In her book, “Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give,” a partial memoir about the idiosyncrasies of the modern marriage, Calhoun explores her own infidelity. She and a colleague “made out, but not too much, unless you think that anything when you’re married to someone else is too much,” Calhoun described in a phone interview. The book, whose title comes from her 2015 New York Times Modern Love essay, also touches on her husband’s professed mutual attraction to an acquaintance. While the couple loosely toys with the idea of an open marriage, they emerge not open but perhaps a little enlightened.
Calhoun’s openness in discussing how her marriage could still be blissful after infidelity has earned her a following. “Everywhere I went, people pulled me aside and told me an elaborate story about themselves or their partner and how it worked out for their marriage, and it was often really complex. It wasn’t ever like, ‘He cheated, and I kicked him to the curb, and now I’m strong,’ ” she said. “It was these very nebulous situations, where people were embarrassed when it ultimately had helped or spiced up their marriage.”
Research says we, as a society, do not like cheaters. The belief that infidelity is unforgivable is also reinforced in pop culture, in the Bible, in Internet memes. Deciding to work it out is often dismissed as foolish or weak. Or as infidelity expert Esther Perel wisely told a TED audience: “[Before], divorce carried all the shame. Today, choosing to stay when you can leave is the new shame.”
But affairs are amorphous and deeply personal. Infidelity is not universally defined, and our expectations of a relationship and what we can tolerate in one can shift. In fact, there are some instances where we might have something to learn from cheating. If Beyoncé can give her stamp of approval to every confessional on Jay-Z’s “4:44,” can the rest of us learn to be more forgiving?
While it’s not anyone’s place to give a moral pass to cheaters, there are steps a couple can take when choosing to rebuild their relationship after infidelity — steps that can be valuable to any relationship.
Monogamy is subjective
Couples often have different definitions of “monogamy.” Even science has a difficult time clearly defining the term. To some researchers, infidelity can be the emotional pursuit of other romantic companionship — even the ephemeral nature, such as flirty texts and having an office spouse. For others, it’s cheating only when things get physical — as in making out or having sex.
In fact, an inability to transparently discuss the concept as a couple can cause problems throughout marriage, said Tammy Nelson, a licensed psychotherapist and author of “The New Monogamy: Redefining Your Relationship After Infidelity.”
“I think the most important thing — whether you’re in the beginning of a relationship, or if you’re recovering from infidelity — it’s defining ‘what monogamy means to me,’ ” Nelson explained. “It’s so negotiable,” she continued. “Is it cheating if you’re talking to your ex on Snapchat? There are so many ways to define it, and it’s different for men and women. There’s a difference between privacy and secrecy.”
As Nelson puts it: Access to online platforms and technology — such as social media and cellphones — makes the terms of infidelity difficult to pin down. “We never had these challenges before,” she added. “It was never like, ‘I promise to love and honor you and tell you every time I have a new Facebook friend.’ ”
To meet these challenges, she recommends that all couples — not just those in which a partner has cheated — create social contracts stipulating what monogamy means within their relationship. One couple’s version of monogamy doesn’t have to match anyone else’s. “I can’t define it for [my clients],” continued Nelson. “Those are the things you talk about, like porn. Do we watch it together? Do you watch it alone? And what does that mean to our relationship? Monogamy doesn’t have one definition anymore. It’s not your grandma’s monogamy.”
Expect expectations to be tested
A couple’s expectations might be challenged and evolve, and not every breach is detrimental. “So many young friends of mine say things like, ‘I would not put up with this or this or this.’ And then you get into a marriage and you realize you have to put up with so many things and it does occasionally involve weird things with other people,” Calhoun said.
“That’s part of negotiating in a relationship. Finding ways to stay in love with someone, and when it’s possible, going deeper and learning things,” she continued. “That’s not to say you should put up with someone who is chronically disrespectful and cruel, but I think it’s amazing the things you can get past.”
Once the shock of an affair has died down, Nelson said it’s important for any couple working through trauma — whether it be a breach of trust or another source of contention — to take a step back to untangle fact from fiction. “I ask [my clients] to talk about the stories they made up about the affair. And everyone has a story about what it means to their partners, what it means to them, what it means to their relationship. There’s about six stories in the room,” she explained. “We make up stories about what these occurrences mean about us and what it means about the other person. But it doesn’t mean those things are true.”
This follows the crisis phase, when a couple is “freaked out and no one knows how to give the other person reassurance.” As a second step, working with a professional such as Nelson through what is projection and assumption vs. what actually happened can help a couple untangle perception from reality. But it’s the third step of moving on that takes the most work.
“You can’t make a choice about staying in a marriage until the third phase,” she explained, when you create a vision of the relationship. “You can’t go backward. You can’t go back to the place before an affair, or you will end up cheating again. You have to create a new relationship going forward.”
“Any major crisis in a relationship will go through those same phases, particularly if it’s traumatic,” she continued. “Trauma works its way through by having a crisis. You learn from it, and then you can create a new vision for your life.”
“Once a cheater always a cheater”
Seriously, stop saying that.
“Everyone is going to tell you that,” Nelson said. “Your friends and family may have your best interest at heart, but if you tell everyone about an affair and you stay together, it’ll be painful later because they’ll choose sides. You’ll be feeling shame for staying. Go get therapy instead of telling your mother and your best friend.”
“Nobody understands the relationship except you, but everyone will have advice,” Nelson continued. “You have to take it with a grain of salt and not make decisions within that first crisis phase. You go into all the cliche places.”
Instead, keep the conversation flowing. “It’s good to remember that your partner isn’t a stereotype. They have feelings,” Calhoun said. “And because you committed to them, you agreed to listen to what they say and take it seriously.”