Does Cheating Pick Up Where Sexless Marriage Leaves Off?

What to do with an imbalance between giving and receiving sex.

Posted Apr 24, 2014

Reading Mark White’s piece, Does Sexless Marriage Justify Adultery? Part 1, really got the neurons in my brain firing. In it, Mark asks if going out of a marriage to get sex is similar to expecting fidelity in a marriage where one party doesn’t give it. Beyond that, he goes on to frame withholding sex as immoral a practice (potentially) as cheating. This I found fascinating. It does seem odd, now that I’m thinking about it, that partner-imposed celibacy is not looked down upon in the same way cheating is. 

I have written about sexless marriage and cheating in the past as well, because I have long thought that the construct of marriage itself is insufficient. I have always been interested in how the economics of marriage fly in the face of love, and that somewhere between love and matrimony is “supposed to be” our sexual existence, where often, it doesn’t actually fit. 

We have this idea of love, and the assumption that with love comes the desire to have sex. But echoing Mark’s sentiments, after seeing tens of thousands of readers flock to the subject matter, comment and write to me personally, it was clear; despite how well “happily-ever-after” is marketed, love, sex, and marriage don’t always come wrapped in a nice, neat—and eternal—little package. 

There are a lot of people in marriages who have been celibate for years, and by years I mean decades. Some are okay with it and some aren’t. Some have told me they deal with it through sex-for-hire arrangements, while others have full-blown affairs. Some begrudgingly accept celibacy. Others enjoyed the companionship in their sexless marriages more than the sex itself and felt it was worth the trade. Then there were people who were outright embittered by their abstinence on one hand, and folks who gave up sex willingly out of love for a spouse who could no longer perform due to illness, on the other. So clearly, sexless marriage runs the gamut, and for some people it works. The issue becomes when one person wants sex from the other and the other doesn't want to give or receive it in return. 

That’s only one aspect though. The other is when that person expects fidelity and enforces rules that forbid the partner from having his or her own sexual life. For highly sexual people, this is up there with starvation. Sexuality is a powerful energy that drives a need the way hunger does. To deprive someone of that fulfillment is really quite selfish. But is it immoral? And is the partner who seeks sex elsewhere really at fault for anything? And can you really call it cheating?   

For all intents and purposes, in this context, cheating and lying are one in the same. It is the betrayal of trust that causes the most devastation. You say you’re committed to me and only me? I believe you. You give me your word? I’ll trust you. But, if something changes, you need to say something.   

We move further into our relationships feeling “safe” because we are told and assured that we are. If the terms of that agreement are going to change, it’s time to renegotiate. This goes both ways. The person who opts out of having a sex life with his or her partner has a responsibility to own that decision and re-establish how the needs of both individuals are going to be met. After all, whether it’s cheating or withdrawing oneself from the marriage sexually, one person is hiding a part of him or herself from the other. With cheating, we fully expect (and often demand) the cheater to come clean. Why would that same expectation be any different when one spouse is responsible for changing the “rules?”

So, in the end, one could argue that getting sex somewhere else, and lying about it, is just as selfish as not giving it. Now is that immoral? I don’t know. Is it wrong? Not sure. But no matter what, if someone is only interested in serving his or her own needs, from whichever perspective, it’s not a good marriage and it’s not love.

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About the Author

Donna Flagg

Donna Flagg is the author of Surviving Dreaded Conversations and a New York City-based dancer.

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