My Photo

The Out Campaign

Atheist Blogroll

Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 05/2005

« Election Snippet: McCain's Temper | Main | Election Snippet: Sarah Palin's Terrorist Associations »



This argument still isn't working for me. And I completely agree that denying your partner sex is just as bad as cheating. But what you're advocating in your scenario an eye-for-an-eye kind of morality. This really boils down to "my partner won't have sex with me, so I can cheat on him/her." And that only seems reasonable in the context of this example you've constructed, where all other reasonable options are off the table for some mysterious reason. I think my comment from yesterday explains why I have problems with that. It still seems really unrealistic to me. And once again your example today undermines the point you're trying to make. I'm not a contract lawyer, but doesn't a material breach of contract nullify the contract, rather than providing justification for retaliation? In the contract analogy, the proper response would be divorce.


Here's the problem. See, we're not disagreeing that the sex can be viewed as a material breach. Some people consider it so and other's don't. That's not where the disagreement lies. If sex is part of the contract, and one person fails to provide sex, thereby nullifying the contract, then the contract is summarily ended. Fine.

The problem is when the other person pretends to uphold the contract while justifying his behaviour on the basis that this contract is no longer valid.

If the contract is breached, then the relationship is over.

If the wronged party does not wish the contract to be broken (i.e. doesn't want to break up), then he is obligated to continue holding up his own end of the bargain, only under these new negotiated rules of all things marriage except sex.

No one that I saw was arguing that the person cutting off the sex wasn't wrong. But that does not give the wronged party the right to do wrong in retaliation. If the contract is broken, then everything that the contract entails is broken, and that means the relationship.

But you cannot go on under the pretense of maintaining the contract while secretly breaking it and convince me that the cheater is somehow justified.

This is the "but she started it!" argument. I don't care who started it, don't continue it.

Franklin Veaux

"Because, in my opinion, the unilateral, non-negotiable, permanent cutting off of sex in a monogamous relationship is a material breach.

One that's every bit as serious, every bit as significant, every bit as harmful, as cheating in a monogamous relationship."

Absolutely. I absolutely, positively, 100% agree. Withholding sex from a person, while also simultaneously forbidding that person from seeking it anywhere else, is (as I've said before) a grave error, and certainly one that represents a breach of the implicit agreement in a monogamous relationship. No doubt about it.

Even saying that, though, I have to state absolutely that this material breach does not, in any way, shape, or form, justify cheating.

Does it justify ending the agreement? Yes. You bet. Does it justify ending the agreement while lying and pretending to uphold the agreement? No, it does not, and that appears to be where you and I part ways.

I've said before that if Joe and Jane enter into an agreement, and Joe violates his half of the agreement, then Jane is perfectly justified and reasonable in ceasing to uphold her end as well. That seems unarguable to me.

But I've also said before that if Jane stops upholding her end, but lies to Joe and pretends she is still upholding her end, then Jane is in the wrong. And also gutless.

The issue at work in cheating is not whether or not person A is justified in having sex with person C in violation of an agreement with person B; it's whether or not person A is justified in having sex with person C while lying to person B about it.

If the contract between A and B is voided, then it's voided. No problem. If Joe withholds sex from Jane, and Jane thinks this is a material breach of her agreement with Joe, then Jane can leave the relationship, or Jane can tell Joe "Look, you're not meeting my needs; therefore, I reserve the right to have them met elsewhere."

But for Jane to sneak around and cheat, while still pretending to be in a monogamous relationship with Joe, merely shows that Jane is a coward who refuses to take responsibility for the consequences of her own decisions. She's trying to continue to gain the benefit from being involved with Joe while simultaneously gaining the benefit of not being involved with Joe.

And that's just stupid and indefensible. If Joe breaches the contract, Jane needs to say so. Anything else is merely old-fashioned, run-of-the-mill cowardice.

The other part that's missing from your equation is the idea of consequence. A person who cheats takes on a nonzero risk in doing so. By cheating and also continuing to be involved with the other person, that risk is conferred to the other person, without that other person's knowledge or consent. I personally know a person who cheated on her husband, contracted hepatitis, and then passed it on to her husband; where does this fit into your ideas about material breach of agreements?

Dishonesty is dishonesty. At the end of the day, no material breach of any agreement justifies fraudulently pretending to hold to the agreement when, in fact, you're not.


I neither agree nor disagree with Greta's posts. I find I am missing a completely different perspective: Why are we upset by our partners cheating in the first place? All relationships come burdened by various problems; everything from how your partner can't seem to pick up their dirty socks from the floor, to how they won't do their fair share of the housework, to whatever. But infidelity, in our society, has somehow become a special sin, on a completely different level from all the others (apart from emotional or physical abuse, but let's leave that aside for this argument). Why is this?

A large part of why is probably to do with evolutionary psychology. Throughout evolution, sex is something we do to produce babies. Not consciously, obviously - but sex being awesome is how our genes make sure we want to do what's necessary for procreation. Hence when we pair-bond, we have very good reason not to want our partner to be sleeping with anyone else: They might have babies. For men, being cuckolded is an absolute DISASTER, as it means they'll be providing for a baby that isn't their own. For women, it's less of a problem if their partner sleeps around, except if he then starts actually caring for his other partners. I think most people would agree that men in general are vastly more concerned with physical infidelity whereas women are more concerned with emotional ditto. (I seem to recall there being actual data to support this as well but I don't have any references.) And, all this serves to explain why marriage in most societies is essentially a way for men to control their women's reproduction.

Anyway, my point is, today in our society, sex is more or less decoupled from having children. Now, couldn't this also mean that we might start to be less anxious about our partner being faithful? After all, there is little else we do together that we wouldn't do with anyone else. I don't presume to keep my partner's wit to myself, nor his kindness, so why his body?

