,” or to enjoy the person that you enjoy? Many will ask, “How can you enjoy a person that “cheats” on you? My answer is that one has nothing to do with the other. Most of us have adopted a correlation between enjoyment, and even love, and fidelity, but the correlation is not absolute.
As human beings, we like absolutes because we think they are safe. Many of us begin our personal stand and internal conversations about love with ultimate premises like, “If someone loves you, they will not do anything that will hurt you;” or “if he/she loves you they would never ‘cheat’ on you.” These statements are not absolutes. Further, they are simply not true. You have my permission to think differently. You have my permission to go a little deeper regarding what is means to accept your partner. And you have my permission to challenge the general state of thinking around what a relationship is and isn’t and what it can and cannot be.
Rather than blaming gender or society, be honest with yourself about what you want in a relationship, and take responsibility for your own happiness. And last but not least, don’t take yourself too seriously. If you believe that you definitely know what you want in a relationship then you probably are nailing shut your relationship coffin with absolutes. Pay attention to the chemistry with the person in front of you. Your standards and/or perspective may change. You have my permission to allow them to.