Wednesday, August 13, 2008

John Edwards, Cheating and the Ethics of Polyamory

The news this week has been full of reports about John Edwards' recent admission on ABC that he had an extra-marital affair a couple of years ago with a staffer named Rielle Hunter, pictured above along with Edwards, during his presidential campaign. Certainly this news is especially distasteful with the knowledge that Edwards' wife, Elizabeth, had just fought her breast cancer into remission at the time the affair began and which has since recurred and is incurable. Though I regret that this scandal has arisen and that the Edwards family must deal with the fallout as a result, I was very glad to know that at least Elizabeth has known of the affair for some time and so has been spared that shock in light of her present prognosis.

I don't approve of Edwards behavior, but neither am I willing to point my finger at him in judgment. I was once guilty myself - more on that will follow here. The media could certainly stand to do some substantial shoring up of its own ethics, seeing as how it is willing to cause chaos and heartache in its reporting of matters that are, to my mind, private and no one else's business - even regarding the lives of elected officials.

Recently a discussion about cheating not directly related to the Edwards scandal took place on a yahoogroup to which I am subscribed. One commenter saw no ethical problem with having sex with someone who was cheating on a partner with whom there is an agreement to be monogamous. I've heard others say as much who seem to think that what their sex partner is or isn't doing with regard to honoring other relationship commitments is neither their business nor their concern.

Franklin Veaux, a well-known polyamory writer and presenter, also participated in this discussion and wrote:

"We are, as a species, very good at coming up with rationalizations and justifications to persuade ourselves why it's OK to do whatever we want to do, regardless of the consequences or the effects our actions have on others."

One of my favorite movie quotes is from the movie "The Big Chill." (Jeff Goldblum played Michael and Tom Berenger played Sam.)

"Michael: I don't know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They're more important than sex.

Sam: Ah, come on. Nothing's more important than sex.

Michael: Oh yeah? Ever gone a week without a rationalization?"

So true! I have to smile every time I read that one.

We all rationalize, but rationalization isn't always ethical, as Franklin points out. It would be fascinating to know what John Edwards' rationalizations were for having the affair with Hunter, but I doubt we'll ever know the truth of that.

Since I became more aware of the power and frequency of rationalization, I do my best to notice when I'm rationalizing. I ask myself how likely it is that my rational thoughts are based on truth or whether I'm just bullshitting myself to avoid discomfort/nasty feelings or to gain something I want but don't want to pay the price for.

Franklin also wrote, "The fact is, being ethical means sometimes you don't get to do what you want to do. Being ethical sometimes means you don't get to fuck someone you really, really, really, REALLY want to fuck. That's why justifications are so easy, and ethical people are so thin on the ground."

I couldn't agree more. One of the reasons I am a poly person is that after two marriages and a lot of years, I had experienced the painful emotional effects of cheating from just about every angle imaginable. I cheated in my first marriage, I had an affair with a married man while single and between marriages, my second husband cheated on me, members of my family had affairs, and I once loaned my place out to a girlfriend who was having an affair and needed a place for a workday tryst with her lover.

Cheating on my first husband helped put an already troubled marriage right into the tank. Being cheated on by my second husband was excruciatingly painful. I saw all the trouble and pain cheating caused in my relationships and in those of the people I loved and decided I wanted nothing further to do with it - and this all was well before my polyamory days. I realized that, knowing how much it hurt when I was cheated on, I just couldn't feel right about having an affair with someone who was supposedly in a monogamous relationship. I didn't want to be a party to their partner's pain if/when they got caught.

That was many, many years ago. I've stuck to that commitment and have turned down more than a few offers from some real hotties, both men and women - I did it with regret that I had to do so, to be sure, but I still did it and am at peace with it. Today as a polyamorist I have at least a reasonable expectation and commitment from my partner(s) that we will always be open and honest with each other so I don't have to feel that devastating sense of betrayal again or bring it into anyone else's life.

A lot of people engage in cheating and rationalize their behavior in lots of ways, one being that they manage to convince themselves that they won't get caught, and what their monogamous partner doesn't know won't hurt them. Obviously this isn't true in terms of risk of communicating a sexually transmitted infection. It's unethical to put another person's sexual health at risk without their consent, even when safer sex is practiced. (That's why they call it safer sex and not safe sex - the risk is greatly reduced but not 100% eliminated.) It's also naive to expect not to get caught. Lots of people have ended up in divorce court who never thought they'd get caught and who say "But I was being so careful!"

Certainly our society's fetish for monolithic, life long monogamy as the be-all and end-all of relationships creates fertile ground for cheating. This doesn't let the cheater off the ethical hook, but it does go a long way toward explaining why people in western society - and especially in the puritanical United States - cheat in such significant numbers. With those cultural underpinnings in mind, I prefer to take a "come to Jesus" approach instead of trash talking about those who are cheating. Instead I encourage people to consider being open and honest with their partners and that they encourage their partners to come clean with *their* partners, even though that might seem daunting.

Certainly coming clean is not without risk to relationship stability, but getting caught is a lot riskier. I know this from witnessing the personal experiences of others. I felt so guilty that in my first marriage I voluntarily disclosed the affair I had to my husband before it was discovered. Even then I was on shaky ethical ground, as my confession was as much about gaining absolution and forgiveness from my husband - something that turned out to be in very short supply - as it was about being honest. Some would say it was only fair that he eventually had an affair of his own. At least I can say that I kept my promise never to do it again.

Relationships where cheating is going on are already on shaky ground, and when an affair is discovered, it is the damage to trust, an essential relationship component, that is exceedingly difficult to mend. My friend, Alan, who writes the Polyamory in the News blog, calls resisting the urge to engage in intimacy with someone who is cheating "choosing the difficult right over the easy wrong." I gather that Franklin would agree with that assessment, and certainly so do I. Failing to make the right choice falls well short of the spirit of polyamory, also referred to as responsible non-monogamy due to its ethos that requires openness and honesty with all partners/stakeholders.

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