Why Are We Still So Scandalized by Cheating?

What our recent obsession with infidelity reveals about us.

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Did everyone always care this much about other people’s relationships, or is it just easier to get caught cheating now?

Last week, when a group of YouTube creators called the Try Guys publicly parted ways with one of its four members, Ned Fulmer, for having what he called a “consensual workplace relationship” with an employee, his indiscretions were quickly contextualized online by shocked and disappointed fans. The moderator of r/TheTryGuys, explaining the persona Fulmer performed in the group to the sub-Reddit’s thousands of curious new visitors, summarized his “whole ‘thing’” like this: “He loves his wife and kids, he’s our internet dad.” Having built a brand as a kinda boring yet wholesome and devoted father and husband, it seems Fulmer won’t soon be forgiven by longtime subscribers who feel personally betrayed by his infidelity. “Feels like losing a family member,” one wrote on Reddit.

If you’ve heard of the Try Guys, you probably remember them from their origins at BuzzFeed in the mid-2010s, where they became one of the digital-media company’s runaway hits for videos like “Guys Try on Ladies’ Underwear for the First Time” and “The Try Guys Try 14 Hours of Labor Pain Simulation.” (Disclosure: I used to work at BuzzFeed News.) The Guys have gone on to start their own company, for which they’ve continued making videos for their primarily Gen-Z audience.

It makes sense that these young people, newer to the banality of someone you once looked up to doing something stupid, would be upset by the Fulmer revalations. What makes less sense is why this story, about niche social-media characters, gained so much viral momentum. It was the top trending topic in the country on Twitter. TMZ even went through the trouble of ambushing Fulmer and his wife, Ariel, on their way to pick up their children last week; the couple told the videographer that they’re “working on working things out.”

People cheat. Finding accurate statistics on exactly how many do is tricky, because not everyone defines infidelity the same way — in one study, nearly 6 percent of people said that buying food for someone of the opposite sex would qualify (big Mike Pence vibes) — and not everyone is willing to fess up to researchers. Official numbers tend to vary widely. According to one 2021 survey, a little more than 46 percent of all respondents in a monogamous relationship admitted to cheated; higher estimates find up to 68 percent of women and 75 percent of men have cheated. More recent research suggests that men and women do so at similar rates.

Adultery is as old as marriage itself. For the October 2017 issue of The Atlantic, psychologist and couples counselor Esther Perel explored why even a good marriage won’t necessarily save your partnership from infidelity. “Never before have our expectations of marriage taken on such epic proportions,” she writes. “Contained within the small circle of the wedding band are vastly contradictory ideals. We want our chosen one to offer stability, safety, predictability, and dependability. And we want that very same person to supply awe, mystery, adventure, and risk … We have conjured up a new Olympus, where love will remain unconditional, intimacy enthralling, and sex oh so exciting, with one person, for the long haul. And the long haul keeps getting longer.”

A lot of people aren’t even bothering anymore. The marriage rate in the U.S. is at its lowest in history. In the 1950s, the vast majority — 80 percent — of American households comprised married couples and their families; by 2020, they made up only 49 percent. Meanwhile, millennials and Gen Z have given rise to the practice of “ethical nonmonogamy,” wherein couples agree to the terms of an open relationship. Queer people, shut out of the institution of marriage for most of its history, have long since written their own rules about love and commitment; a 2021 study found that fully a third of coupled gay men aren’t monogamous, while previous studies report that up to 50 percent of gay men allow for sex outside their partnerships. Now the straights, it seems, are coming around to the liberating possibilities of sex and love beyond the confines of conventional marriage.

But the slow mainstreaming of polyamory and other nontraditional forms of romance doesn’t seem to have done much to destigmatize cheating, which is still believed by 90 percent of people to be unacceptable. Why is it that, as our understanding of the vast complexity of human sexuality continues to evolve, the expectations for monogamy haven’t evolved much with it?

If anything, in our age of 24/7 social-media surveillance, those morally opposed to cheating seem to have only grown more punitive. A 19-second video posted to a couple hundred followers is all it takes to have regular people become internet villains for having maybe, possibly cheated — as was the case with last year’s TikTok “couch guy,” who was widely accused of being unfaithful to his girlfriend because he didn’t seem happy enough to see her during a surprise visit. Earlier this year, a similar fate befell serial ghoster West Elm Caleb, another random normie turned unwilling TikTok star for the crime of casual dating. The apps have deputized anonymous strangers the world over as the Relationship Police, eager to capture and analyze even the hint of an infraction (extramarital or otherwise) from nobodys and famous people alike.

For thrill seekers with a particular taste for Schadenfreude, there’s enormous satisfaction to be gleaned in exposing the cruel hypocrisy of someone like Ned Fulmer, who made being a Wife Guy his identity even as he capitalized on a power imbalance in the workplace to carry out an affair like so many men before him. And hunting adulterers on the internet might prove more fruitful for any one of us than waiting around for the cheaters and abusers in our own lives to face accountability; that might explain the HR fetishists. But beyond the desire for justice to be served, most people weighing in, I’d wager, are just screwing around on the internet. It’s fun to gossip about strangers you’ve never met and never will, whose pain you’ll never feel, whose compromises you’ll never know.

When cheating allegations came for Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine last month, a prelude to the Try Guys fiasco, Levine’s extremely pregnant and potentially jilted wife was probably not top of mind for most as his cringey sexts made the rounds. You have to wonder if Levine would have remained a trending topic for as long as he did if he wasn’t so chronically bad at flirting, for which he got way more shit than he did for the alleged cheating itself. (Levine denies infidelity but says he “crossed the line.”)

Holding the injured party in your mind’s eye for longer than required to make a joke and move on would start getting uncomfortable, because what if she were you? A mother of young children whose husband has publicly humiliated her on the grandest of scales. Who now faces the impossible choice of forgiving the schmuck and keeping their family together or blowing her own life to pieces.

Easier, then, just to focus on the villain, the cheater or maybe-cheater, who has in the public imagination crossed the line separating Good people from Bad. But as Perel notes in her Atlantic story, “the intricacies of love and desire don’t yield to simple categorizations of good and bad, victim and perpetrator.”

It’s one thing to think that cheating, in the abstract, is a clear wrong. But it’s another thing entirely to consider it across the board, without qualifications, as an act of abuse and deserving of social, professional, and even carceral consequences.

In 2011, in Cheryl Strayed’s advice column, Dear Sugar, the writer responded to a letter from a 29-year-old woman reeling from the revelations that her sister and brother-in-law, married for 25 years and the letter-writer’s “role model couple,” had both had affairs in the past. “My position on infidelity is that it’s a deal killer,” the woman wrote. “My fiancé and I have agreed if one of us ever cheated on the other it would be automatically over between us, no conversation required.” Could she still consider her sister and brother-in-law her role-model couple? Should they walk her down the aisle at her wedding?

“There is probably nothing more hurtful and threatening than one partner breaking from an agreed-upon monogamous bond,” Strayed writes in her response. “A pre-emptive ultimatum against that allows at least the sense of control. But it’s a false sense.” She writes openly and honestly about a time early in her own happy relationship when “Mr. Sugar” cheated on her, and it nearly broke them before it didn’t. Ultimately, she writes, “I’m not just grateful that I decided to stay. I’m grateful it happened. It took me years to allow that, but it’s true. That Mr. Sugar cheated on me with the woman who sent him a postcard made us a better couple. It exposed a wound that Mr. Sugar finally, in the course of his relationship with me, opted to heal. It opened a conversation about sex and desire and commitment that we’re still having. And it gave us resources to draw upon when we faced other challenges later on.”

That’s not always the case, of course. Affairs destroy marriages every day. But what’s harmful to a couple as a unit could be completely transformative for one of the individuals in it. Those whose lives have been shattered by affairs might not have much grace to give soul-searching cheaters — I get it! But for something that happens with astonishing regularity, to every possible type of couple, it’s perhaps worth recognizing that so many people exploring sex and intimacy outside of their long-term relationships is not so much trying to make up for whatever’s lacking in their marriages but attempting to discover something new about themselves.

People are complicated. Monogamy is complicated. But the allure of cheating-callout culture collapses the context of those complications. Cheating is such a handy shorthand. When, three years ago, I left a long-term partnership because I fell in love with someone else, the fact that my ex had cheated on me a single time and promptly admitted it and apologized for it felt like the most powerful tool in my messy post-breakup arsenal — the perfect way for me to justify my own shitty and hurtful actions. The truth is that there are infinite ways for human beings to break each other’s hearts.

Cheating is one of them: from the sloppy one-time drunken hookup at a work conference far from home to the establishment of secret second families. Some people will feel horrible about their mistake and immediately fess up; others will cheat again, denigrating and gaslighting their partners in the process. To those cheated on, it might feel like either a particularly pesky hangnail or a sledgehammer to the chest. Infidelity is as diverse as we are, we hopelessly flawed humans — all of us trying our best to love and to be loved.

Why Are We Still So Scandalized by Cheating?