How to Do It

I Can’t Tell If My Wife Would Consider What I Do With Other Men “Cheating”

A man looks at his laptop, next to a videochat emoji.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Have a question? Send it to Stoya and Rich here. It’s anonymous!

Every week, the crew responds to a bonus question in chat form.

Dear How to Do It,

I’m a 33-year-old man. I realized/admitted to myself that I was bi after I first started dating my now-wife (also 33) seven years ago. We took a break early in our relationship for about a year because of unrelated life events, but because of the circumstances, I wasn’t really able to explore my newly realized sexuality. I only hooked up with one guy during that period and it wasn’t super great, honestly.

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I have discussed this with my wife and have told her honestly that it has no effect on the way I feel about her, which is that I am deeply committed to her and to our relationship, that I am excited and fulfilled by our sex life, and have no need to date or have sex with other men. We are very happy, and very monogamous. But a few times since we got back together (maybe every two years or so), I have signed up for Grindr for a few days and used it to chat with guys, share pics/videos (never face), and to remotely jack off together. I find this pretty thoroughly scratches my itch, and is honestly better than the one hookup I had with a guy. I have no intention of meeting up with any of these guys and am clear about that in my communications with them.

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Part of me feels like this is basically no different than watching porn, which my wife knows I do. But we don’t really talk about porn or share the details the same way we talk about our sex life, in part because we both realize that creating space for personal and private fantasies is a healthy dimension to overall wellness. But part of me feels like this is one small step into a (vast) gray area between watching porn and actually cheating. To be clear, I am not worried I am going to keep taking small steps and eventually find myself being unequivocally unfaithful to my wife.

The thing that gives me pause, and my question for you is: Where is the line, and which side of it am I on? Is sharing pleasure with another person–even absent physical or emotional connection–unethical in a monogamous relationship? I know that the best answer is to discuss this with her, but I would appreciate knowing whether I have already crossed a line.

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—Camera Shy

Stoya: So I think the line here is less about what’s monogamy and more about what the partner might be upset by.

Rich: I totally agree. The line is hers to define.

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Stoya: And his. Would he feel “caught” in some way if she found out? Then he ought to be upfront about it.

Rich: Yes, sometimes I get the feeling that when people ask these questions, they are doing so because they know their partner wouldn’t approve and are trying to build up defense ahead of time. Our writer basically indicates as much in his last line.

What I appreciate about this question, though, is that it does start to pick at the liminal spaces modern connection creates. This question fundamentally wonders how much say your partner should have on your behavior. If you’re on Grindr, does flirting begin to violate agreed-upon monogamy? This stuff is not at all easy to answer because I think it has to be case-by-case based on the comfort levels of the partners and their conception of fidelity.

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Stoya: I wouldn’t consider one-on-one interactions with people off of Grindr to be in line with monogamy, but clearly our letter writer thinks this may be the case. I’m curious, since he says he knows the answer is to discuss this with their wife, why he isn’t doing so. It’s Schrodinger’s line: We can’t know if you’ve crossed it unless you talk to her and find out.

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Rich: Aside from quantum considerations, I think it’s because this behavior is about as meaningful as porn to him—he’s seeing it on the same spectrum, so he’s allowing himself a scenario in which what he’s doing is permissible. I get the sense that he’s being very careful about this (not including his face, etc.), but what you mentioned at the start of this chat is spot on: Is this information that would cause strife if inadvertently revealed? And it seems like it would.

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Stoya: I’m thinking about my own webcam clients and wondering if their partners know about our interactions. And wondering if they ought to know. Well, obviously commerce makes this different.

Rich: I’ve been thinking about this in general because I revisited Esther Perel’s Mating in Captivity recently. She talks about the importance of maintaining mystery for prolonged eroticism with a long-term partner and that keeping secrets/telling white lies in other cultures is key to not just doing that, but respecting one’s partner overall:

“Most American couples therapists believe that affairs must be disclosed if intimacy is to be rebuilt. This idea goes hand in hand with our model of intimate love, which celebrates transparency—having no secrets, telling no lies, sharing everything. In fact, some people condemn the deception even more than the transgression: “It’s not that you cheated, it’s that you lied to me!” To the American way of thinking, respect is bound up with honesty, and honesty is essential to personal responsibility. Hiding, dissimulation, and other forms of deception amount to disrespect. You lie only to those beneath you—children, constituents, employees.”

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In some other cultures, respect is more likely to be expressed with gentle untruths that aim at preserving the partner’s honor. A protective opacity is preferable to telling truths that might result in humiliation. Hence concealment not only maintains marital harmony but also is a mark of respect.”

Perel ends up deferring to a client who has resolved to keep an affair secret from his wife, which I actually don’t like! But then, I’m American! Nonetheless, I thought this was an interesting way to think about intimacy.

Stoya: I agree that space to come together is important, and I think there’s absolutely a world where he has his wife’s consent to have these virtual interactions.

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Rich: I think presenting this behavior as not a big deal to him, as being something very much along the lines of porn consumption, would be a useful perspective to include.

Stoya: For sure. And if she’s inclined to get upset about it, the framing of this being low importance to him might help.

Rich: Yes. What he’s doing is exploring his sexuality in a way that is hands-off and, he seems to feel, not a threat to his relationship. I don’t think he should beat himself up over this, but it’s just something that I think your partner should be aware of, if the goal is to be strictly ethical.

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Stoya: I think there’s a way to be transparent about this without interfering with space for personal and private fantasies, and then he won’t have to feel like he may be hiding something.

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Rich: Right. To be clear, I don’t think this is catastrophic or should end a relationship, but mitigating anger or sadness on her part may require a rigorous articulation of what this means to him and why he’s doing it. So he should give himself the time and space to be able to do just that.

More How to Do It

I am the guy who did the stupid thing from a hundred overheated online stories: I slept with my straight roommate when we were both drunk. I am the only gay guy (seemingly!) in a shared house of five guys, and this was very much unplanned. I was totally fine with it, and he acted like he was too, but it’s clear he’s not. A month later, I now hear him having loud sex with women regularly, which I definitely never heard before. He’s not hostile, but he won’t really look me in the eye either. The other roommates have asked me if I’ve noticed him acting strangely. Is it wise to bring this up with him, or should I just let it go?

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