This is difficult to get around, because it's an emotional barrier in ourselves, but I seriously don't think society is helping. Today, if you say "My partner cheated on me and I forgave him/her", people think you're a freak, or a doormat, or an emotional masochist. And that obviously doesn't make it any easier to deal with!

I would love to hear Greta's thoughts on this.



I have two answers for you with regards to why I am upset over this cheating thing.

1) I am not more concerned with the sex than with the other "issues" in relationships, I am concerned with a breach of an agreement and then lying about it. It doesn't matter if we're talking about sex or buying a car or not taking out the dishes. If two people make an agreement, it is just wrong for one person to break it and pretend to uphold it. Period.

2) Sex is more important because not picking up one's dirty socks doesn't then pass along to the cuckhold a life-threatening illness.

One further point is that, yes, sex is, genetically, for procreation. However, the human being has the capacity to rise above one's genetic programming. Taking birth control, for instance, is a direct contradition to the genetic desire for procration. We are capable of higher forms of behaviour, the very fact that we have arguments over ethics is exlempary of this. It is my personal opinion that lying and cheating, whether it's about sex or money or housework, is a sign of cowardice and utterly contemptable, regardless of whatever "justification" the coward has for behaving in such a manner.

Society relies upon codified rules of behaviour that may or may not go against our base genetic programming for the sake of "getting along". However, some evolutionary biologists will argue that our penchant for "getting along" is part of our genetic programming and therefore we are not actually going against the procreation theory even though, on the surface, it might seem that way.

And one final comment: In animal species where monogamy holds some sort of evolutionary purpose, when a female "cheats", yes, it may be preventing the male genes from propegating, but when a male cheats, it also prevents the female's genes from propegating, in that the female might require assistance from the male in childrearing to ensure offspring survival and multiple offspring from other partners takes away assistance from her own offspring.

However, what has actually been found in the animal kingdom is that "cheating" is a widespread activity that is done for the purpose of increasing genetic survival, even and especially female cheaters. This idea that females stay at home and raise the kids while the males go off sleeping around is just not true, as the more recent DNA testing methods have shown us.


First, I'm kind of confused by the idea of someone suddenly and forever withholding sex, without conversation with their partner. Does that happen very often?

Second, I still don't understand why seperation or divorce is so off-the-table. It's clearly the better option.
If the highly artificial hypothetical situation, where one partner cuts off sex... that's not a good reason to screw around behind your partners back. It's a good reason to break up the relationship because it's hopelessly fucked.
50% of marriages end in divorce- it's not the worst thing that can happen. Even if there are kids involved.

One worse thing I can see happen is the cheater keeps cheating and then gets caught. That will probably result in separation or divorce, just an especially messy separation or divorce. Wouldn't it be better to be open, upfront and honest and break off the relationship in a mature manner?

And say the cheater doesn't get caught. Then what? They spend the rest of their relationship lying to their partner? How healthy is that? Again- if it reaches that point, the relationship is fucked, and I'm not convinced separation isn't a vastly better option.


Hey Greta!
Great 3 posts! I think I see something of what you're trying to say, but I think because we're specifically talking about seeking a sexual relationship that one partner doesn't tell the other partner about, people get upset. However, I have a hard time believing that all these other commenters don't lie to their SO, or their best friend or whoever. There are times when you omit certain parts of the truth or don't give your truthful opinion about something important because in the grand scheme of things, sometimes that particular truth won't really accomplish much beyond creating strive in a relationship you value for all the non-stressful parts of it. I can see someone in a loving relationship with their SO realizing that sex is either not important or no longer desirable to their partner, but at the same time that person is not willing to give up a relationship that has lasted for years and works well in all other respects. But for this particular person sex is still a high priority and so they seek it quietly, without creating unnecessary strife.


Joreth - I never said that the unfaithful partner would be lying about it, that was your assumption. What if they were upfront about it?


Joreth - Oh and I am aware of all of what you said about the natural world. I left it out because my argument was becoming too long anyway. But here's another point: Shouldn't the fact that cheating is perfectly natural and even probably slightly hardwired, help us deal with it in a more rational way? Especially when it comes to men cheating (as their propensity to do so SHOULD be higher). As in: My partner cheating on me doesn't mean he or she is leaving me, it just means their libido is telling them to screw around a bit, for the sake of genetic spread in their offspring - offspring which they won't have, as they are practising safe sex. Again, this is assuming it is only sexual cheating and the person isn't having a full-blown relationship with someone else, and also assuming they're not lying about it.


One further point is that, yes, sex is, genetically, for procreation.

Not exclusively so, though. I'm no evolutionary biologist, so anyone who is please feel free to correct me on this - but we aren't wired to have procreation-only sex. (That's why abstinence programs keep failing.)

We don't come into season and feel no sexual interest the rest of the time, the way some mammals do. Women may be a little friskier mid-cycle, but our secondary sexual characteristics like beards and breasts are a constant, men and women are both capable of orgasm at any point in the month, and we're generally inclined to recreational sex.

Sex serves another evolutionary function: pair-bonding. It's a way of reinforcing the link between a couple. Cats and dogs come into season, but once they've mated, the fathers aren't involved in raising the young; humans, on the other hand, raise children together - and as that's demanding, the couple need to keep a strong emotional connection with one another. Sex is a major way of maintaining it; consider how bonobos, primates like us, use sex as social glue as much as they do for reproduction.

That, I think, is why cheating is such an issue. It takes the central means of pair-bonding, and applies it outside the relationship. (This argument obviously doesn't apply to polyamorous people, but we're talking about monogamous married couples here.)

Now, a partner who's refusing sex and refusing to discuss it is rejecting that pair-bonding mechanism, which is a breach - but then again, sex isn't the only means of bonding, just the primary one. If the hypothetical partner is showing lots of other bonding behaviour, then in evolutionary terms you could argue that they're just giving a poor deal. Is that a material breach, or just a breach?

A lot of this depends on how much sex matters to you. But if we're just talking about sexual frustration, then there's always masturbation; not as fulfilling as actual sex, but not an orgasm-free life either. Going elsewhere for sex, it seems to me, must involve some degree of emotional seeking.

Sex within marriage involves two issues: emotional bonding and physical release. Physical release can be achieved solo, emotional bonding is more complicated.

I'd say I can sympathise with someone wanting to cheat within a sexless marriage; I had a sexless relationship once and it did me a lot of harm. I didn't cheat, though. After it ended, I sometimes bitterly wished I had, but that was because I was wishing I'd hurt him like he hurt me; that's not a good moral motivation. And yes, in that situation, sex wasn't the only problem: there was very poor emotional communication as well. He was just a bad partner, and sex was one of the ways it played out.

I'm finding it hard to believe in this thought experiment. It seems to require a sex-withholding partner who absolutely refuses any discussion of the subject at all with a person they were formerly intimate with, and who they presumably know cares about sex a great deal, and yet who isn't prepared to consider either couples counselling or divorce. I find it hard to picture such a person. And if such a person existed, I find it hard to picture why their spouse would want to remain married to them: we're positing an inflexible, uncommunicative, dictatorial and self-centred spouse, and that's hardly someone you should stay with, sex or not.


These articles do not address a ‘thought experiment’ for me. They come pretty close to describing my life.

For the past 5 years, my wife and I have sex on average maybe 10 times a year. One or two of those encounters would be what I would define as ‘making love.’ The others are just quickies when I think her guilt builds up enough to get her to ‘put out.’ We don’t have children so we don’t even have the lame excuse that we just don’t have the time or are too tired for sex.

I stay in the marriage because I love her. I enjoy being with her. She is a lot of fun. We own a home that neither of us could afford on our own; and with the way things are right now there is no chance of selling it without taking a huge loss. She has stayed with me through some very tough times when others would have left me.

There is nothing I can do to please her in bed. She does not like foreplay of any kind. There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for her, but she doesn’t want anything.

I have told her how much it means to me to please her, and how much it means to me that she would want to please me. Talking about the problem fixes nothing, and makes us both feel worse.

I have not cheated on her. Logic tells me I should leave her. But I care deeply for her and don’t want to hurt her. Financially it would be a mess for both of us.

I have read that perhaps 20% of marriages are ‘sexless.’ My wife has told me that our situation is not that unusual. Does that mean though that I should be happy with it? Or even put up with it?

I tend to agree that cheating is not a good solution. However, with the pain, rejection, and almost overwhelming desire I feel, I could not blame someone in my situation for doing so.


I'm sorry for the problems in your marriage, Fred; you're certainly entitled to be unhappy about it - not that it's my place to tell you how to feel.

In fairness, what I referred to as a 'thought experiment' was what I interpreted Greta as positing, which is a situation with less attempt at compromise than yours; she said 'But to unilaterally cut off sex in a monogamous relationship, without any willingness for negotiation or even discussion, and with every intention of it being a permanent arrangement' - which doesn't sound exactly like your marriage: from what you say, your wife is at least trying to compromise, even if it's not a compromise that satisfies either of you. If I've misinterpreted anyone, well, sorry.

I don't think anyone's saying that they wouldn't sympathise with someone who cheats in your situation; there's a difference between sympathising with someone and thinking they've done the right thing. Mostly I'd just like to send you my sympathies, because it sounds like a hard situation...

William the Coroner

Divorce is an option. However, women, in particular, loose a lot after a divorce. They lose social standing, they lose financially, they can lose health benefits and other things. I agree, not a morally excellent choice, but not one that is automatically blameworthy either.

Greta Christina

To Jason, and Abbie, and Kit, and anyone else who's asking, "Does the extreme situation described in this series (one partner unilaterally cutting off sex without being willing to discuss or negotiate it, and without being willing to consider non-monogamy) ever really happen?"

Yes. It does.

The whole reason I wrote this series was that I was seeing a plethora of letters to sex advice columnists -- Dan Savage, as well as others -- describing pretty much exactly this situation. And that's what made me start re-thinking this question. I was pretty much a no-cheating absolutist myself... until I started reading about the reality of what life was like for lots and lots people suffering in this situation, and experiencing real damage, and not knowing what to do about it.

To most of the other people disagreeing with me on this: It seems to me that your position can be summed up thus: You think that, in this situation, the only -- THE ONLY -- honorable response is to break up. No other response (apart from accepting lifelong celibacy) will do.

And my point is that this attitude is unrealistic, excessively rigid, and excessively harsh.

My point is that a reasonable person in this situation might well decide that divorce is not the best option... for themselves, or for anyone else. A reasonable person might well decide that cheating isn't a great option... but severing a relationship that is working in other respects, a relationship that children and/or other people depend on, isn't a great option either. A reasonable person might decide that, while cheating is a bad choice with the potential to hurt people, it's the best bad choice available to them, the one with the least potential to hurt people.

Now, that's not the decision you might make. It's probably not the decision I would make. But I am beginning to understand why people make it, and to have compassion for them. I can see how someone might balance the real-world harm to be done by all of the bad options they have in front of them, and pick cheating as the least harmful.

If you haven't done so already, I strongly suggest that you read the comments that were made to this series when it was originally published on the Blowfish Blog. A number of people wrote in to describe their own experiences with this sort of situation, and how damaging it was. Or go find the Dan Savage columns (numerous) that he's written on this topic. Instead of considering this in moral abstracts and absolutes, listen to what the human reality of this situation is like for real people.

If you do that, and you still think that these people absolutely made a clearly wrong choice that no honorable person would in good conscience make and that cannot be understood or forgiven... then we're just going to have to disagree.


