The Ethics of Sleeping with Somebody Else’s Spouse or Partner: Get Yours, Just Don’t Get Caught
Ethics in a post-ethical world.
PART I: Who is an expert, and what is an ethic?
People have affairs all the time. I want to talk about that. People currently involved in an affair are not going to care about what I have to say because they’ve already made their choices in life and don’t need me telling them what to do. Let’s talk about the ethics of infidelity for the rest of us. This is a tricky subject that requires a certain amount of expertise regarding relationships and a nuanced grasp of ethics. I’m going to start out with an anecdote: I’ve been in a few romantic relationships and if you ask me I learned a thing or two about relationships during that time, which is what makes me an expert on them. You can trust me.
Now I’m going to answer a question about ethics: what are they? That is tricky to answer because not everybody agrees about ethics and what they might possibly be. I’ve heard a bunch of opinions on the subject, but two really stand out for me, and I’ll try to summarize them as I understand them.
Archaic ethics in theory: an opinion
One opinion is that ethics constitute multiple, codified systems of conduct intended to guide realworld human activity within a given domain. Each domain of activity has its own set of ethics. To take an extreme example, if a war crime is made public during a time of war, a soldier could be court-martialed for having disclosed the crime, whereas journalist could be awarded a Pulitzer. Both could be understood to have been acting morally, yet one behaved unethically.
The specificity is crucial. It means that ethics simply do not apply across dominia. Evaluating the ethical conduct of our journalist, it would be disqualifyingly stupid to accuse the soldier or the journalist’s spouse or the journalist’s alleged lover of violating journalistic ethics; only the journalist was ever beholden to them.
It would be easy, I guess, for somebody to confuse the ethical requirements of a soldier with the ethical requirements of a journalist reporting on the soldier. I mean, soldiers are in the military and journalists also sometimes write about the military. Just because it’s easy to get confused doesn’t mean it’s necessarily excusable, because it’s just fucking asinine to actually yell at the military soldier about ethics in military journalism. This is because a soldier is not a journalist. Seriously, it’s not that fucking complicated. If you care about ethics in military journalism that’s great, start a hashtag campaign, dedicate your no doubt fulfilling and rewarding life to ethics in military journalism if you want to, whatever, just keep in mind that it’s pretty goddamn unethical and stupid to impede a soldier from their job of being in the military if all you supposedly care about is what the military journalists are up to.
Soldiers award medals to other soldiers and journalists award prizes to other journalists because they have a nuanced grasp of proper conduct within that field. Soldiers have incentive to root out unethical behavior because their lives depend on it; journalists have incentive to root out unethical behavior because the credibility of their entire profession depends on it. Outside laypersons can certainly weigh in on the ethics of whatever field they want, but it’s worth pointing out that irresponsibly or incorrectly policing other people’s ethics constitutes such profoundly unethical behavior in and of itself that a person who does so is immediately disqualified from participating in conversations with grownups and should prolly be blocked on twitter.
That’s all very complicated, but since it’s not a universally accepted understanding of ethics it’s really just an opinion about what ethics might be.
Contemporary ethics in action: a different opinion
Other people have a different opinion about what ethics are. Their opinion has little in common with the first one but they clearly believe it very strongly. I haven’t heard a great articulation of this opinion, like from a professional or even respected ethicist, but for all we know professional ethicists are just shills for the Big Ethic lobby so maybe their silence is its own argument for this opinion. Even if nobody’s quite spelled it out like this, based just on the way some people go about practicing ethics, their belief is that ethics are an excuse to yell at women.
Not all women, of course. If they started yelling at their mothers all the time they’d prolly get grounded.
Mostly these folks put their ethics in action by yelling at women who participate in a domain of human endeavor that women didn’t used to participate it. This might seem like a weirdly specific definition of ethics, to say nothing of the fact its usefulness seems dubious when considering the fact women have been contributing to society for years now, but in practice this definition of ethics expands to include any activity women involve themselves in.
Since all fields of human endeavor fit this criteria, when a women asserts her right to participate in any sphere of public life the ethicist is compelled to yell at her. They also reserve the right to yell at women who express opinions of any kind in any context. If she doesn’t shut up when she’s told to shut up then threats of physical violence are the next ethical action, which sounds irresponsible but only if you don’t believe that ethics are more important than women’s physical safety. It’s important to have principles.
