Infidelity, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. The lines we draw and how we negotiate them are all that varies between who we think we are and what we could be capable of. We are all that person.
What wounds me most may be nothing to you; what devastates you may be a mere trifle to me. The trick lies somewhere between hopscotching around the bare nerves in the battlefield of relationships and pretending they don’t exist, or subverting them altogether.
The old rules didn’t work. Women wept, men slept (around). No one asked, no one told. But no one needs that anymore. We are each more independent as individuals today than we have been throughout civilization. Nothing high-maintenance makes it, only that which is straightforward and obvious in its function survives. The single exception to this rule is love.
But what constitutes cheating? It varies from couple to couple, from context to context. The man in the sexless marriage who stays with his wife for the sake of his child but keeps a bachelor pad is no worse than the woman who claims eternal devotion to her boyfriend but has intense emotional affairs with other people. The loving gay couple with the everything-but-the-kiss rule may be truer and more loyal to one another than the anything-but-the-physical rule so many relationships abide by.
Our moral spectrums are like rubber bands. We believe they hold things together, but it shocks us how much they can accommodate. Circumstance and opportunity bend us, reshape us, twist up all we know of ourselves and deliver us – changed but wholly the same.
And yes, we have all seen it – the way the heart shatters, the jealousy, the rumours, the tragedy. We’ve had it done to us, we’ve watched it unfold its heartbreak within our families and the lives of our friends. We believe it is the worst thing anyone could do, a crime against love, the deadliest sin. And then we do.
And then know, in a way we never knew before, a way in which we never dared to know ourselves before: loyalty is not about what one does with one’s body. It’s about what one does with one’s mind.
Once, I knew a man who thought he could believe in an open relationship only in theory, never in practice. Once, I knew a woman who thought she would never be with anyone but him. Today they live in separate countries, and she is Leonard Cohen’s Gypsy Wife. And who he is, whether he too climbs the table in that dark, dangerous café, or remains on the threshing floor with an arm raised for the bride’s bouquet, she does not dare to ask now.
And so what? If that to them is the only way they know how to love (themselves, one another, others), then leave them to it. I’m with the writer Lisa Carver on this one: “We need the guilt, the mystery, the corrosion of our heart and its rebirth.” I can’t speak for the man I once knew, but I know his gypsy wife does.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement.