Cheating Is Not Abuse

I didn’t find out I’d been cheated on until years after the relationship ended.

My girlfriend at the time had missed her flight to come visit me. That night, she’d been out late with a close friend of mine who was studying abroad at the same time. I knew what this friend was like; I knew how difficult long distance had been for me and my girlfriend. It was easy to suspect.

I asked my girlfriend if anything had happened, while, at the same time, apologizing for asking. I felt shitty even suspecting. I felt shitty that I continued suspecting after she assured me nothing had happened. If I loved her as much as I said I did, shouldn’t I trust her? I decided to trust her. At least, for the duration of the relationship.

Months later, post-break up, I asked my friend if anything had happened. He, too, assured me nothing had. He even laughed at the thought. Was it a laugh? Or a nervous smirk? Deep down I didn’t believe him, but I decided to anyway.

Over the years, I still thought it was possible they’d hooked up — and certainly possible my ex had cheated on me with other people — but that possibility wasn’t the wound that lasted. It wasn’t the cheating; it was the months of long distance where her communication gradually worsened and I was made to feel crazy. It was the feeling of foolishness for getting back together a week into her study abroad when I’d wisely ended the relationship before she left. It was our failure to maintain a friendship even though we’d once been so close.

Half a decade later, nearing the end of another relationship and eager for chaos, I tested my friend. I casually said I knew he and my ex had hooked up. He sheepishly apologized, and I burst into gleeful laughter that my trick had worked. I assured him it was so long ago that I didn’t care. And this wasn’t a lie. But what the revelation allowed me to accept was that he’d been a shitty friend to me during that time in other, deeper ways. With both my friend and my girlfriend, the cheating was a symptom rather than the disease.

This is the reality: Cheating is rarely about sex. And even when it is about sex, it’s really about differing desires or failed communication. If a person wants to have sex outside of their primary partnership, that’s possible — it just depends on the partnership they choose to build.

Cheating discourse is back on the gay internet this week due to the breakup of influencers Anjali Chakra and Sufi Malik. In duel Instagram posts, they announced the end of their engagement, with Sufi apologizing for her infidelity and Anjali wishing no negativity to be granted to Sufi because of said infidelity.

That request has gone largely ignored.

Of course, the lives of public figures — movie stars, musicians, and even influencers — become fodder for gossip. Of course, people are going to project their own experiences onto these individuals and experience strong reactions. But the response has still been outsized, people acting as if Sufi Malik cheated on them instead of on another person they don’t know.

We all get to decide what actions are unforgivable in the people we celebrate and care about. And yet, I find it unsettling how many people group cheating with domestic and sexual abuse. During the past Oscar season, I saw more tweets reminding people that Greta Gerwig had sex with Noah Baumbach while he was married than I did about Alexander Payne’s actual rape allegations. I’m not going to diagnose a culture based on anecdotal evidence, but I do think it’s important to not overstate the severity of an affair.

Getting cheated on sucks. I think cheating is wrong and often a cowardly alternative to just ending a relationship or asking for the kind of relationship you’d like. I’ve never cheated and never plan to. But consensual sex between adults should never be treated as a crime. It might be a horrible betrayal; it’s still not abuse.

The act of cheating itself isn’t usually the biggest problem. For me, it was the lying. It was being made to feel crazy and to distrust myself. I’ve seen people equate this with abuse. And to that, I’d ask: What are we accomplishing by calling it that? Is it to bring comfort to the wronged party and to reflect the severity of their hurt? Or is it to condemn the person who cheated and label them bad, forever? Of course, someone can cheat and be abusive. But if all we know is someone cheated, I don’t think that’s enough for automatic condemnation.

Every relationship is different. Many people cheat simply because they made a mistake. Or because they felt trapped. Or because they felt a lack. I can see now that my ex wanted to end our relationship and didn’t know how. Not an admirable moment, but certainly a human one. A decade later, I don’t think that action says anything about her other than, like all of us, she’s made mistakes.

If Anjali Shakra wants to be mad at Sufi Malik, that’s certainly her right. But I don’t think cheating is a serious enough offense to anger people outside their immediate sphere. As a culture, we haven’t even figured out how to respond to actual abuse — we don’t need to include infidelity in that paradigm.