Compared to the first opinion about what ethics are, the second one is less popular with women.
Finding a middle ground on what ethics are
At this point I have to admit some bias. It is hard for me to be objective about these two opinions because some of my best friends are women; although I am a cisgender heterosexual male, I also like women a whole lot, I mean I like them in contexts that have nothing to do with sex or anything. To some people this prolly sounds like a ridiculous clarification because it is, but the 1990s aren’t coming back so here we are. If you’re confused by what I mean when I say that, I’d also like to welcome you to The Internet and express some gratitude that on your first visit to “cyberspace” you found this essay, instead of watching porn or visiting, say, an MRA site.
Porn is awesome, but if you’re thinking about visiting an MRA site log off now and burn your computer, smartphone, or anything else that might ever connect to the internet. You can thank me later.
Does my bias mean that I might favor the kind of ethics that is not simply yelling at women for demanding to be accounted for in spaces they have either been excluded from or had their contributions historically effaced or stolen by men? That seems likely.
This is where it gets complicated. Time was I used to write emails and then texting came along and I didn’t like to text but then everybody stopped using email so now I have no friends (RIP EMAIL). I’m not going to be left behind again, so when there’s a new definition of a word I can’t just reject it out of hand because I don’t like it.
The rational thing to do is split the difference between the two opinions about what ethics are, so shut up bitch (Sorry! — gm). Since the two opinions are kind of opposites, true ethics exist precisely halfway between them. I can’t show you my work, but trust me when I run the numbers it turns out the word ‘ethics’ means nothing. That doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as ethics, it just means ethics is a word and that’s all ethics is.
Okay. At this point I have to remind you I’m an expert on relationships because that happened like a billion words ago, and since we’ve established what ethics are, now I’m going to talk about the ethics of infidelity.
Part II: The Ethics of Sleeping With Married People
Sleeping with married people is awesome if you follow a few basic rules and are ethical about it
The fact that somebody is married seems like a stupid reason not to sleep with them. It seems like a stupid reason because there’s no reasons not to, not that I can think of. I can say ethics, here, but what does that mean? Exactly. Let’s talk praxis.
I think we can both agree that you can’t just sleep with any old married person willy-nilly; there have to be rules in place otherwise people might be somewhat disappointed with the experience on either side. Somebody could get hurt, which isn’t a bad thing in and of itself but it also might be you, somehow. The rules are simple enough so let’s cover those and move on.
- Only couples with kids. When there’s no kids, if either of them were adults capable of adult decisions they would have left each other already. Kids is crazy complicated, which is why you shouldn’t have them.
- No meeting the kids under any circumstance. So not cool.
- Meet the spouse. It’s cool to get to know their spouse a little because you need to figure out how they’re going to react when they find out. Note that cheating women are most often actively seeking to get caught, whereas cheating men are most often running from themselves, their broken dreams, and loss of the physical potency that had defined them in their own minds right until the moment it abandoned them, their affair with you only meant to stave off the oncoming night that shall leave them gazing inward toward their own souls only to find nothing save their howling indignation over the fact of their own impotence, cf late-period Philip Roth, I don’t know why you’d read that smut but there you go.
- Let them take off their wedding ring if they choose. Do this even if part of the thrill is having sex with a person wearing a wedding ring when that person is not your spouse. Now make sure to bargain for kinky sex since they just ‘made things totally weird for you’ when they brought up the wedding ring. Note that this is pretty much mandatory whether or not things got totally weird for you when they insisted on taking off their ring. You’re obligated to use any leverage you can to get that kinky sex you’re after, the kind only married people know about because their entire sex life has been a fantasy for years now.
- Avoid using the marriage bed. It’s a super boring place to have sex and the symbolism is hokey. If you cheat in their marriage bed make sure you shower before and after.
- No brunch even their spouse is out of town. This is self-explanatory.
That about covers it. Please note these rules do not apply to gay marriages. I have no personal experience with them, but I will say that it kind of seems like you’d be making a political statement against gay marriage by actively precipitating a gay divorce, at least at this moment in history. You’re basically a bigot in that case.
