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My Useless Masters Degree in African History Explains Infidelity

I was walking with my husband the other night and discussing my next blog post with him. I was thinking how my useless masters degree from SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London) in African history actually pertains a lot to the study of infidelity. He was skeptical. “I don’t know,” said the man with a useless masters degree in comparative literature from Columbia. (Asked why he didn’t continue with a PhD he often says “I couldn’t spend that much time contemplating George Elliot’s use of the semicolon.”) He had reservations. “Don’t use words like ‘oppression.’ People will think you’re one of those ridiculous women’s studies majors.”

Pish posh. I’m not a ridiculous women’s studies major. I studied history… with African Marxists.

Frankly, African Marxists have a lot of interesting things to say about oppression and mindfuckery. LOTS.

It surprises me that more people do not see infidelity in terms of, well, oppression. Marxists would have a field day studying infidelity — the allocation of ego kibbles, who controls the means of production. Cheaters cheat to maintain a position of advantage over you. Colonizers colonize for similar reasons — advantage. You there, worker bee, make me kibbles so that I the narcissist may consume the kibbles! Let me construct a system that guarantees me kibbles and ensures the primacy of my needs, while you receive little to no kibbles and enjoy serf status! See how that works?

Think I’m being cynical? Funny?

Human nature is replete with examples of people fucking one another over. Of grabbing resources, by artifice, deceit, or aggression. Selfishness is apparently in our genes they say. So why are people surprised that these primal, human dynamics come into play in our relationships? The grab for the goodies, the stepping on another’s neck to get what we want? It’s not just for armies in the history books — it might be your spouse.

That of course is what makes it so frightening, and why we have to blame the victim. We only do shitty, colonizing, genocidal things to Others. Not the people on our own team!

But they’re very similar cheaters and colonizers. It’s not enough to bonk someone over the head and steal their kibbles. Yeah, you get some kibbles, but it’s a very short-sighted business plan. If you want a continuous supply of kibbles, you need to convince the subjugated that it is Right and Good to give you kibbles. That is the Natural Order of Things. In short — you need to colonize their minds. THAT is how you build an Empire. Convince people that oppression is what they deserve. It only happened because they enlisted and cooperated. And if it’s painful and seems unjust? That’s their fault. You’re a bad subject! Mindfuckery is the great tool of oppressors everywhere.

“Decolonizing the Mind” is a seminal essay by the great Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o. He discusses how Britain colonized Kenya not just by force or creating global markets, but through the British Empire and its cultural institutions. Through the very language Kenyans used to express themselves. While he loves Shakespeare and many things about Britain, he concludes that Kenyans must “decolonize their minds” and write in their native languages. They are not “less than” because they are not British.

People write about infidelity — oh, there are “no victims, only volunteers.” Which I find both offensive, and true. I find it offensive because it is this reductionist, blame the victim view of infidelity — you signed up for this. You chose this. You allowed it to happen. And really, it wouldn’t have happened if you didn’t have such a bad picker/didn’t get fat/insist on monogamy/have another kid/change jobs ad infinitum. It absolves the colonizer cheater of responsibility. It rewrites history. We didn’t come with guns and take your shit. No, you realized you were inferior and couldn’t handle things and you needed superior people to come and build you railroad lines. The discussion is not about oppression, entitlement and cruel choices — instead it devolves into a discussion about the deficiencies of the subjugated, what they lacked that caused people to colonize them (which really was the best thing that could ever have happened to them, and shouldn’t they be grateful?)

Yet, I find “there are no victims, only volunteers” true in that yes, every tyrant needs subjects. We often fail to realize how much we allowed ourselves to be co-opted, how colonized our minds were, how much bad treatment we “volunteered” for, all the while convincing ourselves that this is natural. That is the most humiliating thing about infidelity — we accepted this crap partner as our right and due. We worked hard to be good subjects in a relationship that was rigged to deny us kibble reciprocity. We thought we weren’t good enough. We thought it was natural that the cheater come first in all things. We’ll just work harder and try to be a bit more grateful for what they give us. We’ll make our needs smaller and smaller. Because that’s what faithful subjects do.

The oppressive regime can crumble, but you’re often still left with a colonized mind. You’re a Kenyan forgetting your native tongue. But you were once a vibrant person, fluent in your own identity. The crap of infidelity is not over until you decolonize your mind.

Amandla!

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  • Wonderfully said. Only slightly twinged with the accent of Progressive Academic Semiotics.

    (from http://everything2.com/title/Amandla%2521+Ngawethu%2521 ):

    “Amandla, roughly translated, means ‘power’ in the Nguni languages of South Africa.
    On various web-sites, you will find it translated as ‘power to the people’, ‘the power is ours’ or even ‘power to the majority’. As far as I am aware, this translation is not strictly correct. Amandla by itself should simply be translated as power. The mistake is made so commonly because ‘Amandla!’ is usually used as part of a traditional call and response, in which one party will call out ‘Amandla!’, and the other party (or, more usually, parties) will respond with ‘Ngawethu’ (also sometimes spelt Awethu). As part of this expression, ‘Amandla’ should be translated as ‘power’, and ‘Ngawethu’ as ‘to the people’ or ‘is ours’.