You don’t know Sufi Malik or Noah Baumbach or Ashlyn Harris. You don’t know what their relationships were like or what led them to cheat. Go ahead and gossip about famous people, but keep that last word in mind. They are people. We’re all people. And people make mistakes.

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 566 articles for us.

32 Comments

  1. Ohh, I don’t know about this one.

    Cheating can most definitely be abuse or part of abuse, especially if it is long term or you subject your partner to repeated incidents, or if it involves gaslighting and deceit.

    Calling cheating abusive does not mean you are calling it a crime. Many abusive actions are not crimes.

    Noting that a person had been abusive within a specific relationship is also not saying they are permentantly and irrevocably bad. I do believe people can change and become better.

    Many people cheat because they feel trapped, because they feel a lack, etc. Many people who feel trapped or feel a lack in relationships also respond by being mean or talking down on their partners over a prolonged period of time, which we have less trouble labeling as abusive.

    I agree with you that cheating is not ALWAYS abuse. Similarly, being mean or cold to your partner once or twice is not abuse. But the reason so many people see cheating as abusive is probably because they have seen it play out in their own relationships or in relationships with friends in a way that genuinely is.

  2. SCREAM IT FROM THE ROOFTOPS!!!!

    “Cheating is a symptom not a disease” is the realest statement

    If someone is lying and manipulating, THAT is the abusive part. Not the cheating. It bothers me when people fixate on infidelity as the Ultimate Harm in a relationship when there are so many worse things a person can do

  3. Wow. I really gotta say I disagree with this and I’m really surprised to see such a defense of reprehensible behavior. Cheating is not a “mistake”, despite what the songs might say you can’t actually trip and fall into someone’s bed. Cheating is a series of deliberate choices you make to betray trust and hurt your partner.

    I will say with my whole chest that things like, lying to someone to keep them in a relationship they wouldn’t otherwise agree to is abuse, exposing them to health risks they didn’t consent to is abuse, gaslighting their concerns and warping their reality is abuse.

    I will grant that we don’t know a ton about celebrity situations and we don’t need to pick up pitchforks. Maybe not every single cheating situation is abuse (since the author seems to be fine with her experiences with it), but the co-occurence of cheating and abuse is almost always intertwined. How can you betray and consistently lie to someone and not call it abuse?

    The way this article is trying to minimize the very real impacts to mental and physical health that cheating brings is just awful.

    • I wonder how much of the drama and discourse around this idea is that people use similar words to mean different things. when people say “cheating is abuse”, I often wonder if they mean “cheating, even a single instance, is the same thing as repeated patterns of physical/mental/sexual abuse” or if they mean “cheating is a shitty thing to do a partner”. I’d feel the same way about either of those statements (which is basically agreeing with Drew, cheating is a symptom, a sign of something needing to be uncovered) but I think that’s why these conversations often feel like people talking past each other

      • yesss i think that’s the issue, is these are commonly used words but we all have individual slightly different definitions of them. idk about whether cheating is abuse, but it’s sure not a crime

      • I feel like this ties into a wider issue of people both conflating harm with actual, real trauma – and feeling the need to exaggerate harm in order to obtain care?

        Being cheated on is harmful and upsetting and people have every right to be upset by that.

        Claiming that cheating is the equivalent to rape or abuse is disgusting. No qualification on that statement.

    • “How can you betray and consistently lie to someone and not call it abuse?”

      Because that isn’t what abuse is. Abuse is an incident (or pattern of incidents) of controlling, coercive, threatening, degrading and violent behaviour. Someone lying to you doesn’t even come close to that.

      Hurtful behaviour isn’t necessarily abusive and conflating the two is unhelpful to everyone.

  4. Hm, I agree on leaving celebrities alone, especially with young children who might get very mean opinions of their parents thrown at their face by strangers.
    In my friend circle, in the case of prolonged affairs, I DO believe there is a component of hurting the other person over and over, so the “mistake” argument is not clear to me. Have experiencenced one friend getting covid through their partner in the worst part of the pandemic. To me, their friend this was extremely abusive and endangered their health. But it needs context to think that way, so I understand that to you, the other person just did a mistake and should not be “cancelled”
    In another case involving of a wedding call off, the consequences of the affair was financial abuse from the cheater….

