What I’d like to do is scare you…and then offer a bit of hope.  The topic is not something I like to think about much myself, because it induces a sort of peering into the void fear, a philosophical vertigo that leaves me lightheaded.  The core concept is obvious.  But of course, when things are obvious, we stop looking at them, stop seeing them, sometimes to our detriment. Anyway, we’re going to start the conversation by talking about cheating, but hang with me, because that’s not the destination.

 

At a party some years ago, I was having a conversation with a man who was discussing infidelity.  He himself hadn’t slept with anyone else, he said, but that he’d crossed boundaries in flirtations.  He said that all men cheat, and discussed his friends’ experiences with infidelity—mistresses, prostitutes, women met in bars and beaches on weekend-aways.

 

I wasn’t particularly drawn to the salaciousness of his stories but to his edict, flatly said; all men cheat.  It’s something I’ve heard before, of course.  But the way he said it, so plainly, and so fully invested in it without question, stuck with me.  I found myself turning it over and over in mind.  Not the question of whether all or some or most men cheat, but more a question of how he could so fully believe that statement.  Because here’s the thing: I don’t think he was lying, or making excuses, I think he truly believed that being unfaithful is a natural course of behavior for men.  To him, the men who don’t cheat are in the minority, or simply lack opportunity or skill.

 

I brought the conversation up to my husband, and he talked about the backlash that would occur in his circle of dudes if one of them boasted about being unfaithful to their wife.  For him and his friends, it was simply unacceptable.   They wouldn’t police each other per se, but the behavior would never be supported; even if one of them was unfaithful, they’d never be made to feel comfortable openly discussing or bragging about it with the others.

 

At this point, I am sure there are people reading this essay thinking that my husband was simply telling me what I wanted to hear.  And I suppose I can’t prove that he and his friends are faithful to their partners or value fidelity.  But for the sake of my larger argument (and my marriage), I am going to take both my husband and the party gentleman at their word regarding their perspectives.

 

So how do we square these two different circles of men?  How do we reconcile their competing narratives, both firmly held?  Sure, we can chalk it up to individuals having different values and different ways of being in the world.  But to me that doesn’t get at how these beliefs are both shared and fiercely guarded—not just, I cheat, so what? but, all men cheat and all the men in my circle cheat.  Not just, I would never cheat on my wife, but, none of my friends would respect me if I cheated on my wife. (And, if I did, I wouldn’t mention it to this group of friends.) From the inside of either of these two perspectives, the other seems impossible.  When members from either group encounter each other, each person is likely to walk away from a conversation about cheating thinking the other is either lying or exaggerating.

 

Each member of the group has created a reality in which pervasive cheating is normal and natural, or one where it is completely unacceptable. Whatever beliefs about the world we have, it’s not that they reside idly in our brains, waiting to be discussed at a dinner party, but that we are constantly making the world around us to suit that image.  We are choosing partners and friends and activities and interests that conform to our view of the world, all of which in turn reinforce that view of the world.

 

For instance, my guess would be that when the party gentleman made comments connected to cheating, men who weren’t interested didn’t participate in the conversation—they probably didn’t confront him, but they changed the topic or brushed it off.  The dissonance or awkwardness of those interactions could help prevent him from developing a stronger tie to that person.  So, bit by bit, the people who became his inner circle shared his views on cheating.  And one day, he looks up, and from his perspective, all men cheat.

 

On top of this, the social circle itself would exert pressure on him to continue their shared value, both directly and indirectly.  They would discuss their own experiences being unfaithful, which would help alleviate whatever guilt he felt about his own infidelity (see, I’m not the only doing this), and they may also actively support him in seeking women out or helping him to keep information from his wife, all further reifying his experience of the world.

 

I think we have some awareness of this phenomenon when it comes to politics and larger societal issues. We hear about Facebook feeds showing different posts for liberal users versus conservative ones, or how each cable news channel reports the events of the day differently, all to match the worldview of their particular audience. But I think it’s important to remember that it’s not just happening in these meta-concerns, like how this country should be run, or the rights of racial and sexual minorities, or gun control, but also in an innumerable amount of choices in how we live our lives.

 

The bad news is that there’s no opt-out from creating the world in your image. There’s no objective reality that we can experience without bringing our own sense of the world to it.  Most of the time we’re not even aware of what we’re doing.  My husband never said to himself, gee, I’m only going to be friends with guys who think it’s wrong to cheat on their partners. And yet here he is, with a circle of close friends that reflect that belief.  That’s the scary part: we’re creating our own reality both consciously and not.

 

The good news is, congratulations, we create our own freaking reality.  In as much as we have control or agency in our lives, we have power to build a world that reflects and supports our values, our  ambitions, and our beliefs.  We can pick people, interests, and lifestyles that help us better become who we want to be, in ways big and small.  Assuming a life of relative safety and free will, this mostly takes us stepping back and asking ourselves what we want our world to look like.  What kind of relationships do I want to have with family and friends?  What kind of partner do I want to be? What makes life meaningful for me?  Forget some supposedly objective or logical measure for defining those roles and behaviors, because it ain’t out there.  The choice belongs to each of us.

 

Of course, with any great power comes great responsibility. We create worlds so seamlessly, that it’s easy to get stuck in our own experience and not imagine how it could be different for someone else.  So when we hold a viewpoint dearly, we should be asking ourselves questions like, why do I believe this? What in my life has led me to think this way?  How does it help or benefit me to hold this belief?  Why might someone believe or see it in a different way?  Why might they hold that belief so deeply? We’re never going to fully remove our own lens, but we can get closer to another person’s by carefully considering the answers to these questions.

 

To me, the best thing about being a therapist is the opportunity to sit in the company of other worlds all day long.  To enter into someone else’s experience is a privilege, and a great gift.  Mostly, it has deepened my compassion for others and also burned out a measure of my own crap.  It has also shaped my viewpoint of the world, as one of making space for what’s possible, and letting go of what isn’t. But you don’t have to be a therapist to get a lot of these benefits, and in fact, research has shown strong support for reading fiction as a way to accomplish the same tasks.  More than anything, it takes recognizing your own view of the world, and being willing to actively and thoughtfully consider others’.

 

 

*A word on cheating: One thing that I may inadvertently convey in this post is a sense that I’m lumping all the folks who cheat in one broad category, so I want to clarify.  As a couples therapist, infidelity is something I see with some regularity.  Most of the time, in the couples that I work with, it’s not the kind of cheating described above, where a man or woman knowingly seeks out extramarital liaisons as an ongoing pattern of behavior.  Often, the infidelity I see is due to the person losing the connection in their committed relationship, and then allowing boundaries to slip with another person, frequently someone they work with or have a history with.  The first kind of cheating (discussed in the post) is much more predatory, and more likely to be intractable; the second is typically more about problems in their committed relationship and not drawing boundaries.  Neither of these types of cheating feels great to the person who is being cheated on, but they are definitely different patterns of behavior.