There are some moral precepts that are so deeply embedded in our current culture that almost everybody falls in line with them, seeing them as absolutely just without question, and hence people fall into the usual base drama surrounding them rather than having the perspective to see them for what they are. “Loyalty,” as pertaining to relationships, is one such precept.
The usual story goes that, if you love the person you’re in a relationship with, you shouldn’t ‘hurt’ them by having sexual or romantic encounters or relations with other people, and also, commonly, that if you truly love somebody then you wouldn’t want to have such relations with others in the first place. This precept is so normative that violating it is typically considered immoral.
But there are a couple of problems with this mindset. First, putting a restriction on how your partner is allowed to share his or her love or sexuality with others is not based in love, it’s based in fear, ego, and possessiveness. Love wouldn’t restrict out of selfishness what venues your partner is allowed to take to bring them joy or pleasure.
Second, the hurt one feels when their partner ‘cheats’ on them is based in a quid-pro-quo model of relationships. I’ll give you this if you’ll give me that. Pure, true love is unconditional and doesn’t require anything. Closely related to—and maybe even, ultimately, a synonym of—love is freedom, and if you purely love your partner you’ll give them total freedom. You won’t be hurt if they have relations with another human because you’re not looking primarily to get something from them.
The idea of wanting/needing others to make us happy is why most relationships fail and end in hatred and bitterness. We place all these spoken and unspoken demands on the other, and when they fail to meet our demands it results in arguments or passive-aggressive behavior. Eventually all this frustration boils to the brim and the relationship suffers a fiery death. The king of these demands is, of course, so-called fidelity.
As to the notion that if you truly love someone you won’t want to ‘cheat’ on them, I think that’s false. It’s completely possible to be romantically (or sexually) attracted to more than one person at the same time, and stifling the flame you have for one person for the sake of another person’s ego is tragic. It’s death in degrees.
And even if being attracted to a third person does mean you don’t love your partner, why should you have to be bound to ‘faithfulness’ to someone you don’t love? I get that the ideology goes that if you don’t love the person anymore you should break up with them rather than ‘cheat’ on them, but that’s still based on the idea that ‘cheating’ is wrong which is, again, based in possessiveness and the quid-pro-quo paradigm of relationships.
All of the above is why whenever I hear the word “cheating” in the context of relationships, it sounds thick with ideology. Similarly, using the terms “fidelity,” “loyalty” and “faithfulness” in the same context seems like abuses of the underlying meanings of those terms. So let us please erase the term “cheating” from our cultural lexicon and stop regarding it as an axiomatically immoral act.