One antonym of monogamy is infidelity. A spouse who is well and truly monogamous is said to be “faithful”; one who steps out, who cheats, is “unfaithful.”

These linguistic choices, with their implicit religiosity, elide and obfuscate as much as they describe and reveal. And much of what they describe and reveal is unintentional.

When we mean to describe the phenomenon of one spouse’s “cheating” on another, we resort to religious language, the language of faith. The sin in infidelity isn’t the sin of the act (adultery). No, it’s the sin of the underlying mental state – faithlessness – that is presumed (proven) to exist by virtue of the act.

But what if one doesn’t believe, but doesn’t act on one’s unbelief? Or worse, if one believes, but acts nonetheless?

Surely many physically monogamous marriages lack faith, and likely, many non-monogamous marriages possess it.

But as the language makes clear, non-monogamy is heresy, faithlessness, atheism, idolatry.

What could possibly be worse?

* Hat tip to Adam Phillips, whose Monogamy is a brilliant, eminently accessible disquisition on the subject. This post is an elaboration of his thoughts on this particular subject. I expect to write more about what he writes in coming days.


  1. This is something that bothers me, as a faithful person. I cheated, was unfaithful to my husband. But now I think he was unfaithful too. Not in the carnal sense, but in his word spoken to me on our wedding day. His vow to love me and support me. And that unfaithfulness happened before mine. So who cheated the most?!
    Ok, it’s a rethorical question… don’t feel you have to answer 🙂

    1. I’ve never liked the word “cheated.” None of us chooses to cheat, other than the sociopaths among us. When we betray those we love, we almost invariably do so out of some combination of weakness and compulsion, not venality. “Cheating” is an act of malevolence, of dishonor. In marriage, in relationships, cheating is far more often, I suspect, an act of desperation.

      1. Well, my “cheating” was most certainly an act of desperation. I needed it to survive as a woman. What you write about betraying those we love… it may have been true for you. I’m not sure I loved him anymore when it happened, so it doesn’t completely apply to me. But it certainly wasn’t an act of malevolence on my part. I never did it to hurt him, just to save myself.

        1. I think the part about “loving” was extraneous to what I meant. I meant to say, few of us set out to betray, to hurt. We act out of other motivations, often not even particularly “selfish” ones (but sometimes they are selfish). In any event, cheating in a game seems very different to me than cheating in a relationship.

  2. I’m not so sure religiosity is inherent in the language. At its root, faith and fidelity are not about belief but fealty — allegiance which is obliged and sworn to a lord. This is feudalism, rather than religion. (Yes, there is a lot of feudal inheritance in Judeo-Christianity. But the concepts remain much the same; just replace lord with g-d.) Historically, the problem with faith is that it is predicated on a power imbalance — an obligation of faithfulness which isn’t (necessarily) reciprocated. Historically, this language was used within the context of marriage to reinforce the notion of man as lord over his household. Sexual availability (and exclusivity) being only one aspect of such a wife’s fealty.

    Modern usage has largely moved away from this, towards the more egalitarian “loyal to each other”. The nature of loyalty has also become more ambiguous. Society still has default assumptions regarding what financial, emotional, and sexual commitments a marriage should involve (some of which are enshrined in law), but it is not that uncommon for people in relationships to redefine these for themselves, albeit with varying degrees of friction from their greater community.

    My husband & I have, for instance, made various pledges of support & availability to each other, but not not all of those pledges include exclusivity. Our relationship still requires faithfulness (living up to the pledges we’ve made), but our faithfulness has nothing to do with monogamy.

    1. This is interesting. I hadn’t thought of the point you make. I’m not SURE I’m convinced, though. After all, “fealty” to a “lord” is simply a restatement of religious concepts. The religious belief came first. So it may be that “fidelity” hearkens back to BOTH – the feudal, and the religious.

      Anyway – I agree with the conclusion – my marriage requires all sorts of things, but not sexual monogamy.

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