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SocietySeptember 3, 2023

The Sunday Essay: No fury like a woman bored


My life story had been flattened to a female cliché; badly written, stale and formulaic.

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

Illustrations by Tallulah Farrar.

I’ve been out of sorts lately. I’m not usually one to dabble in poppy country music, but I’ve had Before He Cheats by Carrie Underwood on repeat. On the surface, Underwood’s lyrics are tedious: Right now, he’s probably slow dancin’ with a bleach-blonde tramp / And she’s probably gettin’ frisky. And yet, I smash the repeat button. She really gets it, I think to myself. Underwood’s whining about her man at the bar with the “tramp” is dated, sure, but I consider her disaffection and grumpiness timeless. 

I recently ended a long-term relationship because I discovered my partner was likely cheating on me for some time. Years ago, at the start of our relationship, he did cheat on me, which he admitted after I grew suspicious. Although I was devastated at the time, I forgave him, never having thought cheating was the worst thing you could do to a partner; never having held onto monogamy tightly. 

In the final year of our relationship, those familiar feelings of unease and distrust crept back between us. I would wonder who all those texts were coming from and why he would reply to them when I was out of sight. When I found out about his repeat offence, I felt sad, pathetic, and embarrassed; all your bog standards. But the hardest feeling to understand and articulate was an almost peevish feeling that my life story had been flattened to a female cliché – one that was badly written; stale and formulaic. In a recent Help Me Hera article, poet Hera Lindsay Bird characterises cheating as “boring” and “tawdry”. She’s right: cheating is boring because it makes you boring. 

I had been cast in that role that all actors hope to avoid: the staid woman at home. This is the Emma Thompson character, dressed in a dumpy costume that Tim Gunn would devastatingly call matronly, hair invariably cut short, whose main focus is the children. Meanwhile, Alan Rickman gets to slow dance with the hot young woman in dangerously red lingerie. I did not consent to being cast in this role, so it felt like a great injustice to have it happen anyway. Even worse was how quickly I conformed to it. 

Due to the earlier cheating episode, I pitched an open relationship to my partner at the time. I thought maybe monogamy wasn’t for him, and I was open to alternative lifestyles. He rejected the idea outright. “There’s no way I could do that,” he claimed. He also found himself in a cliché, albeit a male one: longing for sex with more women, but too insecure to allow his partner to do the same. 

Near the end of our relationship, I would wake every Saturday morning in a panic, finding myself alone in our apartment. More often than not, my partner had awoken early to meet the Other Woman for a “run.” These “runs” often dragged on into the afternoon and early evening, swimming together in her pool, having long lunches, and whatever else it is you do with the fun woman who, unlike me, was liberated from his oppressive domestic setting. I did not get to swim in the pool and have long lunches with my mistress. I would be at home, fretting, pacing, spiralling. Texting him, urging him to reply and tell me everything was okay and that he was on his way home to me. 

Months have passed since the end of our relationship, and even after all my grieving is done, I still run into people who ask after my ex; who are yet to be updated on all the titillating details. Every time I tell the story of our break up, it feels as though I am recounting a bad movie: he cheated on me with the HR person at work, he likely had been doing so for some time, and now he and said HR person live together. As it comes out of my mouth, it feels like a first draft. Too predictable, make it more interesting. He cheated on me with … our dental hygienist? My recently deceased uncle’s undertaker? The family planning nurse who inserted the Jadelle in my arm? 

It wasn’t the physical act that hurt me. Sex is sex; it can mean all sorts of things, and it can mean nothing at all. The betrayal, the lying, and the emotional manipulation hurts badly, and is undeniably immoral, sure. But the thing that is really an outrage – the true injury – is that his cheating made me someone completely preoccupied with a man’s moods, words, and gestures. He would pick up his phone, and as its light glowed onto his face, I would study his expression. A little smirk and a softening of his eyes as he read a text message would devastate me. Those tiny movements were most likely innocent, but I was obsessed. I hoped more interesting things would happen to me in my life. 

Why is it that being a cheater makes you do things that are so tawdry? As our relationship was on its final death rattle, my partner had the gall to force us to pop into the Other Woman’s house on Christmas Day so he could meet her parents. “We’re just friends,” he claimed. “It will be nice to pop in, she lives nearby, and there will be a bunch of random people there.” I had protested, as I preferred to spend the time with my mother: our Christmas Days were always hard since my father died, and we liked to spend that melancholic time together. This did not move my partner at all, persistent as he was not to spend a day without her. When we arrived, only she and her parents were there, the so-called random bunch of people a fictitious ploy. He delighted in meeting the parents, who seemed to be surprised at my existence; she had clearly told them about him, but perhaps forgot to explain one key detail about the whole arrangement.

Looking back, I’m almost impressed by how daring it all was: dragging his partner to his mistress’s house on Christmas Day, of all days. What cheek! What tenacity! I can at least commend him for how audacious he could be. 

I was a fool for not ending things right then and there, and almost did. We fought and I threatened to leave, but I was ultimately crushed by the wave of abject denial and upbraidings he washed over me. By then, I had been doubting my reality for some time. He had expertly cast himself as the victim of my jealousy and hysteria, which he artfully coupled with declarations of love and commitment. When we eventually ended the relationship, and when the truth of the cheating became evident, I was deeply hurt, but only for a time. I sense, and I hope, that the experience does not continue to disrupt my sense of being or disturb my self-worth too much. His behaviour was just too vulgar, too cheesy, to be taken seriously. More interesting things will happen to me yet. 

Ever since I was cheated on, I’ve realised how ordinary the experience is. I have friends who have cheated on their partners, and I have plenty of friends who have been cheated on. My therapist had been cheated on while she engaged in an affair of her own. Despite being the victim of this behaviour, I empathise with those who do it. Monogamy can be hard; ethical non-monogamy makes a lot of sense, despite its shortfalls (namely the corny culture around it; think slack liners, undercuts, and coloured hair). Cheating is common and prosaic; a predictable trap we find ourselves in. The great struggle with its existence mystifies me. Why are we always so surprised when we do it, and when it happens to us? 

My new partner has his own history of cheating. Due to that history, he decided monogamy wasn’t for him. Fair enough, other legitimate ways of loving are available. This is one of the reasons I was first drawn to him: there was no chance of being cheated on and of being put in that tradwife box again if monogamy was never a strict assumption. What started as a shallow, self-preserving tactic on my part has grown into something much more liberating, with a deeper sense of trust and commitment. 

Together my partner and I operate somewhere in the middle of two extremes: monogamy that falls victim to cheating, and the polyamorous culture I can’t help but quietly cringe at. We hold onto monogamy with slippery fingers so that we might never limit each other to tired domestic dramas. We recognise that our lives have too much expansive potential for that. 

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