If you look up the definition of "infidelity" on dictionary.com, you will get three primary definitions: unfaithfulness to a sexual partner, especially a spouse; lack of fidelity or loyalty; and lack of religious belief. If this is true, then I am going straight to hell on the third count alone. Of course, the problem with looking up life-changing concepts on dictionary.com (as I am prone to do whenever I am trying to make sense of something incomprehensible that I somehow did) is that it is completely and totally unhelpful. What the hell does "unfaithfulness" and "lack of fidelity or loyalty" even mean? If I knew what fidelity meant, then I would hope I'd know the definition of infidelity too.
But in a world of undefined relationships and tacit agreements (I still blame you for the whole "open relationship" mess, Mark Zuckerberg), what constitutes fidelity-and infidelity-is uncertain and subjective. For some, fidelity is inflexible: even a flirtatious dance is problematic. Sometimes fidelity constitutes a promise not to sleep with anyone else; drunken make-outs remain excusable. Still others go a lifetime in an open agreement with one romantic partner, content to sleep with multiple sexual partners at the same time. Fidelity and monogamy are not one and the same. The expectation that you remain faithful to a sexual partner is equally confusing: a date and a shared bed do not automatically imply fidelity. Couples have to have a conversation about fidelity and what it means to them personally-then maybe they can hold each other to the same standard.
Fidelity and infidelity at our age is also entirely different from fidelity and infidelity at age 40. There is a huge, perhaps indiscernible, difference between cheating on a loved one when you have four kids and a mortgage and cheating on a loved one when you are 20 and confused. So many things in our lives are subject to change at any given moment: one day you are premed and preparing to take the MCAT, the next you are a Spanish major jetting off to Chile for a semester. That significant other? Not necessarily going to get in the way of what you want to do right this second.
When I was a first-year, I cheated on my boyfriend. I didn't tell him about it; I broke up with him. It was cowardly, I know. But I told myself I wanted to spare him the pain and then beat myself up about it for days. The truth is, there are few conversations more painful or difficult than the one where you have to tell someone you loved-or at least, thought you loved-that you cheated on him or her. Since then, I have both been the cheat-ee (less kindly known as the other woman) and been cheated on. I did not break up with the guy who cheated on me.
Telling someone you love, or even someone you care about, that you cheated on him or her means taking responsibility for your actions. Too often, we blame the cheat-ee-those damn guys and girls who cannot keep their grubby hands off our hot lovers. It is much easier to tell ourselves that our lover meant to be faithful, that he or she simply could not resist, that it's not really his or her fault. But it is the cheater messing with his or her relationship, and it is not up to the cheat-ee to take responsibility for the cheater's actions. Listening to your lover insist that it absolutely was his or her fault is equally, if not more, painful and difficult than telling him or her the same.
Personally, I am of the opinion that infidelity, particularly at our age, is understandable and sometimes even forgivable. I'm not really sure how we are supposed to get through college without cheating on someone, officially or tacitly. I've come to believe that people do the best they can, or at least the best they know how, in any given situation. Making out with my hot guy friend in order to give myself a definitive excuse to break up with my boyfriend freshman year may not have been the right thing to do, but it was the only thing I could do. I didn't know how else to get out of it.
But just because I am currently of the belief that infidelity is understandable and, at times, excusable, does not mean that everyone else our age should believe the same. Nor does it mean that every case of infidelity is identical: there will be times in our lives when we can forgive a loved one for hurting us, and there will be times in our lives when there is nothing we can do but run away. Each person views and handles infidelity in entirely different ways. What we think we know now may prove completely changed 20 years from now, too.
Oscar Wilde once famously said, "Those who are faithful know only the trivial side of love: it is the faithless who know love's tragedies." When I first started writing this column, I would have scoffed at him. I assumed sex and love were nothing but black-and-white, that there was a right and wrong for every situation. I never would have thought that love and sex would mean fucking up, pushing personal boundaries, compromising, feeling miserable and elated all at the same time. Two and a half years, three relationships, 33 columns, and God knows how many kisses later, I think I am finally starting to understand what Oscar was talking about.