Sunday, January 20, 2013

Emotional Fidelity

Disclaimer: I really, really dislike the whole “men are from mars” shtick. 

But gender and gendered difference fascinate me.

In my Forbidden Fictions classes, I’ve often posed the question “can you cheat on someone without ever touching another person physically or even taking off a piece of clothing?”

I wanted to explore the many dimensions of liberty of conscience, something that John Milton pioneered in his seventeenth-century Areopagitica (sound smarter: air-e-o-pa-jit-ih-ka).  Today, Stanley Fish and Martha Nussbaum each explore this concept in their own ways.

So while watching Woody Allen’s Match Point or reading Lolita, I wondered: does checking someone out or having a movie-star crush – do these everyday and seemingly inescapable acts constitute cheating? 

Not full-out affairs, passion-filled and emotionally robust pursuits while otherwise in a supposedly committed relationship—but mini-cheats, undisclosed gaps in an imagined vision of shared and universal, sacramental love?

A conversation recently turned toward this question and a female interlocutor’s response took me by surprise:

The reason women don’t care too much if their boyfriend or husband goes to a strip club or gets a blowjob, she said, or even hooks up with someone—that’s just physical lust.  We know that no one can sleep with one person for the rest of her or his life without going crazy.  It’s emotional cheating that drives us insane—sharing love or close feelings with someone else, telling then secrets that aren’t disclosed in the relationship.

Now, I don’t know if we men have a primordially hard-wired need to spread our seed far and wide. 

For me, the more interesting distinction dealt with the difference between the physical and the emotional – the differently honed-in-upon aspects of the intimate.

My mind, manlier than I’ve realized, always imagined a sexualized path toward infidelity.  Maybe my inner feminist never questioned having incredible friends with whom I share the most essential aspects of my self. 

Without parents or a close family, my friends know more than anyone else.   Some of my closest friends are women, perhaps in part because they’re the most emotionally self-aware, kind and supportive people I know (like a couple of my guy friends, too).

I just took for granted that their company was as normal as a woman talking with her closest girlfriends about everything, even and especially the things they would never tell family members.  Do women do that with male friends, too?  People in non-heterosexual or multi-parnter relationships?

I hope we can all learn and understand and find ways to expand the complexities of trust and love, and to continue to learn (and sometimes undo) the sometimes planetary distances of gender that can separate us.


  1. Maybe I'm crazy, but I definitely care if my boyfriend gets a blowjob!

    I don't know. It's a fine line. Having female friends and sharing emotional secrets with them is not cheating. But maybe it's when you start preferring their company to your girlfriend/wife's. Or miss dates with your significant other because you got caught up spending time with that friend. I'm not sure, but a close friendship by itself does not constitute emotional cheating.

  2. I agree completely. For me, it's just a question of a logical extreme. If a person becomes habitually unable to talk to their partner about anything, intimate or not, then we've got a real problem. Personally, communication, flexibility, and independent and shared growth offer the most promise. I think a couple can remain monogamous and ragingly in love for ever. Many, many warning signs arise before people cheat, and I'm saddened when people remain oblivious to them, whether because of ignorance, willful denial, etc. I agree, too, that the smaller truths and larger scope of fidelity -- missed dates, forgotten anniversaries -- indicate a perilous step down a dangerous road, even if it doesn't lead to sexual cheating. Thanks for the great comment!