On Cheating: In Sports and in Love.

“I told my wife the truth. I told her I was seeing a psychiatrist. Then she told me the truth: that she was seeing a psychiatrist, two plumbers and a bartender.” - Rodney Dangerfield

By: Maura Matarese, M.A. LMHC, R.Y.T.

Only the New York press would congratulate the New England Patriots historic Superbowl comeback victory with the above headline (How Cheat it is). In today’s highly competitive sports world, the collective fan-ship of “we”, often deifies athletes when they make great plays and win the game e.g. Tom Brady, David Tyree (sorry New Englanders- I know that still hurts) and in turn shuns them when they expose their mere mortality by making mistakes and loosing. To this day, most Red Sox fans react with a palpable groan upon the mentioning of Bill Buckner (my apologies again).   But what happens to fans and to ourselves if and when we discover that the team and or the one we have pledged to be faithful too, happens to play by a different set of rules then we do?  What happens when someone we love cheats or better yet, gets caught in the oh so scandalous act of cheating?

 

Our vicarious love affair with sports, is not so different than our personal love affairs. Cheating happens. It always has and right or wrong, it always will.  Some deny it.  Some find ways to justify it.  Then of course, there are some who forever moralize over the cheating with an unyielding vitriol (Hello New York) that doesn’t allow for the much needed exploration of why it happened in the first place. At least that’s what I encounter in my clinical practice with individuals and couples struggling with the thought of or effects of infidelity. 

 

In sports, the why has many answers. The pressure to be the best all the time, which isn’t possible, gets to some.  The career ending consequences for not being the best all the time, gets to others. The dangers of the game itself, where the justified fear and high probability of a career ending and or quality of life injury,  looms over every athlete. Consider what happened to Wes Welker and Travis Roy among others and the very real existential threat (this game may be my last) that “ups the anti” in the choice to cheat?  Then their are leaders with power in the system who lack consistency and even common sense in their decision making process, giving one athlete a two game suspension for beating his spouse and the other four games for an equipment violation. In a system where the rules don’t always seem fair or even make sense, that also lacks a forum for honest questioning and real feedback about it, players, at times, begin to play by rules that make sense to them.  And rather then question the validity of a flawed paradigm, have a real conversation about what to do about it or even show a note compassion for the inevitable expression of it’s worts, most stick to the black and white business as usual way of being and throw mud at those who dare to defy it.-This, in particular, applies to the rival team, who from a psychological perspective, represent either our partner or the “other” in the so called love affair. Ironically, when our team- which is a projection and expression of ourselves, comes under the same scrutiny, it generally doesn’t suffer through the same level ire.   

 

The same holds true in love.  The idea that one person can satisfy our every need over the course of a lifetime creates one of the greatest set ups for failure ever known to those who venture into the world of love, sex, relationships and marriage. This is NOT to say that monogamous relationship can’t last and even continue to be pleasurable while they last, for as long as the couple chooses, which for some, may be a life time. What makes that so? Many factors - the first of which embraces the idea that no one person can give us all that we need. Is that an invitation to begin searching outside the relationship for the holy grail of love and desire? Not necessarily, though many do start there once the chemistry fades, which by the way, always does.   Experts in the field of love and eroticism including: anthropologist Helen Fisher, author of The Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage and Why We Stray , and renown couples and sex therapist Ester Perel, author of Mating in Captivity, offer up many cultural, psychological, scientific and phenomenological reasons why the euphoric high of romance dissipates after two years (at most) and what comes after that.  Some couples now find themselves feeling like best friends or roommates, others estranged, and then some, fighting with each other for not being the promised be all and end all for all of eternity that they were supposed to be. Some become exhausted from the demands of work, life and family which often leaves little time to recapture or reinvent the desire that brought them together in the first place. At this crucial juncture, many begin reenacting their unfinished childhood business including the abuse or neglect from their primary caregivers as well as their baggage, in a noble but impossible attempt to get now from their partner what they missed out on during their early developmental years. Those who fall into this category, first need to learn to give themselves what they didn’t get,  rather than seek to find it in another - because the other will always let them down. For the rest, most experts in the field of love, sex and relationships say the following “ that which we seek outside of ourselves, we need to first find within”.  Only then can an authentic decision be made about staying, straying or moving along.

 

I personally don't believe the best marriages end at the funeral home*. Sometimes people out grow each other and decide to part ways. Some chose to stay together for the sake of the family and openly seek love and desire outside the marriage. Some chose to stray as they may be unconsciously seeking a way out that they are either afraid to and or don’t know how to express with words.  I don’t claim to know which solution is best or right as it varies from person to person.  I have seen infidelity cause some great pain and irreparable damage. I have also seen it offer couples a necessary wake up call, forcing them to find a way to reinvent themselves and they often do.  Rather than moralize over it, why not see it as invitation to explore the systemic breakdowns and existential crises that lead to it in first place? Or better yet,  why not have fearless talk with your partner about just that- before initiating an affair, bravely sharing what’s happening within yourself,  including your level of desire for the other and lack there of, willingness or lack of willingness to recreate it-  without blaming or pointing fingers?  Though it may feel scary to voice this, having this conversation before an affair,  may help save you from having a very painful one after. Besides, If your marriage or partnership can’t survive this conversation, than it’s safe to say that it probably won’t survive over the long haul anyway. It’s the cleaner and ideal way to do things, but alas,  life isn’t always ideal and human behavior is invariably messy.

 

While the above ideas may offer a sigh of relief to some, they may also feel jarring and even blasphemous for others. They don’t make a claim on one “right” strategy or solution and probably do little to soothe one’s anxiety over the subject. I can’t say that I know the answer or even if there is one, however this I do believe:  if our collective love and marriage fan-ship, much like our sports fan-ship, can’t begin to ask honest questions and be open to diverse answers and creative solutions, then the shame, blame and humiliating scars of infidelity will continue to perpetuate and pervade those enthusiasts who choose to play the game of modern love. The consequence for continuing the implicit contract of “If I catch you, you die”* (and most get caught these days) outweighs the necessary upheaval of challenging the status quo and seeing what else can emerge. As Shakespeare’s Miranda once said: 

 “ O, Wonder

How many goodly creatures are there here!

How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,

that has such people in it!

 

Oh brave new world it is indeed for those who dare venture into the never ending tempest of love and desire. 

 

* Phrases taken from a talk given by Ester Perel, author of Mating in Captivity.