Negotiating Power

I once told a man he should cheat.

We hadn’t seen each other for some time. He looked exhausted. Miserable. He was talking about his partner of more than three decades, about hospital visits and stress and fear. About making every decision, wondering whether it was the right one. His partner’s dementia had progressed to the point he couldn’t make decisions about medical consent anymore. He didn’t remember things he should, he slipped sometimes into other times or experiences.

They had no romantic relationship anymore. How could they, when one of them could remember the other’s name only intermittently? They had no sexual relationship anymore. Not safe, when one’s mental state and physical health were tenuous at best.

“I’m celibate.” He shrugged. “I don’t want to be, but there it is.”

I told him he should cheat. What else was I going to say? Wait for your partner to die, maybe for years, look forward to the freedom to have sex or intimacy again?

A relationship–any relationship–is an agreement. There are terms and conditions. I’ll cook, you do dishes. If you have sex with someone else, I’ll leave. The terms can be somewhat fluid and not always discussed, but they’re no less real for that. Your relationship is how you interact with another person: when you change, or they do, what you are together changes. The terms and conditions change. They have to, if the relationship respects the needs of the people in it at all.

Sometimes renegotiating an agreement isn’t possible. Maybe there’s abuse: a person who can’t safely leave an abusive relationship still has every right to exercise autonomy, and shouldn’t be bound by terms and conditions they have not consented to. Maybe there’s dementia, a coma, an injury or illness that leaves a person unable to consent. Should their partner be bound to an agreement they would not be able to make or affirm anymore?

I won’t try to sugarcoat it. It is cheating, to break a relationship agreement instead of renegotiating it or ending the relationship. And I want to phrase this carefully because I know how many cheaters will say they had to cheat, because they would not be able to do what they want if they talked to their partners. That’s bullshit. Cheating because a partner wouldn’t understand or might end the relationship is cowardice. It’s the refusal to respect the conditions the cheating person has agreed to, it places their pleasure above their partners’ right to informed consent, and it is utterly despicable.

Cheating because one partner cannot consent…it’s cheating. It’s cheating, and the situation is awful and the world is awful for letting these situations exist. I don’t think it can happen without admitting that the relationship is already irrevocably damaged. At the same time, I won’t say that the man I advised to cheat should have had to leave his partner– to stop caring for him, living with him, being his companion–if he wanted to receive any kind of affection at all. I don’t think a person who is unable to leave an abusive situation should have to be isolated from intimacy until and unless they can gather the resources to escape abuse.

It’s been a few years. I don’t know whether he did cheat, before his partner died. We don’t see each other often and it’s not my place to ask. But I think I’d give the same advice again. I’m not sure it’s the right thing. It probably isn’t. But when the ability to even discuss the terms of a relationship is absent, I think it’s only compassionate to expect those terms to be less binding than they once were.

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