If you do that, and you still think that these people absolutely made a clearly wrong choice that no honorable person would in good conscience make and that cannot be understood or forgiven... then we're just going to have to disagree.

I, at least, am not saying anything so extreme.

The reason I'm raising questions is that I'm very wary of drawing any conclusions about any stranger's marriage when I only hear one side of it. If somebody's writing to an advice columnist or posting on a thread, then they're telling it from their own perspective. Drawing conclusions from that is something I feel a little wary of, because it's partial data. The spouse might have a completely different story. Same thing with the original quote from Belle: she's not a neutral observer, she's someone justifying her own actions based on the account of a man who's also justifying his own actions. It's such a sensitive subject, I'd always feel more comfortable hearing from both sides before drawing any conclusions.

I'd say under your hypothetical circumstances, cheating can certainly be understood, and as to forgiveness ... well, other people's marriages aren't my business, so offering or withholding my forgiveness seems a bit presumptious.

Let me put it this way: I understand how it could happen. I can feel sympathy for the spouse who winds up cheating. I can also feel sympathy for the cheated-on spouse who finds that cheating impossible to forgive.

Marriages are such individual things that it seems to me rigid to make a general rule, even if it's 'cheating is justified under X circumstances'. Complex questions are best considered on a case by case basis.

'I'd have to know the people involved to have an opinion on any one example' is perhaps not the most dynamic summary for an internet post, but never mind. :-)


I have sympathy for both sides, but I don't really think cheating is a big deal. I think people need to try to not be so jealous. I understand that people do feel jealous, but I don't understand why that's such a priviledged emotion.

It is a really complicated thing, though. I'm still working through it. I'm sypathetic but I still wouldn't be on one end of it. When I was younger and very promiscous and held onto more radical ideas about sex, I still would turn down people in a relationship. I just didn't want to intrude on the relationship and be that other person that may cause trouble.

One married friend I heard had been hitting on some friends of mine was hitting on me one night, and I just was as gentle as could be telling him he has to knock it off, that I knew he was in a tough spot with his wife having a hard time, but he needed to go take care of her even though it was hard. I think I did a good job talking to him because he spent his time at home after that and stopped trying to go catting around all the time. They seem happier now-- it was a rough patch and I think they worked through it. There were a lot of situations like that, and if I didn't know the guy I wouldn't be so gentle, I'd just be like, "Hey what do you think you're doing, mister?"

But on the other hand I've "cheated" on guys that got upset about it, and I felt justified at the time because I was mad at them for saying that they were down for a open relationship in the beginning when I had the "I'm a huge slut and I'll never change, don't take it personally" talk with them but then later changing their minds about it and getting all huffy about me being with other guys. I don't feel so justified now in hindsight. Now I understand that people can say they're all supportive of something when they're really hoping they won't have to be, and it's just something that happens, and it just means that something has to change or parting of ways has to happen. Although I should have immediately ended those relationships, it took me a few to learn that lesson. And although I feel bad about it now, I still don't put too much blame on either side for what happened with those relationships. I'm still good friends with those guys (we just don't have sex anymore).

That doesn't have much to do with the hypothetical situation described, but that's my experience, and from most of the affairs I've heard about from my friends' more traditional relationships, they were different from that situation as well. I just think people shouldn't take sides or be judgemental unless someone was being clearly malicious or abusive to their partner.

The Perky Skeptic

I have held my comments over all three parts of this series, until now, only to end up saying, "I agree with Greta Christina and Dan Savage!"

Oh, what a great contribution I've made to the discussion!!! :D


If you do that, and you still think that these people absolutely made a clearly wrong choice that no honorable person would in good conscience make and that cannot be understood or forgiven... then we're just going to have to disagree.

Hold on: what's our operational definition of a "wrong choice" here?

Because I think we might all agree more than we think we do. I think it's a wrong choice, but I don't think that necessarily makes it unforgivable or un-understandable. I definitely think that generally reasonable, nice people can be driven to extremes that cause them to make unethical decisions like cheating. The situations they're in doesn't make a decision to cheat ethical, but it does affect how much I would judge the person for making that decision.

Can't something be wrong and still be understandable and forgivable at the same time?


CaseOne: "Can't something be wrong and still be understandable and forgivable at the same time?"

That's exactly what I've been trying to say! :)

Essentially, I think that unless the people involved in a relationship have decided it should be open or even polyamorous, cheating is obviously WRONG - but it shouldn't have to be the end of the world. And I think it's to everyone's detriment that we're led to believe it is.

Cheating is only as big a deal as you make it, and jealousy is something that can be at least partially cancelled out with rational thought. Really. It is! I know several examples.

And in the light of this, I don't think Greta's point about breaches of contract or whatever is necessary. Every couple's (or polyamorous group's) circumstances are different and everyone should deal with things from their own perspective. But no one should have to feel that cheating is disastrous simply because society said so.

Fred - I ache for you. That is a terrible situation to be in - and I must admit that I cannot believe that your wife is really doing all she could to change the it. Very few people are entirely uninterested in sex! I have been on the other (your wife's) end of this problem. The truth was that I was afraid of failing to enjoy the sex, and hence I avoided it altogether. When I realised it is perfectly possible to simply enjoy the act of making my partner happy, I started to relax and not worry so much about how good or not good it felt - and sex became fun again. The moral of that story is that if you can make your partner happy by doing something that doesn't particularly inconvenience you, you should - even if you don't really enjoy it yourself. It's what I would tell your wife if I met her...

Still, I'm not going to pretend to know what I can't know - like I said above, every situation is unique. Please don't give up though - some day you might find the key to her libido!


I think when we're talking about wrong or right, one thing to acknowledge is that the conventional definition of 'wrong' is an excessive putting your of own interests before other people's. It's in my interests to steal your money, but it's against yours; if I put my interests ahead of yours, that means I'm in the wrong.