    “So, Power to the people!, or ‘Power is ours.'”

    Amen to that, fellow chumps!

    Also, a trailer for a great movie of the same name: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9rD6LxhZuuc

  • Great article CL! Now that I finally have the mechanics of the separation behind me (he moved out, legal separation decree done, house repainted/reorganized etc…), I’m faced with finding the “native”, true me again. It’s been a slow process, but its coming along. It’s actually coming along really well. I feel so much better than I did 2 months ago when I found CL and know I will feel even better in 2 more months, and 2 more months… and so on.

    Keep writing CL, you are keeping many of us afloat. Thank you for what you do…

  • Just one comment? Are you kidding? Stellar post!!! I NEED two posts a day. One for my morning and one for my evening. Please and thank you 🙂

    • Thanks guys. Well, I just wrote it today, there’s only so much of me to spread on the thin toast of social media. But I appreciate the kind words. I’m glad it helps! (Otherwise I think I’m muttering to myself about Ngugi wa Thiong’o…)

  • Love this, CL!! I agree whole heartedly that infidelity is about control. I have been trying to express this to one of my BS buddies for years now (she is a reconciler). I keep recommending your blog, but she is not capable of it right now. I hope someday she will get here. But she is a perfect case in point.

    Her cheater cheated before they married, then had a variety of emotional affairs after they were married and finally had a torrid emotional and physical affair several years ago. He asked for a divorce then and moved oit, but my friend went around the bend when that happened. She made all kinds of threats to herself and to her kids…and he went back, but was still cake eating emotionally with his other woman.

    At the end, the OW kicked him to the curb and my friend got her on the phone and the OW said: he is treating everyone shamefully, including you and your childrwn, and all he cares about is control.

    My friend was incensed, but I said, look, she may be a dirty cheater, but she is right, the guy is running in circles trying to be in control of everyone and everything. Just kick him out, because the end result is he is still going to own you, if he stays, he is the one in control. She said, no, I am. If he stays, I will be in control of everything he does.

    In the end, their relationship is just a back and forth power struggle. They are both oppressed and opressors. They are complicit in their own destruction as human beings. And she cannot see the point of your essay, which is the ability for the oppressed to find their native voices. She is so enmeshed in her identity of “wife and mother” that she cant remember how it is to just be Jane.

    She said to me the other day…you know, his OW was smart, she kicked him to the curb. This from a woman whose husband is, supposedly, remorseful. I told her it is never to late. I am going to send her this link. I hope to God she reads it.

    • Oh, and one other thing: Historian of medieval history here, One year out from Ph.D) with a focus on gender studies (though I am not currently practicing) so, you know, we can all duel over who has the crunchiest (& least practical) major focus in the history of ever. 🙂

    • I feel for your friend. It’s hard to let go of the rope, that tug of war, power struggle.

      The real struggle is to liberate, to get yourself free.

      I know people in “R” stay away from this site, but I’m not anti-R, I just see so few convincing cases of it. Her husband sounds like a serial cheater and not the least bit sorry. Which means this crap is going to continue. Sorry is as sorry does, and serial cheaters need a lot more to bring to the table than being “sorry.”

      • It is hard to let go of the power struggle, but really, letting go is the power position. If you’re in tug-o-war and you let go, the other person falls on his or her ass, and you walk away with minor rope burns, but under your own volition and on your feet.

        The trouble with the colonization of people within a marriage (and this works both ways — for men and women) is that often there is a very real inability to walk away without lots of bloodshed. If men leave, they run the risk of a vindictive wife taking away access to (or contributing to alienation of affection etc) children. If women leave, they may find themselves living a lifestyle that is many pegs down from that which they are used to, because of being SAHM etc.

        The thing about my friend is: She felt she could not allow him to go. He told their MC that he feels like he has four children, 3 minors and his wife. And believe me, he relishes that position, because their dependence on him gives him carte blanche to behave as he wishes. He will cheat again, I’ve told her he will, it is just a matter of time. But for now his ego is placated because he has a woman on the hook who was willing to take her own life in the face of the loss of him. That’s a HUGE ego kibble.

        You know, some colonized people try to do “good”, they try to “go along” and fit in with the occupying power. They try to work with the system, thinking that they will be safe and protected. I think that’s what some people do in some marriages, in good faith, work within the system, I mean. They think it is only appropriate to meld identities and become “of one” flesh or whatever the heck people think is the thing to do. I know that’s the line I was taught by my mother — you know, be a good wife, mind my husband, etc. etc.

        Never worked for me, I was always too strong willed and wanted my own identity. I was married, but I was not “just” the “wife of” or the “wife and mother of…” I was happy to be a partner, but I didn’t want to give up who I was. Any relationship where I felt like I was being engulfed, I got out. And I honestly think that made me stronger when it came to brass tacks in my marriage. I was willing to linger in an emotionally unfulfilling relationship because it suited me and suited my son, but cheating was a deal break, because it did smack of control. Like, decisions were being made by a little man behind a curtain and I had no idea what the reality was so I could do what was best for myself in that situation. No thank you, Mr. Oz.

