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Infidelity: The nuances of betrayal, pain and growth

By Ritwik Arora

Whenever we hear the news of someone cheating on their partner in a romantic relationship, the very first thing we do is take sides in the matter. The perpetrator in this situation, the one who has strayed is often vilified, judged and labeled guilty for their actions, which to be honest is quite understandable. We have been led to believe in the purity of a monogamous relationship for centuries. Most cultures tend to promote the “one true soulmate” narrative which bled into most of our popular media leading to plethora of stories which revolve around either finding the one and their happily ever after narrative. But is it the only way of looking at relationships?

The way we have been unconsciously trained to look at relationships through the lens of monogamy and sexual desires, it’s no wonder that we tend to take such a binary stance on this matter. Now just imagine for a minute, two people are in a relationship, let’s call them Adam and Abe. For some time, Abe feels emotionally neglected by Adam, they aren’t communicating well either and their sex-life, well that isn’t going great too. Abe is friends with John, who works at his office, with whom he has a pretty good rapport. They talk a lot between breaks about life and their interests. Because of this Abe forms a little attraction to John.

Now, in this instance can we imagine ourselves in Abe’s shoes? Can we see why he may make a choice we have assumed he will? I am sure many reading this will disagree and say it’s still wrong to cheat no matter the situation, and that’s alright. This story is not meant to change anyone’s mind, it’s just a way to look at infidelity from a different lens. Let’s focus on Adam for a change this time. Adam has just had a catastrophe at his job, he is on the verge of losing his position in the company. Throughout his life he has been taught to not talk about his problems, to be a “MAN”, that’s also one of the reasons it took him a while to accept his sexuality. Due to this he wasn’t able to fully open up to Abe, resulting in cracks in their relationship.

It isn’t so easy to take sides now, is it? Whenever we hear about infidelity, we have an outsider’s perspective on this situation which is often colored by the traditional view of relationships society has forced upon us, but more often than not the true story is not as black and white as it seems. The above example is in no way an indication of a universal fact, but it’s just supposed to highlight the fact that in a delicate situation like this, it’s important to consider such variables before labeling someone as a monster.

Another important aspect of the way we have been viewing infidelity in heterosexual relationships is the double standards that are imposed on the cis men and women and how they are treated by the society in regards to this act.

When a man commits adultery, there is a certain amount of vilification sure, but ultimately their transgressions are swept under the rug of "Men will be men". Our patriarchal society has been so used to dealing with adulterous men that we have become desensitized and even forgiving when it comes to their mistakes. Even when a man cheats, their partners suffer and are treated with contempt rather than the other way round.

"Oh there must be some problem with her, that's why he cheated", phrases like these are often thrown around to somehow justify a man's wrongdoings. If the society is somehow not blaming the victim, then they latch onto the one with whom their supposed paragon of light and good cheated. The "other woman" trope is something which is quite familiar. If the wife or partner is not being blamed then the whole blame rests on the shoulders of the woman who somehow seduced the "poor helpless man".

The patriarchy which has seeped in almost every part of our society has essentially twisted the narrative of infidelity in heterosexual relationships to excuse the man and punish the woman. One case in a similar vein that comes to mind is that of Hillary and Bill Clinton.

In the 1990s, the revelation of then President Bill Clinton's affair with his intern Monika Lewinsky rocked America. With each shocking development in the case, the one question which persisted in the minds of everyone following the debacle was- "What will Hillary do?". Hillary Clinton was already recognized as a feminist icon at the time and was simultaneously celebrated and derided for her achievements. So when she took the decision to stay and work on her marriage rather than leaving, she invited all sorts of criticism from varied sections of society.

No matter that it was her husband who committed adultery but her decision to forgive him was much more criticized than the actual affair itself. These kinds of judgment and double standards have undeniably shaped a very damaging narrative around adultery.

Another aspect which is often not considered is that of female pleasure in heterosexual relationships. For centuries, the main focus of sexual relationships has been the male pleasure. It's more visible in media, most of the porn and is generally promoted by the various societal customs. Thus, when females use their agency and aim to seek that pleasure outside of the marital confines, their needs are termed adulterous without considering the whole story behind their actions.

The thing is, infidelity is an incredibly complex topic to box into a binary narrative. There are numerous angles to consider which can make the picture of a relationship more clear. Now, I am not experienced enough to preach about this topic, but one thing I can reliably say is that relationships are messy and the only way to untangle the yarn of this tangled mess is communication and empathy.

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