On the other hand, if someone else starts a conflict of interest, it's generally not considered wrong to put your interests first. If I try to sneak your purse out of your pocket and you bop me on the head because you want to keep it, most people will think you were in the right.

That has limits, though. If you punch me, fair enough; if you break my neck, that's excessive, and now we're both in the wrong.

Cheating is, there's no getting round it, putting your own interests ahead of your spouse's. By general morality, that's wrong. I think Greta's argument is that a sex-withholding spouse has started the conflict of interest, and therefore cheating is the equivalent of whacking a pickpocket - an act of protecting your own interests against another's depradations. A cheated-on spouse may feel that the cheater has responded by breaking their neck.

I'm not taking sides either way, really; I think CaseOne's probably taped it with 'Can't something be wrong and still be understandable and forgivable at the same time?' Just thought it was worth trying out the definition...

Greta Christina

I'm going to address both Kit and Kim. With essentially the same argument.

I'm not trying to say that cheating isn't wrong. I think it is. I'm trying to say that, in the situation, I'm describing, a reasonable, moral person might decide that ALL of the options available to them are wrong... and that cheating is the least wrong option. A reasonable person might decide that cheating is wrong... but that it's less wrong, with less potential to do harm, than divorce or enforced lifelong celibacy.

And I don't think this is necessarily a selfish decision, putting your own interests ahead of other people's. A reasonable, moral person might decide that divorce would do more harm than cheating -- to others, as well as to themselves. And a reasonable, moral person might decide that enforced, non-consensual, lifelong celibacy -- and the stress, depression, self-loathing, and other miseries associated with it -- would harm people other than themselves... more than cheating would.

Finally, I simply don't agree that cheating is to enforced, non-consensual, lifelong celibacy as neck-breaking is to pick-pocketing. The whole point of Part 3 of this series is that non-consensually enforcing lifelong celibacy on your partner is a seriously fucked-up thing to do, something that can cause great harm. Again, if you don't believe me, I encourage you to read the stories of people who have suffered under it.


The whole point of Part 3 of this series is that non-consensually enforcing lifelong celibacy on your partner is a seriously fucked-up thing to do, something that can cause great harm. Again, if you don't believe me, I encourage you to read the stories of people who have suffered under it.

Oh, I do believe you. Like I said, I've been in a sexless relationship myself; mercifully it wasn't lifelong, but I was there quite long enough to get some experience of how damaging it can be. Anyone who's stuck in that situation has my profound sympathy, because it's a horrible, horrible situation to be in.

I don't particularly equate cheating and neck-breaking either, though if I sounded like I did, it's entirely my own fault - raising any kind of analogy in an internet discussion is asking for trouble.

All I was really saying what that I can sympathise both with the cheater and the cheatee. I'm not really arguing for any particular conclusion. As moral opinions go, my main feeling is that it's really sad all round, and that I'm glad I'm not a judge, priest or similar who might have to adjudicate a situation like that.


I think that cheating in cases like this is basically saying "look what you made me do by not fucking me", putting all the moral blame onto the less sexual partner. I think that amounts to blackmail (assuming here that both parties are anti-divorce and anti-non-monogamy).

I don't think it's ever fair to use blackmail to get someone to sleep with you.

I also have very little sympathy for people who can't manage to quit having sex with people if they are in a situation where *they firmly believe* that the only truly moral option is to not have sex.


A reasonable person might decide that cheating is wrong... but that it's less wrong, with less potential to do harm, than divorce or enforced lifelong celibacy.

Not to be a broken record, but I still honestly can't see how divorce isn't clearly the less wrong, less potentially harmful course of action.

Unless the cheater somehow manages to keep their activities a secret for the rest of the relationship, it's going to end badly, so why not end it maturely, up front?

I don't think it's a grave sin. We're only human, and I think it's forgivable (that's up to the one being cheated on) but I can't rationalize actually condoning it.


Just wanted to add something that I think hasn't been mentioned. I read a lot of Dan Savage, and I think (correct me if I'm wrong) his advice is about cheating usually comes with a few ground rules.

Firstly, he usually only recommends it when there is NO sex at all in the relationship. Not a once a month, or even few times a year. Because if there is a chance of having sex with your partner in the future, you could risk exposing them to diseases.

Secondly, he always tells the cheater to let their partner know that if the "opportunity" arises, they will take it and they will not tell their partner about it. The partner then has fair warning if they should find out about a particular situation.

Anyway, for me I don't really think that this type of "cheating" is the same as cheating with a partner whom you still have sex and have not told your intentions. Anyone who loves their partner enough to stay with them in a sexless marriage owes them at least safety and fair warning.

Just my two cents.

Ezekiah David

Ok, so it's a hypothetical situation. But a lot of the comments seem to say: it's hypothetical, but I can't think of *any* situation where it'd be better to cheat than divorce.


'Cause I can think of at least one, and I'm not even trying. Health insurance. What if the cheating partner has it and the sexlessness imposing partner doesn't and moreover, DESPERATELY NEEDS it.
It's hypothetical, yes. That's what happens when someones says: "I can't think of any hypothetical situation where it'd ever be better" because then, people like me think of hypothetical situations.

Or: joblessness. What if one partner's (for this hypothetical situation again it'll be the cheater) income does everything necessary to sustain the other partner, but not just the other partner, the children too. And a pet (we'll throw in a dog). And the other partner can't work. Sure, they can get some disability, but is that seriously enough to cover medical costs for themselves and children and dog, and food for themselves and children and dog, and rent for themselves and children and dog. Really I could go on.

In conclusion, pick one: either this is hypothetical and therefore not applicable to real-life situations (unless of course you know, these are real-life situations) OR we're making sweeping moral judgements that include every hypothetical. You can't have both.

