I am 12, or around that age, when my parents divorce without explanation. I tell myself it is simple: They just did not love each other anymore.
I am 16 when my boyfriend defines our relationship under the mantra, “Whoever cheats first, dies first.” Romantic, I know. It is he who tells me why my parents divorced—that it was for reasons not as simple as those I had first assumed, reasons more pertinent to this article than love or the lack thereof.
I am 18 when I enter Georgetown. I break up with this boyfriend for the “hookup culture” I had only seen in movies. I am 18 when I feel nothing. Nothing when the guy I am hooking up with does the same with other girls. Nothing when I am not “special.” Nothing when I cannot change him. It is a game of feeling, a contest of who can feel less, and I am determined to win.
I am still 18 when a guy I am dating becomes possessive, will not talk to me when I talk to my guy friends, and leaves when I mention another’s name. An ex left him wounded, insecure. I break up with him for someone else.
This is not about guys. It is not about hookup culture. It is about cheating.
Cheating is defined, in the New Oxford American Dictionary, as being sexually unfaithful, but society has deemed it much more. Cheating can be sexual or emotional; it is boundless, muddled from technology, and shrouded in secret. Cheating is complicated and complicating.
I understand cheating as a concept. I understand what it is, that it is taboo, that—as my high school boyfriend deemed—it would be socially appropriate, reasonable even, to metaphorically die at its hands. I do not understand why.
I have seen families created out of cheating, one wife replaced by another who promises kids. One wife, having made good on her promise, replaced by an offer of the same, but newer. A marriage and family formed then destroyed by the act of cheating.
I have lived next to the heartbreak and insecurities born of it. I have never been cheated on, and, despite all this, I am guessing I lack the emotions required to care if I were. I find myself entering relationships with a certain self-control; I allow myself to feel as I deem appropriate. Maybe this discredits everything I write, and maybe you have to feel to know. I do not and I have not. I only feel like I know that I would not feel.
The notion of cheating is the product of a self-conscious society. We are panicked about what people think of us, what people say of us, and even what we think of ourselves. History is one long, winding path of overcompensation, trying to satisfy the silent demands of others.
We tell ourselves we need someone; we have to have someone who will love us and our insecurities. We need someone who will love only us and our insecurities.
Someone who can be ours.
Out of this self-consciousness and overcompensation comes vanity, or perceived vanity, because what else are you supposed to be when forced to constantly concern yourself with others’ perceptions? Pressured into platforms that fuel insecurities and encourage us to brag, we try to be different, to be special, to be someone that someone else can have and someone that someone else can only want to have.
I do not realize it. I do not look at my Instagram feed and wonder what a prospective suitor thinks about it. I do not wonder if someone will love me because of my captions. But I want people to like them; I want people to think I am funny and cool. I feel the pressure to be funny and cool. I subscribe to our culture’s vanity. I understand that cheating is wrong. It is hurtful. You had security; you had trust. It was broken.
But feeling wounded from cheating is also vain.
How can I expect someone to resign themself to me? What makes me, out of the 7 billion people on this planet, so special that I could render them blind to all others? What gives me the right to prevent someone from a happiness that could be found in the arms of another?
The violation felt from being cheated on is a manifestation of the vanity we are forced to have. We are encouraged to think we are worth devotion and idolization. We are worth love and loving by the entirety of someone else. I am not saying otherwise; everyone deserves appreciation, deserves to find the romance of fairy tales and rumors.
But everyone also deserves happiness, and I am not sure if one person can provide that.
Just as I cannot expect myself to satiate the needs of another, I am not sure anyone can satiate my own. The odds that I find the perfect cocktail of a man—one who is just funny/romantic/smart/etc. enough—and that he can entertain me for the rest of my life must be astoundingly low. I get bored easily and, in the spirit of the “wasteful” nature of this generation, am already eager to meet my second husband. I anticipate divorce—welcome it, even. Because spending my life asleep next to the same man sounds so dreadfully and so boringly secure to me.
Despite my propensity for boredom, I like to think whatever moral and social compasses I have render me incapable of cheating. I respect the values (e.g. fidelity) produced by the vanity I despise and to which I subscribe. I understand that cheating is hurtful and damaging, and I, like many, would never intend to affect someone in that way.
But, when I am cheated on (because I am confident I will be), I am not sure how I will respond. My current belief is that I will accept it as fact, take it as I would any other realization, and keep living. I am not sure if I would end my relationship with that person. Society would deem it an appropriate cause for an end, and I can see myself caving to those pressures despite my personal beliefs. Because at the end of the day, I too am vain out of insecurity; I too care what others think. I too do not want to appear weak or desperate for simply not caring. I will be absorbed into thought of the appropriate action. I will be intrigued by the reasons that sparked it. But I will not be surprised when I am cheated on.
Isabel is a sophomore in the College.