I was just waking up in the morning when I received a text from my friend R that declared: “Infidelity is a failure in communication”. I was still groggy, but R was a few hours ahead of me – he lives in a different time zone – and as such, in the mood for a brooding conversation that you can only have once you have downed a cup of coffee. And since I had not, I kept my phone aside and slept some more till it was time to finally rise, in my time zone.
What R had said, however, stayed with me. I also realised something was up with him. He finally apprised me of the complications in his life – mostly about a messed-up equation with his flatmate, also his former partner, her current boyfriend, and R himself – stuck in the middle like a little child lost in the world. I nodded resonantly as I listened along, offering advice whenever I could; but mostly listening.
When the call was over, I began to think about the complexities about modern relationships. R had been cheated on, which had caused him to spiral, and now he simply sought some clarity and some distance from all the negativity. Unfortunately for him, the country he is residing in is extremely expensive, not to mention the threat of a deadly virus that is stalling people from doing absolutely anything – even changing houses for that matter.
R is not alone. Around the world there are many people who have to deal with the impediments of the pandemic, with a lot of it having to do with figuring things about, drawing a line, asking for space, and ultimately putting the relationship to test. Infidelity is not a new concept – it is an umbrella term that embodies everything from cheating to straying and adultery (for married couples). For long now, it has been used to initiate feverish debates about whether or not it is acceptable. While for some people infidelity is a deal-breaker – no questions asked – for others, it is not that big of a deal. For instance, when the host of a popular celebrity talk show asked a Bollywood A-lister her views on relationship deal-breakers, she promptly answered: “emotional infidelity”. In the same show, when another actor was asked the same question, she had simply said “infidelity”.
Emotional and physical infidelities are two aspects that branch out of the tree that bears fruits of unfaithfulness. While for some people they may mean the same thing – you are cheating on your partner at the end of the day – for others, one may prove to be more damaging than the other.
Delhi-based author Ishan (25), however, feels that both emotional and physical intimacies are equally hurtful. “Physical infidelity is a sudden thing, which shows the person may be dealing with something – it is a deal-breaker for me. As is emotional infidelity, because if you are investing so much in a person, who is then seeking emotional gratification from someone else, it shows your relationship may not really last for long,” he says. Ishan is currently in a relationship, but has been let down by former partners in the past. “There are subtle things – you know they are lying when they cannot look you in the eye, or appreciate anything romantic that you do for them, because the guilt really eats them. An ideal relationship for me would be one wherein there is mutual trust, honesty, and compassion. While I have forgiven unfaithful partners in the past, I have now come to realise that it is not something I would do anymore,” he says.
His thoughts are echoed by a 34-year-old Bengaluru-based project manager who, on the condition of anonymity, says she is put off by dishonesty of any kind. “I am currently in a relationship, but I have had an unpleasant experience with a former partner who was not really honest with me. I found out about the infidelity much later, after we had broken up. Looking back, I realised I had ignored red flags with respect to honesty and possible infidelity. My instinct is to trust, and being suspicious just doesn’t come naturally to me,” she says, adding she does not see a difference between physical infidelity and emotional infidelity, and that she is not willing to forgive an unfaithful partner.
The idea of infidelity has been explored widely in pop culture as well, especially in films wherein female protagonists have almost always invariably found themselves showing mercy towards their unfaithful partners. Films like Masoom (1983), Silsila (1981), Ijaazat (1987), Life In A… Metro (2007), Rockstar (2011) to name a few, have explored the tropes. Then there have been some slapstick ones like the Masti franchise and No Entry (2005), or even the 2019 rehashed version of Pati Patni Aur Woh that have delved into the subject with cheap gags.
In a 2017 article for The Atlantic titled ‘Why Happy People Cheat’, Esther Perel notes: “For years, I have worked as a therapist with hundreds of couples who have been shattered by infidelity… Around the globe, the responses I get when I mention infidelity range from bitter condemnation to resigned acceptance to cautious compassion to outright enthusiasm.”
Thirty-year-old Anu Raveendran, a stay-at-home mom from Kerala, who has been married for the last three years, cannot fathom the reasons that cause people to cheat on their partners. “I don’t think there is anything called an ‘ideal relationship’. You cannot set benchmarks. In the three years of my married life, I have come to realise that I have changed a lot. While I am completely willing to forgive my partner if they have been unfaithful, I would want to know the reason behind it. Often people cheat when they need attention, and so I would want to know if I have been at fault somewhere. If that is not the case and the reason is completely different, I don’t think I would have it in me to forgive them. My husband and I have not talked about this until now; maybe now we can have this conversation,” she says.
Dr Aarti Dahiya, a relationship expert and the founder of ‘Niyati by Aarti’, weighs in on this. “I have seen that in case of incompatibility between partners, they find it difficult to come back to each other. Lack of care and not expressing love enough can also cause people to stray from their existing relationship. In fact, gender is not even an issue, because I see many cases wherein a woman who has cheated on her partner, comes to me for a counseling session. It is important for couples to focus on and value each other’s choice and preferences. It is possible for people to forgive their cheating partners, and give them a second chance,” she explains.
Dr Dahiya also points out that sometimes people act out unintentionally when their partners do not give them enough attention.”While the present generation refuses to compromise, I also see more and more couples willing to sit down and have a conversation about what is happening to their relationship and what they can do to salvage it.”
In Boston, US, 27-year-old Samrudhi – who works in the development sector – thinks her ideal relationship is the one she is in right now. “I am married to the man I dated for five years. We are extremely open and communicative about our needs, fears and issues, and how we want them to be resolved. At the very basic level, I feel an ideal relationship is one where you feel heard and seen; where they are common interests and hobbies. Infidelity is definitely the top deal breaker for both my husband and I, and we had even discussed it at the beginning of the relationship,” she says.
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Samrudhi says she was in a long-term relationship with someone who repeatedly cheated on her, both emotionally and physically. “He hid it from me for years, which brought out a lot of toxic traits in me. I was always suspicious and distrustful of him. I would constantly invade his privacy, keep tabs on him, be suspicious of the people he would hang out with; because I was always afraid he would cheat on me. At this point in life, I will certainly not be forgiving of a partner who has been unfaithful.”
While Samrudhi feels there is a “small entanglement of both emotional and physical infidelity”, Dr Dahiya says physical infidelity could be more damaging. “If both the partners are working, and are deeply engaged in their jobs, they may not always find the time to talk to each other and understand the other party’s point of view. So, whenever we would have counseling sessions, they would realise this and make it a point to give time to each other. Eventually, they become more comfortable, too. But if there is no physical satisfaction, it could turn into an irreversible problem,” she concludes.