If I have to be cheated on in order to have a marriage worth bragging about, then it’s probably time I accept that marriage is not for me. We tend to skate over the specifics when we talk about the “ups and downs” of marriage and how they can make or break a relationship, but what we’re really talking about is the acknowledgment that in order to enjoy the best of our partners, we often must first survive the worst of them. And for Black women, the reality often comes with or without the acknowledgment.
I made it about an episode-and-a-half into OWN Network’s hit series, “Black Love” before I recognized the common theme: infidelity. And I couldn’t help but be offended by the forced correlation between the two concepts — love and infidelity, that is. I listened to Todd and Alicia Taylor and DL and Donna Hughley round out an episode with stories of side babies, countless affairs, a murdered mistress, trial separations, arson, armed robbery and a pair of hands nailed to a wooden board, and I thought to myself, is this a true testament to the durability of Black love? We know people are capable of change, but change doesn’t always call for chaos, does it? Is the uneventful, unprovoked change not just as valuable as the dragging feet kind. I get it, love is hard and relationships take work, but when did cheating, specifically, become a relationship rite of passage?
Adultery, as highlighted in the docuseries, is the term most commonly used to describe unfaithfulness among married couples. But, generally, we define cheating as any violation of a couple’s assumed or stated contract regarding emotional and/or sexual exclusivity. Who cheats, how often and why depends on who we’re asking, but over the years, researchers have gathered two constants, men cheat more frequently, women stay more often. Thanks to modern technological advancements and the growing popularity of social media, the ways in which people have come to engage in cheating have grown exponentially. And while cheating comes in many forms, not all of them physical, the damage done is undeniable, which makes even the slightest suggestion that cheating fortifies relationships laughable. Yet, here we are.
The general consensus is that cheating is a choice, people either choose faithfulness or choose the alternative. And while we tend to be more socially sympathetic towards the female cheater, going so far as to blame their behavior on other people’s boundaries, our culture is a lot more forgiving of all cheaters than one might expect. Unfortunately, psychology says something slightly more sinister about our favorite philanderer. His actions aren’t just a matter of choice, they’re a matter of character deficit.
Late 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant spoke a great deal on the idea of autonomy, which he defined as our capacity to make choices independent of our internal desires and external influences. Autonomy, according to Kant, is the single most important personal discovery an individual can make, because it frees us from the obligation to go along with the crowd, allowing us to do the right thing, even if our peers (or our self) would encourage us against it. Our autonomy might be built into our human existence but the strength of willpower to do what is right with it, and not let our desires interfere with our judgment, is not. That, Kant says, we have to learn, arguing that we are not only able to exercise our freedom of choice, but obligated to do so responsibly, thereby resisting the urge to act until we’ve deemed the action, most importantly, reasonable and logical. And by exercising this principled decision-making, we strengthen our ability to make sound decisions, developing character in the process, a distinct blueprint of our mental and moral qualities.
But our character is only as strong as we build it to be. And we know how character is tested, through temptation, which no one is exempt from. Nor are we exempt from lapses in it, even the most principled of us have side-eyed a booty or two. But there’s a difference between a a lapse in character and lack of a character, and it’s crucial to make the distinction between the two. How we do that is by identifying the root of the lapse in character, which Kant explains as one of two things. The first being affect, which he defined as a very sudden desire or craving which may feel very intense but lasts only a short while. Although fleeting, affect has the ability to overwhelm our otherwise sound decision-making, causing us to pull into the drive-thru of the fast food chain a mile away from our partially stocked refrigerator. We are all guilty of this, and while indicative of some room for development, our succumbing to the affects of every day life is not cause for great concern. If anything, it makes us human. But then there are lapses in character that are caused by something called passion, which Kant defined as ongoing, persistent desires that corrupt rationale and interfere with decision-making at a deeper level. Passion, unlike affect, which bypasses our decision-making process, infiltrates it, causing us to rationalize poor choices from the inside out, until those poor choices simply become choices. Once passion corrupts our judgement, we’re not dealing with the details of our individual decisions anymore, we’re dealing with an actual deficit in character, and no amount of relationship resolves that.
Speaking of relationships, maybe I’m wrong, but I thought the goal of these things was to make us better, not to break us down, so what gives? Healthy relationships of every variety are crucial to our individual and collective development for a variety of different reasons. They increase our emotional well being, they teach us to compromise and find common ground and create a sense of stability in our lives. They connect us with others and add fullness and experiences to our lives. Relationships are not intended to be hazing for the heart. Furthermore, the ability to endure our partners’ brokenness may earn us the affection and recognition we so desperately desire from them, but we fully sacrifice ourselves in the process.
The test of a good woman is not in her ability to remain a good partner to a man who has yet learned to be good to her. That pathology is fundamentally flawed. Friendly reminder, no one is owed your emotional labor, no one. The reality is that cheating has no place in relationships and, let’s be clear, you can still be unfaithful in a non-monogamous relationship. Cheating neither fortifies what already exists nor contributes in a healthy way to what could be. It is a violation of trust, it forever changes the dynamic, and no matter how dedicated two people are to working past it, they never get that original love back. Cheating is not a relationship rite of passage, going through it won’t make a union stronger on the other end. And any man or woman who would use such an excuse to rationalize such damaging behavior isn’t mature enough for a relationship in the first place. We don’t get to the love we want by accepting deceit in its’ place.