Part III: The Ethics of Sleeping With Unmarried People
Choosing an appropriate person to cheat with, and the importance of cutting them loose later
Affairs with people who aren’t married are a whole other thing. I’m just going to say personally that affairs with other people’s girlfriends and/or boyfriends is not for me and I don’t even like to think about it. I’ll give the matter a bit more consideration if I ever find myself dating anyone in the too brief interval between this morning and that sunset when I finally, mercifully breathe my last (the morning is a metaphor; it’s well past noon right now, in real life). Instead of relying entirely on personal experience, I’ll have to mix in some observation and research, which has the upside of making this a more objective discussion.
Let’s say you’re coming to me for advice about starting an affair with a person who is currently in a relationship that is not a marriage. My advice about sleeping somebody else’s Significant Other relies heavily on relevant anthropological surveys and Science.
Objectively, you need to already have a significant other before sleeping with another person’s SO. That is, you should cheat ONLY with a (temporary) partner when you both have equal investment in the partners you are cheating on. If you’re single you simply shouldn’t get involved with somebody else’s SO. You will lack discipline. Your emotions will start to be less easily ignored and you’ll prolly make an emotional decision that will be incorrect because emotions are neither objective nor useful. So just wait until you have an SO or find a married person if you need to have sex so bad.
This is what I mean by equal stakes: if you live with your SO, so should your (temporary) partner. If it’s been six months with your SO but only the last two have been serious, your (temporary) partner should be in an analogous situation. I don’t mean you have to synchronize your calendars or anything weird. Just be sensible; getting caught is just really bad, so you both need to have just as much to lose.
For now, your (temporary) partner must occupy a temporary position in your life because if you foolishly take them as an SO once your original relationships end two things will happen. First, you will never trust that person not to cheat on you. But that’s a calculated risk you’re willing to take. You live with calculated risk all the time, every time you march to protest injustice in a police state where the police have impunity to put down protesters, or when you let a toddler play with a loaded handgun, you are taking a calculated risk. Always live your life in a way that reflects your values, at least for as long as you can get away with it.
The reason your (temporary) partner should remain temporary isn’t because they might cheat on you, but rather that you will never trust yourself not to cheat on them. Trust is the spinal fluid of any healthy relationship — we’re not sure how it works or what it does, we just know that you usually die when it starts leaking out of you. In any event, if you start a new relationship with your new(ish) partner they will leave you sooner than later because you’ll be miserable to be around. You’ll be constantly giving yourself emotional spinal taps to make sure your heart remains trustworthy.
This constitutes a pretty untenable metaphor, unless it’s really a metaphor for how confused you must have been to make your new(ish) partner into some kind of official SO. Find an SO who you haven’t already had an affair with. Don’t make your life more complicated than it needs to be.
Breakup sex is awesome so don’t get caught!
There are consequences for getting caught. If you get caught, there’s a 63.4% chance your SOs will have revenge sex with each other after finding out. Revenge sex is the third best kind of sex (tied) (after controlling for variables such as location and position(s) used) so it’s only natural for your partner to seek out revenge sex with their partner. Don’t begrudge them! It’s not like you can have revenge sex with your own SO after cheating on them, plus on some level cheating sex is revenge sex, you’ve just been suuuuuuper passive aggressive about it.
Make sure that cheating on your SO is better than the revenge sex you’d be entitled to if they cheated on you since they’ll definitely cheat on you if they catch you reading this. God help you if you were all, like, check out this ridiculous thing this ridiculous person said, and showed this essay to your SO, because now your SO knows you’re thinking about the ethics of infidelity, and since you can’t do something unless you think about it, thinking about infidelity is pretty much the same thing as cheating on someone. Or at least that’s what your SO is thinking.
But here’s where things stop being simple when it comes to cheating: in the 63.4% of cases documenting revenge sex between obverse (inverse?) partners, a full 78% of the couples in their original configurations will not engage in breakup sex. And breakup sex is the best kind of sex you can ever possibly have with another person, according to Science.
It’s also a known fact in the Science community that, in a startling 42% percent of all relationships, regardless of whether or not you cheat on your SO, the breakup sex will prove the only unambiguously positive moment you will share in that relationship. It turns out 42% of all romantic relationships are total bullshit, and breakup sex is the only upside to the entire endeavor. Furthermore, there is a 71% probability your SO will have no fond memories of that relationship at all if you cheated. The statistics don’t lie: getting caught is some bullshit.