Greta Christina
Not to be a broken record, but I still honestly can't see how divorce isn't clearly the less wrong, less potentially harmful course of action.

Well, not to sound like a broken record myself... but I've already given several specific examples of situations where a reasonable, moral person might decide that divorce is more harmful than cheating.

Ezekiah David gives a couple of examples above. But I don't think you even need to go to those extremes. What about relationships with young children? Relationships where you have a business together, a business that other people rely on? Relationships where you have some sort of artistic or intellectual endeavor together -- again, one that other people rely on?

Marriages and relationships don't just affect the two people involved. They have an effect on other people around them. Dissolving them can hurt people other than just yourselves. And as Ezekiah David points out (and William the Coroner earlier), divorce can materially hurt your partner as well as yourself. Again, I think in those situations, a reasonable, moral person might decide that divorce is a more harmful choice than cheating.


This whole scenario, which gives a cheater license to cheat because he was wronged first, is a classic example of a logical fallacy, Tu quoque.

And to answer someone else's question above, no, I do not lie, even by lies of omission to my partners or friends. It makes me a difficult friend to have, but those who are my friends know they can trust me absolutely to be honorable in my intentions towards them.

Yes, all the options in this scenario are difficult and messy, and possibly "wrong". But I completely disagree that cheating is the "less wrong" option in any case whatsoever.

Divorce might materialy hurt your partner more (assuming you don't get caught and end up divorced anyway), but the harm done to the intimacy of the relationship and the personal erosion of honor and integrity is far more. One can recover from financial difficulties. Its much more difficult to get government assistance for cowardice.


Oh yeah, and to answer Kim above, if everything is upfront, then it's not cheating, by definition. If couple has simply rewritten the rules to say sexless-partner doesn't have to put out as long as other-partner gets his nookie on the side, then we're talking about a consciously-designed, agreed-upon relationship. They renegotiated the contract, hence, no more broken contract. That's not what this concept is about.

And yes, to whomever pointed out that sex is not purely procreational, I understand that, but I was addressing someone else's point. To throw in that other bit of information was besides the point and the post was getting too complicated as it was with too many points.


I also see everyone making the assumptions that those of us who believe there is no justification for cheating are equating cheating with murder and deserving of the death penalty.

There is gradation for "wrong". It is absolutely wrong to steal (IMO), but that doesn't mean I'm going to send the kid who stole a pack of gum to the electric chair. But it was still wrong.

A cheater is wrong completely regardless of the spouse cutting off sex. Those are two independent situations of wrongdoing. As someone who is below the poverty level, and as a sister of a single-mother, financial reasons are not good enough reasons to behave in a morally cowardice fashion.

If the sexless spouse is faced with the option of "you cut me off from sex, so I'm going to get it elsewhere or divorce you for breach of contract", and the sexless spouse chooses to become a cuckhold for the financial security, that is not cheating and is the imperative of the sexless spouse.

But the cheater unilaterally removes the ability of the sexless spouse to choose for him or herself the life he or she will lead. It is not informed consent, no matter how "altruistic" the cheater manages to convince himself he is being.

If the contract is broken, then it's broken and the relationship is over. But if the participants of the contract wish to keep some aspect of the contract intact, that requires a negotiation of the contract. Breaking the contract while pretending to uphold it is not justifiable even if the other party broke the contract first.

Anonymous For This One

I haven't read through all the comments, but wanted to post:

I'm in a similar situation to this "unlikely" hypothetical that Greta brings up.

See, I am bi. I have a boyfriend. I want to be with a woman. The boyfriend is obviously incapable of fulfilling this need, and he *will not allow it* and *will not discuss it*.

My solution? I have told him that I would very much like to do this with his knowledge and consent.

What I do not say directly is that if I do not have his consent, then it will happen without his knowledge.

I agree with Greta, wholeheartedly, about many of her points. I think the Dan Savage reading has something to do with this.

I want to read the rest of the comments before digging myself in more, but... basically, count me as a Greta-supporter!

Not the same situtation at all, anonymous. Your boyfriend isn't withholding any and all sex, he's just unable to provide sex with a woman, through no fault of his own. He's not imposing celibacy on you. You can have sex, just not sex with a woman. It sounds like he isn't even refusing to discuss sex at all, he's just refusing to agree to you sleeping with someone else. That's not the kind of relationship problem being discussed, and frankly you're trivializing the suffering such people go through by comparing it with your situation.

It sounds like you want an open relationship and he wants a monogamous one; if that's the case, the decent thing to do is break up, because you want different things. You have no excuse for going behind his back in this situation. That's just ordinary cheating and lying.

Franklin Veaux

My point is that a reasonable person in this situation might well decide that divorce is not the best option... for themselves, or for anyone else. A reasonable person might well decide that cheating isn't a great option... but severing a relationship that is working in other respects, a relationship that children and/or other people depend on, isn't a great option either. A reasonable person might decide that, while cheating is a bad choice with the potential to hurt people, it's the best bad choice available to them, the one with the least potential to hurt people.

That's an interesting comment, because it sums up what I think is one of the central problems with the "cheating is sometimes conditionally OK" argument--the notion that the only available options are celibacy, divorce, or cheating.

How 'bout an option where you say "Look, I am a self-determining human being and I think that a relationship in which you say to me that I am only permitted to have my sexual needs met from you, and you refuse to meet my sexual needs, is ridiculous. Therefore, if you refuse to meet my sexual needs, I will meet them elsewhere." What's wrong with that?

Well, you might say, it will lead to divorce.

Which it might, possibly. If the other person makes that choice.

But by saying "it's OK to cheat in this situation," wat you're actually saying is "it's OK for me to deprive my partner of choice. I know that my partner would not consent to continue the relationship if he or she knew the truth, so I am refusing to tell my partner the truth, and therefore depriving my partner of the ability to give consent to continue to be with me."

