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The “Truth-o-Meter” of Extramarital Sex: Mistresses and Lovers for Dummies, Chapter Two

The most sterling truth standard in marriage is that you’re both monogamous for life, if you vowed that you would be. You don’t flirt with intent; you don’t have boozy one-night stands; you don’t “sext” bare-chested or bikini shots to random people online; you don’t have affairs or side dishes. No exceptions, and no “it’s not how it looks” rationalizations.

But this column’s about that other, murkier realm.

POLITIFACT has a great feature to gauge the veracity of politicians’ statements, called the “Truth-o-Meter,” and I’m adapting it here to better understand extramarital liaisons.

Rule #2 in my “Mistresses and Lovers for Dummies” series is that you need to find a mutually agreeable, consensual position, with integrity, on the Cheat-o-Meter“Cheating” isn’t a negotiated, ethically open marriage.

For convenience, I’m going to alternate terms between wife and husband.  But I reckon that this cheat-o-meter applies to any committed relationship, to either partner, and to same-sex marriages.


This is the most extreme setting on the Cheat-o-Meter. You and your wife have never discussed non-monogamy. Neither of you has ever professed a philosophical belief or interest in it. 

You pledged in marriage to be monogamous. But you’re having an affair.  You sneak out and concoct cover stories. You say you’re in one place when you’re in another (and how).

To recall Donald Rumsfeld’s famous remarks, your wife lives in the world of the “unknown unknowns.” She doesn’t even know what she doesn’t know.

You don’t hint at the existence of this “unknown” to your wife, either. Instead, you do the opposite. You reinforce a monogamy vow that you’re not following. You express incomprehension and moral dismay at politicians’ infidelities.

Maybe you’re a Double Dip fibber, because you lie to your mistress, too. Perhaps you tell her that you’re separated,  basically divorced, that your wife’s institutionalized or “crazy,” or that you’re in an open marriage, when you’re in nothing of the sort.


Things get slightly more ambiguous. You still construct cover stories, and you don’t tell your husband that you have a lover.  But in some meaningful way, you’ve discussed with him that you don’t think a marriage needs to be monogamous forever. Maybe you’ve both professed philosophical broad-mindedness.  

In other words, you’ve been hypothetically truthful.  It’s just that in real life, where your marriage actually lives, you’re lying your partially-aflame pants off.

An example is a cross-cultural couple—he European, she American–that had professed a French-ish tolerance, but the wife didn’t interpret that as permission, while the husband did, and acted on it. The fig leaf of the hypothetical didn’t help when his affair was revealed.


This is the white lie setting. The husband’s cheated, but the wife doesn’t feel that upset. Sometimes these are marriages of convenience, Platonic unions, or marriages on the edge of divorce.

The spouses are on the same page that things are unwinding, or just sexually odd, between them. Maybe they’re already thinking like divorced people, so they’ve stopped asking for or expecting fidelity.

I’m remembering a same-sex couple. One partner began an affair, and her partner found out, but far from being angry, she thought tenderly that this would be a good time for them to formally, officially break up, because her partner would have her new girlfriend to comfort her!


Cyberspace has expanded this category. The wife doesn’t think she’s cheated because she hasn’t done more than send emails, flirt online, or share photos.

Hers might well be a genuine conviction. Most marriages don’t establish rules about what they permit online. Sexual ethics usually get discussed only after the extramarital crisis. How is her flirting different than watching pornography, she thinks? If bodies don’t touch, it isn’t cheating.

It’s not an outrageous standard, but it’s one that her husband might not share at all.

Anthony Weiner staked out this ground, and his constituents supported him, for a while, at least.


The wife “knows” but hasn’t been told. His silence isn’t a lie so much as an act of discretion. She knows but doesn’t know. And, furthermore, the husband knows that the wife knows, and that she’d prefer not to be confronted with an awkward, therapeutic, confessional, truth-telling moment, because they’re both pretty happy with the status quo.   

It’s a fragile marital ecology, this limbo of truth and lie. It was probably more common in the pre-sexual revolution days. One of my favorite quotes in my book was from a wife interviewed in the early 1960s who said of monogamy, “it’s merely a set of rules which one talks up on formal occasions and with people who don’t really matter, anyway. You sort of wallow around in that sentimental mishmash, like Fourth of July speeches… and college commencement speeches. No one takes any of it seriously, anyway.”

But they acted like they did, which was both convenient and socially important.

DON’T ASK, DON’T TELL               

In this category, the wife’s not lying. She’s just not telling. She and her husband have an explicit agreement not to ask or tell. To recall Rumsfeld, this is the marriage of the “known unknown,” where “we know there are some things we do not know.”  


You negotiate specific rules about non-monogamy. You can have a fling occasionally, for example. Or, you’ll permit online flirtation. It’s not a hypothetical freedom.

Some couples told me about their “50-mile Rule.” They’re allowed to have the occasional fling, so long as it’s beyond a 50-mile radius of home.

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These categories are moving us into Rumsfeld’s “known knowns”— where “we know we know.”


You and your husband accept that you might each have other relationships, or liaisons. In the past you’ve been explicit about the fact. But maybe not now, or maybe not consistently. Sometimes, you might tell the truth. A few years later, you fudge a little.


You’re open with your wife. But you’re not necessarily choosing partners who are open with their spouses, so you’re contributing to a lie in another marriage.

OPENLY, ETHICALLY NON-MONOGAMOUS                        

This is the truthiest of the truth settings. It’s not conflict-free or easy, but you and your husband agree to a non-monogamous relationship. You don’t do this through implication but by actual conversations, with words. You negotiate some rules, and you live by them even when you’d prefer to fudge, or when they make you uncomfortable.

You have partners who are truthful with their partners, too.

It’s not easy to achieve this standard.

Other marriages in this category are recreationally non-monogamous together, and therefore are obviously honest with each other. Maybe they go on swinging holidays, or to parties and clubs. 


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