Part IV: Sleeping With People Who Are Dating Other People When You Are Not Dating Somebody Yourself Right Now Because All The Good Ones Are Taken Or You Just Haven’t Met The Right Person
Have affairs with your friends and you’ll die with no friends
Let’s be honest about what it means to not have a significant other and then sleep with somebody else’s SO anyway. I know your game. You’re talking about sleeping with one of your friends even though they’ve got an SO. Don’t think you’re fooling anyone, you’ve been thinking about them this whole time. Years now, if you’re being honest.
Go ahead, do what you’re gonna do, but just know that discovery of the affair will rip your social circle apart and make you a pariah. Hell, your entire social network has revolved around one couple for years: the couple you’re about to break apart. The rest of your friends turned out not to be nearly so charismatic after college, once they had to be sober on weeknights and careful with their own money.
Here’s the problem. You’re not good enough, smart enough, and doggone it people don’t like you enough to just let it slide after you’ve broken up a couple everybody else likes, not when everybody else has already been setting money set aside for that couple’s wedding. It was going to be the last time, prolly, that everyone would all be together, in one place and happy just like in the good old days, when none of you had any regrets, when you were all young and beautiful together.
And now you’ve taken that away from them. I hope you’re proud of yourself.
Marriage and the terror of dying alone
Meanwhile, sleeping with a married person has no effect on your group of friends because nobody has any married friends. Married people are either insufferably happy, insufferably unhappy, or have children in which case they insufferably spend all their time posting photos to fb. Their company is excruciating unless you are having sex with one of them.
Marriage isn’t the best thing in the world but it’s still a good idea to get married yourself at some point. A bad marriage isn’t the worst thing in the world when you get down to it, because divorce is even worse. Divorce is the 2nd worst thing in the world; the terror of dying alone is the absolute worst.
It’s entirely possible that dying alone is worse than the terror of dying alone, but how could we ever know for sure? WE CAN’T. Dying alone might actually be awesome, which just makes the terror of dying alone worse somehow.
Thing is, if you get a divorce after forty you’re basically choosing to die alone. You’re not as supple as you used to be, and now you’re bloated with regret. Let me know how that works out for you. This is why, ideally, you should make sure to have kids before you get a divorce, although if you have no plans to ever divorce you should never have kids, obviously. Meanwhile, if you’re divorced with no kids, the soul-murdering terror you feel at the prospect of dying alone will gradually consume your existence and, cruelly, shave years off your life expectancy. And then you’ll die alone.
Sleep with a stranger and they’ll die alone
For now, even if you’re hooking up with somebody else’s SO and that person is pretty much a total stranger in a relationship with another total stranger, okay…let’s be real for a moment. You’re prolly breaking up a couple that was never going to be serious, and even if they were serious there’s a 42% chance the relationship was bullshit front to back so now they get to have breakup sex thanks to you.
This is the best case scenario.
On the flipside, it’s equally likely those two were meant to be together forever and would have stayed together if not for this moment of weakness, this mistake, with you. It’s never good to be considered a mistake, whether by a former lover, your father on account of your poor life choices, or by your mother pretty much since the day you were born. Beyond that, nobody knows the future so congratulations for snuffing out what could have been a beautiful relationship if not for you and, for all you know, that person’s last best chance at marriage and not dying alone.
You’ve just destroyed a total stranger’s best shot at knowing something of life besides the relentless chill of solitude and the slight crunch of ramen noodles they couldn’t be bothered to let steep fully because that’s just how dead they’ve grown inside. That makes you a big dumb jerk. And for what? So you could experience two to eight minutes of fleeting pleasure just to experience some contrast against the acrid monotony of your own mostly wasted life? Well, good for you. Way to get yours.
Feed your cat on the way out
It’s still a super jerk move to condemn a total stranger dying alone like that, however many years down the road it happens, in a hospital bed, not surrounded by loved ones, nobody to hold their hand at the last. Plus nobody’s feeding their cat back in the apartment. You certainly aren’t, that’s for sure. Nobody’s feeding the cat this morning or any morning ever again. He’s prolly terrified, the poor thing. All because you’re lonely and wanted to sleep with somebody else’s significant other, you fucking asshole.
Even if I’ve learned nothing else in my entire life, my own experience has taught me that if you don’t want to be responsible for the consequences of your actions your only choice is to sleep with a married person who has kids. That way it’s all on them. In a world where ethics is just a word, this is your only ethical option.