  5. So weird that you’re trying to justify cheating as not being a horrible heartbreaking thing to do to someone you love, honesty. It’s not a “mistake”. It’s a deliberate choice.

  6. I agree with Drew. Cheating and abuse can (and often do) co-occur, but labeling all harm as “abuse” obscures actual abuse. My partner’s family is very quick to label harm as abuse and it makes it really difficult to have honest conversations about what’s going on, since no one wants to be perceived as not taking abuse seriously. I worry about the ways this re-inscribes the logic of policing into our relationships. Harm should be apologized for, and reparations made or relationships repaired, but not all harm you do to your loved ones is abusive. Repeated betrayals, sure. But being immature and not knowing how to end a relationship except to blow it up — it’s dumb and harmful, but it’s probably going to keep happening as long as we have people who are still growing up (I.e. forever). (Also not saying this is true of the named celebrities – just that lumping it all together isn’t helpful)

    • This is where I land. Infinite expansion of the term dilutes it to the point that it compromises meaningful access to the core concept for people who really need it. People can behave in any number of shitty ways, many of which we actually do already have distinct words for! And they do not need to be Abuse to be deeply hurtful or for that hurt to matter. Agree re: the carceral logic embedded in the phenomenon of overapplying the label, too- this is a word that really activates black-and-white thinking and prescribes ostracization or other punitive treatment, without, as you say, being able to really discuss any kind of nuance or alternate interpretation. It’s not good.

  7. I’ve been cheated on as part of an abusive relationship. I’ve also seen people cheat on abusive partners. I’ve also seen people do it for various reasons.
    I think getting cheated on a bunch by (much older) partners in my twenties made me think for a long time that it was abuse all on its own but looking back it is, as you said, often a symptom. Sometimes a tactic. But sometimes it’s just loneliness or miscommunication or something much more mundane.
    If you aren’t in the relationship affected then you won’t know what went into it. But with parasocial relationships being a thing right now people are viewing personal drama as entertainment. Celebrities do not owe the general public a satisfying story.

  8. My father cheated on my mom a couple of times and he’s not abusive. His problem basically is wanting to be needed 24/7 – these women were recent divorcee’s with dead beat exes – and my mom is not a damsel in distress. When I felt maybe an ex had cheated just before wanting to break up they said “no”, even up until a few years after our break up when I asked for sh*ts and giggles. That wasn’t an abusive relationship either. I let it go. If it was true it didn’t really matter after we’d broken up. A lot of the comments are coming off very spicy at Drew and that’s basically the entire subject of the article, twisting words or narratives. I agree the lying and gaslighting can take its take a toll. But cheating doesn’t have to equal abuse. And strangers relationships aren’t our business.

    • I appreciate the conversation this essay open up.
      To be honest, I have a hard time imagining myself in a set of circumstances where I’d cheat in a healthy relationship. It just doesn’t seem that hard to respect my partner and cut ties or open the relationship, whichever makes sense. I’m sorry if this is very #healthyattachment of me. I try to have more empathy for people who cheat, but it is hard because I just know I never would. I feel really traditional saying this, and I obviously don’t think cheating should be a crime or considered abuse in most circumstances, but I also probably wouldn’t date someone with a history of cheating. I guess I see it as a sign of general dishonesty.

  9. Well, I do know Noah Baumbach. No idea when he an Greta started bumping uglies but I and anyone who has ever crossed that wretched man’s path can attest he is indeed an abusive monster.

  10. Thank you Drew – the queer community needs this essay. You’re absolutely 100% right. A cheater can also be abusive, but cheating on its own, absent other factors, is not abuse.

