we'll never eat the rich if we're talking about their infidelity
welcome to strong feelings! If you love our usual advice column—don’t worry it’s not going anywhere. But today we’re launching a new subcolumn, with a little more teeth. Enter: strong feelings, essays by writers we love, in which they share their most impassioned opinions on a given subject (or thing). This month, Laura Pitcher unpacks cheating discourse online.
Everyone is getting cheated on right now. At least, that’s what it seems like online. Emily Ratajkowski confirmed that she was cheated on in her marriage, Sumner Stroh made a viral video saying she had an affair with Adam Levine, Travis Scott cheating rumors have been circulating, and even “the wife guy” Ned Fulmer was unexpectedly caught up in a cheating scandal. With each rumor (confirmed or unconfirmed) comes a wave of public disbelief, despite 15 percent of married women and 25 percent of married men engaging in affairs. So why—after we declared death to celebrity and influencer culture in 2020—do we still care so much about celebrity infidelity?
There’s no denying that celebrity infidelity has always been sensationalized by the media—think Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston's tabloid stories in the early aughts. In fact, how many of us have Tiger Woods’ cheating scandal etched into our brains as a core memory? Our views around celebrity culture, however, have dramatically shifted since then. We now wince at the tabloid headlines that were needlessly cruel to the likes of Britney Spears. In 2020 there was also a celebrity culture reckoning as a cause of their unrelatable or reckless behavior during the pandemic. Unfortunately, somehow our dialogue around celebrity infidelity got left behind along the way.
After the initial shock reactions to each cheating scandal, the internet usually turns to a tired narrative: “if someone that looks like her can get cheated on, there’s no hope for any of us.” Compilation videos emerge of the woman who was cheated on looking “desirable”, as if being a supermodel makes her somehow more worthy of loyalty. Then there are the more overtly misogynistic videos pitting two women involved in an extramarital affair against each other. The results are so toxic that some people have taken to filtering out infidelity-related content from their algorithm to ease their anxiety.
The nature of social media algorithms has sent us into a cheating rabbit hole that’s obsessive. Infidelity scandals of the rich and beautiful are the new highway police car chase of 2022. We can’t look away but, considering that all our obsession does is feed into tired celebrity pedestal culture and comparison culture online, we should. Feeding the dialogue of “if a celebrity experiences cheating that means ‘regular’ (non-famous) women have no chance of expecting a healthy relationship” not only pushes the narrative that women are responsible for keeping their partners loyal, but also that people with more money and status are more deserving of basic respect.
Part of the issue is putting celebrities, models, and “conventionally attractive” people on a pedestal, says psychotherapist Rachel Wright. “We put so much value on how people look that we think, ‘if they can cheat on that person, I’m screwed,’ as though the reason for the cheating was purely a lack of attraction,” she says. “Spoiler alert: it never is.” Wright says we need to work to detach physical attractiveness from the health of a relationship and reexamine the idea that beauty equals worthiness.
Wright says that infidelity is “super common” but is usually a result of many different factors. “First of all, we’re not taught that there’s any other option than monogamy,” she says. “Additionally, mainstream education doesn’t cover how to be in relationships so sometimes we make mistakes.” Wright says that the reasons people cheat range from a lack of connection, a desire to end the relationship, past trauma, as well as being in abusive situations and feeling unable to leave. “We need to all take a breath and focus on ourselves and our own relationship,” she says.
Our current comparative view of celebrity cheating scandals feeds into our capitalist, patriarchal society, says sex therapist Lexx Brown-James. “If they are the crème de la crème of people, what does that mean for us who aren’t seemingly perfect?” she says. “We’re taught in society that beauty means everything and is all that men want.” Brown-James says the narrative also perpetuates a scarcity model for women dating men, encouraging them to settle for less for fear of being alone.
Brown-James wants to put the current surge of cheating rumors into perspective, as infidelity has always been common; however, it’s currently more amplified in the internet age. “We have to remember that each and every relationship has its own dynamics and parameters,” she says. “People cheat for a myriad of reasons and sexual intercourse is actually quite low on the ladder of ‘why’. Often people are looking for an escape or support that they can't find in their own relationship.”
While there’s no denying that being cheated on can lead to long-term mental health consequences, with some people experiencing symptoms consistent with chronic anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and depression, there’s currently little nuance in online conversations around infidelity. Because of this, relationship coach and content creator Sabrina Flores wants us to move away from black-and-white thinking in regard to infidelity.
“Everything is missing from the current dialogue,” she says. “There is so much stigma and shame that is stifling people from being able to be safe to discuss jealousy or non-traditional relationship dynamics.” And despite the shifting standards around monogamy, the online vitriol about Adam Levine or Emily Ratajkowski’s most recent cheating scandals prove that much of society still lives by “traditional” concepts of partnership. When it comes to celebrities whose inner lives we know little, however, changing the discourse around cheating from simple physical betrayal to a conversation around dishonesty and emotional needs could be a place to start.
Flores believes that part of the reason many people are shocked when celebrities are cheated on is the uneasy realization that “the patriarchy applies even to these women that we hold to an incredibly high, godlike standard”. “I think there’s a lot of escapism in how we revere models, saying ‘if only I looked like that I’d be happy,’” she says. “It doesn’t matter how pretty you are or how famous you are, at the end of the day patriarchy and misogyny are still huge governing forces in our society. I think the shock comes with the reconciliation of that.” Of course, much of the online dialogue comes from a heterosexual lens, due to the more innate misogyny within heterosexual relationships (yes, even from self-confessed “wife guys”).
Despite what your TikTok algorithm may be feeding you, celebrities are not “just like us” because they were cheated on. And Emrata’s divorce doesn’t increase your chances of experiencing infidelity from a long-term partner. In fact, basing any insight on celebrity relationships places far too much emphasis on their relevance in our day-to-day lives. Everyone (despite their appearance) deserves transparency and respect in their relationships. With this in mind, publicly shaming the non-famous women involved in affairs and turning infidelity rumors into a beauty contest isn’t the “girlboss” moment many think it is. After all, you don’t need to be a celebrity to be deserving of love, the basis for a healthy relationship isn’t beauty, and we’ll never eat the rich if we’re too busy talking about their love lives.