Yes, that's right, I said it. When you cheat, or withhold any other information which might reasonably change your partner's take on a relationship, you're acting to continue your relationship without your partner's consent.

Consent is meaningful ONLY if it is informed.

Let me throw a firebomb out there, which I suspect you may not like and which I suspect may stir up a number of emotions in quite a large number of readers, but which I feel needs to be addressed anyway:

If you cheat on your partner, and then after cheating you have sex with your partner, knowing that your partner wouldn't be having sex with you if he or she knew the truth... that not rape?

After all, you are deliberately, intentionally creating an environment where you are getting sex from someone without that person's informed consent. Yes or no, is that not rape? Is it only rape if it's violent? Does uninformed consent count as consent?

On a related note, even after three posts and many comments, I still have not seen anyone address the issue of exposing a partner to STD risk by cheating, without that person's knowledge or consent. I'd really like to hear the thoughts of someone who believes that cheating is OK in this context. You can't ignore or shrug off the idea that a cheater who continues a sexual relationship with his partner is exposing that partner to risk without that partner's knowledge or consent. You can not dismiss it or construct arguments which do not address it.

This is not a thought experiment, a hypothetical, or a theoretical situation. I personally know someone who cheated on her husband, contracted hepatitis, gave it to her husband, and. Then. DIED. From. It. Please. How would those who justify cheating address this point?

Greta Christina

Franklin: I will grant that there are some complicated consent issues having to do with cheating on your spouse and not telling them. However:

a) There are also complicated consent issues with your proposed solution: telling (for instance) your financially- dependent spouse, "I am going to have sex outside this relationship, and there's nothing you can do about it except divorce me." The fact that they're informed doesn't mean they're consenting.

b) More to the point: There are lots of sexual situations that have complicated consent issues. Equating all of them with rape is, IMO, disproportionate, inflammatory... and unbelievably insulting to people who have experienced actual, uncomplicated, no- questions rape.

I would argue, for instance, that for a partner to unilaterally inflict celibacy on their partner is a form of sexual non-consent. I would not, however, attempt to equate it with rape.

As to this:

On a related note, even after three posts and many comments, I still have not seen anyone address the issue of exposing a partner to STD risk by cheating, without that person's knowledge or consent.

With all due respect, apparently you weren't reading very carefully. I addressed this exact question, in the very first part of this series. I quote:

Plus, I realize that unilaterally backing out on a monogamy agreement carries some responsibilities of its own. Safer sex is one...

I'm just sayin', is all.

franklin veaux

To address the second point first:

Yes, I did notice what you wrote about safer sex. It struck me as something of an offhand dismissal of the issue. I'm sure I don't need to tell you this, but "safer sex" is not "safe sex". Even if the cheater uses barriers, for example, he is still exposing his partner to risk without the partner's knowledge or consent.

You may consider the risk to be negligible and therefore acceptable. I may agree with you. Our opinion isn't the one that matters. Surely the cheated-upon spouse has some say?

On a practical note, the studies I've read suggest that a great many cheaters don't practice safer sex. Does that change the moral calculus for you?

You mention thatit's unjust for a person to tell a financially dependent spouse 'I intend to do this whether you like it or not.' I agree; it is. I fail to see how it's less yucky to do it but NOT talk about it, though. The notion that it's ok to do something but not ok to say you're doing it seems strange to me.

And finally: my understanding of rape is that the two necessary defining elements are sexual activity and lack of consent. Unilaterally withholding sex is not rape in the same way that baldness is not a hair color and atheism is not a religion. I don't see how withholding information from someone in order to get sex from them is not non-consensual sexual activity. You say that may be insulting to people who have been raped by violence. I wonder, would it seem that way to people who have been cheated on? We seem to have a number of people commenting in this thread who describe situations in which they might chest or have cheated. I wonder, where are the people who have been cheated on? Would they describe themselves as having been violated when they discovered their partner was cheating?

The situation you and Dan describe is a situation where one partner has absolutely cut the other off. This seems very rare to me. The situations described in the comments are different; one partner is not getti g as much sex as he wants. That's a matter of mismatched desire, not involuntary celibacy. Would you extend your arguments to cover this situation? It seems you would, because it seems that mentioning safer sex is a tacit acknowledgement that you do not believe the original relationship is entirely sexless.


I'm like Fred, but with kids. I'm told by my spouse that "lots of women in their 40s with kids do this (cutting off sex unilaterally)". Like Fred, I love my wife dearly and even beyond that I deeply love my children and would never put them through the pain of a divorce. The people who say divorce doesn't scar kids haven't been in the kids shoes, IMO. So here's the choices; a lonely, bitter life, but with a woman you love and the kids you love, cheating and the guilt that would surely come with it, or divorce which hurts everyone beyond repair. Great huh? I'll be honest - I think if instead of "cheating" it were a case of safe, legalized prostitution I would probably go there. And I would tell my wife I was going there. She could look at it as "outsourcing" the "job" she doesn't want. And if she doesn't want it she shouldn't care if I'm taking it elsewhere. The problem is for me, and I suspect most, it's not the physical release that we miss and so even if this option was there it would only provide a partial remedy. What I see happening is we play this perfect family life and on some level we are a happy family. But below the surface I am extremely bitter to have been put in this situation. My wife is unhappy because she feels unappreciated, and you know that's probably valid too - I find it difficult to treat her, well like a wife who is willing to have sex, frankly. For the person on the receiving end it is a lose/lose proposition. So I need to find it in myself to go out of my way to act appreciative, to allow her the act of pushing me away because it lets her feel attractive even though she wants nothing that comes with that. I need to accept that because any other course of action will damage my relationship with my children and that's not acceptable.