  11. One of the things I never see considered here is health, which is fucking wild to me. Personally, my health can be fragile, so I am careful about who I engage with sexually (both for things like COVID and STIs). I expect partners that are honest about their status too so I can make informed decisions about what risk I open myself up to. If someone is in an understood monogamous relationship (or even polyam one where boundaries are discussed and understood), and breaks that agreement in a way that opens someone else up to risks to their health, how is that not sexual coercion, if not outright rape? I would never consent to sleeping with someone who had been sleeping with others, but we’re just supposed to get over that because it’s not “technically abuse” to you people? The cheater may have had a consensual sexual encounter, but their partner probably isn’t getting that same autonomy. It’s sick.

    • I think it’s really important to recognize that drawing a false equivalency between “outright rape” and not being fully honest in conversations about STIs with sexual partners fuels the criminalization of people living with HIV. When healthcare providers (and the people who decide where $$$ go) share that stigma, HIV-positive people are less likely to get the care they need and people who don’t know their status are less likely to get tested. It’s a vicious cycle that doesn’t help anyone and most hurts members of our communities already dealing with other bullshit (like incarcerated people, people of color, drug users, sex workers, and not just LGBT people as a whole but also trans women in particular).

      Here’s a thoughtful article about that from Them Magazine from anyone who wants to learn more:

      https://www.them.us/story/hiv-no-longer-death-sentence-but-states-still-have-laws-targeting-people-who-live-with-it

      And I’m saying this as someone who seems to be making similar choices as Disagree (using gloves, condoms and dental dams with all partners, negative covid tests are a prerequisite for me).

      In my case, I’d be open to not using barriers with a hypothetical long-term romantic partner if we both continued using barriers and covid testing with other people. If they agreed to that and didn’t follow up on their word—yes I’d feel that my trust had been broken, and yes I’d have concerns for my health—but I wouldn’t be calling them a rapist.

      I have at least one friend who’s been assaulted in the past and I’d feel it’d be insulting to him for me to imply that getting a phone call to tell me I might have gonorrhea (a treatable infection) without a pattern of abuse being involved would be exactly the same experience as recovering from sexual violence.

      Especially in the case of an STI like herpes, which the majority of the world has and where there’s little associated risk to most people (with the exception of immunocompromised people and neonatal herpes, which is rare, most frequently caused by a new infection in the third trimester and can be prevented with antiviral medications or/and a C-section). Because the most it does is *potentially* cause occasional cold sores in most people, and because tests have a high rate of false positives, the CDC doesn’t recommend testing asymptomic people (no cold sores on or inside body).

      I think multiple things can be true—people deserve honesty, education and healthcare around STIs, not getting it can be a betrayal, stigma and sensationalism doesn’t help and it’s good to keep in mind throughout it all that having/not having STIs don’t make someone “clean” or “dirty”—being able to get sick is a condition of being human, as anyone who’s had a cold or flu can unfortunately attest to.

      • It’s possible to consider “lying about STI exposure” abuse without saying it is the same as physical sexual assault. It is possible to have compassion and respect for marginalized people with stigmatized STIs without downplaying the coercive boundary violation and lack of integrity and respect this act entails. Uninformed consent is not meaningful and freely given. Sex without meaningful uncoerced consent is rape. Who does it serve to split hairs about this and reduce the stigma of this act? Why is their pain at being stigmatized prioritized over the pain of people who have been coerced into sexual risk they could not consent to? Is it feminist to “well, actually” the severity of this because it makes liars who knowingly expose their partners to risk they did not consent to feel less bad?

    • “how is that not sexual coercion, if not outright rape?”

      Because cheating and actual rape are not even in the same ballpark, and it’s *extremely* offensive for you to conflate the two.

  12. Wow, this really erases a lot of important nuance. I agree that cheating isn’t *always* abuse but it definitely is sometimes a tool of abuse. As others have stated, the health risks that are included in this (especially now with covid) is something that I’m not sure how else to frame. If someone’s immunocompromised and you’re lying to them about who you’re with, I don’t see how that can be categorized as “just a mistake.” Same with STI’s. If you’re lying to me about whether or not you’re having unprotected sex with others and then I get an STI, that’s abuse. Again, I do agree that it isn’t always a major abusive action, but pretending like it can’t ever be is naive and a very strange take to see on Autostraddle

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