I realize it's been close to a year since this has been posted, but I wanted to give my two cents anyway. :)

I have to say that I can't conceive of a situation where it would be "okay" to cheat. Here's the thing, relationships need to be about compromise. You are never going to be in a relationship where you and your partner are in 100% agreement 100% of the time.

If you come across an issue (take for example, anonymous' mention of being bisexual-his boyfriend doesn't want to let him have sex with a woman) that one partner is unwilling to compromise, then you need to decide how important it is to you to have your way. Is the relationship more important than having sex? Or is the sex more important than the relationship? If you can't come to a compromise, then you need to leave the relationship.

Cheating is lying. Not just to your partner, but to the person you're cheating with as well. You're basically saying, "Having this kind of sex is more important than my relationship with the person I'm with, but I don't have the courage to break it off, or I'm unwilling to compromise on this issue." You're also telling your new partner that you want to be with him/her, and leading them to think you might leave your current partner for them. If you're unwilling to do that, is that fair to your new partner?

I'm not saying that you shouldn't consider your own needs. I'm saying that it's important to examine the issue with your partner and find out if you can compromise. If you can't, and the sex is just too big a deal breaker for you, then leave the relationship honestly. If nothing else, maybe the threat of breakup/divorce will cause your partner to rethink his/her decision.

Last straw

You guys seem to make sensible argument so in a cyber court, May It Please the Court. Here is my case: My wife of 15 years and two children has spent the past three years demanding divorce and with-holding sex. I have been holding out for the kid sake as I know divorce would be ugly for all. Well now in the past month she has struck a tone that our marriage ain't so bad, I am not so bad. She has taken it to a level that she is the perfect hostess to my family and has invited my parents to come live with us. Everyone is treated in a friendly way that is not offered to me. And STILL NO SEX. ZIPPO - NONE. She offers no day to day affection, or love. And when I bring it up she says as she just did today, "I don't want to talk about your problem." I guarantee if I went outside the marriage for sex...our marriage would be done.

So in this argument she has made a prime case for cheating as the only practical alternative. Its not my first choice, but considering the situation is it a moral wrong? Should I continue the sacrifice for the kids? I can assure you the decisions in the falling dominoes has my wife forcing a life on not just me but our family. It seems to me that the days of an old fashioned mistress should be an agreeable way out. What say you?

Your answer may include recommendations on how to prime the pump

Bruce Gorton

Posted by: Last straw | February 11, 2010 at 01:43 PM

You should get the divorce - she wanted out and frankly so did you. An unhappy marriage probably isn't the ideal environment for your kids anyway.

Right now, go to a lawyer and put your case forward so you can move on with your life.


Mataya said:

Even if one partner just doesn't "feel it" anymore, they should still make an attempt to satisfy the other partnert in bed.

Way behind the comment curve here, but I need to say this: while the "lie back and think of England" strategy described here may work for some, it really won't work for everyone. I am not interested in sex with someone who is not interested in sex with me, period. I suspect many people feel the same. Knowing that one's partner is merely enduring one's attention seriously sucks.


I am no expert in law, but I do know enough about contract law to realize there is a major flaw in your comparison with contract law. Both you and your friend John Berger compares marriage to a contract. That can be a valid analogy. However, both you and him seem to compare it to a simple purchase (judging from an example) a simple quid-pro-quo. Yes, if one side of a simple purchase or another simple quid-pro-quo unilaterally fails to deliver (material breach of contract) without explanation that means the other party does not have to fullfill their part of the bargain. In a simple quid-pro-quo, two wrongs can indeed sometimes make one right.

However, marriage usually involves a lot more than sex-for-faithfulness quid-pro-quo it is more equivalent of a complex multi-clause partnership contract than a simple purchase quid-pro-quo. In such a situation, one party's failure to deliver on one important clause without explanation allows you to take him or her to court and demand that she delivers. This option, of course, would be unreasonable in the matter of sex. You could also claim that this is material breach and demand that the contract is revoked and that (as far as possible) you are put in a situation similar to the one you had before you signed the contract. (You could also demand compensation if the other party's breach has caused direct losses to you.) This would be equivalent of a divorce. You could also demand renegotiations of course but you have to be two to negotiate.

You do not have the right to unilaterally revoke another clause in the contract that you think corresponds to the one your parner has broken (unless you contact specified that). And as Joreth pointed out: you are certainly not allowed to unilaterally withold another clause without telling the other party.

Using your own contract law analogy, I think you are simply wrong, legally speaking.

Now, exactly how relevant this contract law analogy is to nuptial and sexual ethics -that's another question.



How about an analogy. Lets say that eating at home is faithfulness eating out is cheating. One day the refrigerator has a lock on it. The hungry partner asks why. The anorexic partner says, It doesnt matter,, after all there are more imprtant things in life than food. Sometimes the lock comes off. But then there is only water and oatmeal inside. The hungry partner goes on the internet and sees all the amazing restaurants where lots of people are feasting. Alas this is off limits. So they suffer as weakness and deprivation take thier toll. Soon the resentment begins to supress the guilt. Then one day they find them selves at a table at the Olive Garden of life saying, Ill have a plate of intimacy with a side of satisfaction and a tall glass of self esteem.
The reason people cheat is that they are rooted in so many other ways that are painful to sever. Kids being number one. Yes its selfish, but thats the illusion that sets in on a deprived person. They are struggling with fundamental human urges way beyond rational decisions.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Subscribe/ Donate to This Blog!

Books of mine

Greta on SSA Speakers Bureau

  • Greta Christina is on the Speakers Bureau of the Secular Students Alliance. Invite her to speak to your group!

Your email address:

Powered by FeedBlitz

Powered by Rollyo

Some Favorite Posts and Conversations: Atheism

Some Favorite Posts and Conversations: Sex

Some Favorite Posts: Art, Politics, Other Stuff