        Maybe I have always been a political subversive within my relationships. Ha. 🙂

        • I maybe taking the analogy too far, but I don’t think healthy relationships require the co-opting of self, of giving up who you are. A healthy partner LOVES you for who you are. Perhaps a healthy marriage is more like a socialist democracy (fair distribution of kibbles), and an unhealthy marriage is more like a tinpot dictatorship with low intensity conflict wars (kibble inequality and exploitation).

          A good marriage doesn’t require going along and fitting in with the occupying power, but that is an excellent analogy for being in an abusive relationship. I will morph myself into the perfect citizen, I will be commended for my kibble production! Never realizing (or wanting to) that the game is rigged.

          I feel sorry for your friend, but frankly, she sounds very emotionally unhealthy. To threaten to kill yourself if someone leaves you is hugely manipulative, not to mention sad and desperate. She’s got some dependency issues there. The energy would be better directed at escaping from this whole, employing a kickass lawyer, and a good therapist.

  • Well said, CL. I think that mine also wanted to control his image– he chose me, someone he could please his parents with, and he kept me around long enough to have children, another item on his list of what appears respectable and would please his parents.

    But, deep down, he wanted a whole bunch of other things that I didn’t want– clearly, a vanilla, ordinary family life was the last things he wanted, but it suited him to have that as a front. What I think he didn’t expect is that once I found out, I wasn’t interested in playing along. I think he figured that I would let him cake eat for the kids, and I didn’t.

    Thanks, CL. Coming here and reading these posts continually affirms to me that I made the right decision.

  • Whole heartedly agree with the split decision on the victim/volunteer question. I was a victim of his abuse. I was a victim of his lies. I was a victim of his cheating and exposing me to god knows what. I was a victim of his mis management of our finances. However. I volunteered to stay. I volunteered to believe his manipulative charm and “try to focus on all the positive things about our life.” I volunteered to not see that I was “that woman” that stood for being treated like a piece of dog shit. The reality may be the same as any oppressed people, as you so eloquently pointed out, that after hearing for so long how lucky I was to have him and our life I absolutely believed that it was normal, even enviable. I volunteered to believe that I would never find another love like him.

    God, I hope not!

    The mindfuck that is abuse is insidious. It IS oppression. It IS colonization of another human being. That is the point for them. I get tired of hearing about “sex addicts” and other BS. “A tiger can’t change his stripes” blahblahblah. It’s about control. It’s about ego.

    You nailed it.

  • Great post CL and all very true. I remember the summer before I found out about all the cheating–which happened about a year ago. My spidey sense was going mad and I KNEW something was wrong. My response? First, to ask him repeatedly if everything was ok with HIM, obviously getting ‘everything is fine’. Then we would be sitting around talking and having wine and I’d be rambling on saying how lucky we were to have so many great things in our lives: friends, family, the kids were fairly ok, nice home, etc. etc. etc. Almost like I had to convince myself that golly, it was all just fine and dandy. Meanwhile I was sinking into a deeper and deeper depression.

    Then when the shit hit the fan he started rambling on about how crap everything was, our friends sucked, our life sucked, I pretty much sucked, blah blah blah. Basically he wasn’t getting enough ego kibbles from me and dammit, he was going to get his fair share no matter what!

    It was control and oppression and abuse. He was screwing my friend and a bunch of others and something my therapist said to me really stood out: when someone cheats with your friend or another person who is part of YOUR life and YOUR support network, it’s a complete act of hostility, because it takes away part of what props you up in life and that goes along with your thinking in this article: colonisers take away language, customs, anything that will undercut the ability to fight back. That’s what cheaters do as well, and they do it even more so when they cheat in YOUR world.

    But fuck him. I’ve taken my world back from him. It’s not completely rebuilt but I’m getting there. No one will ever take over my world again.

    • Excellent point about screwing your friend. It is poisoning your well of support. Abusers isolate. They do it emotionally, geographically. It is about access and threats to the kibble supply.

  • I remember a discussion when I pointed out that his act of cooking was an example of “love” and he insisted it was “control”. I remember thinking it was very odd he would want to say that but it was all part of the mindgames scenario. I am not back to enjoying preparing my own food. I have a small posh box of veg delivered every week to ensure I eat them! Pretentious, moi?

  • Damn. That. Was. So. Perfect.

    I so totally describes what happened to me, the gradual accepting of less and less until one day you have nothing. A serf in your own marriage and household.

    And to think I originally scoffed when I read the title.

  • Oh, CL, this is too much — and too good — thanks! The ‘toon is perfect too!

    This theory explains why Bob Marley’s Redemption Song, of all things, keeps playing in my head since I left Cheater.

    “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds…”

    And likely also explains why I’ve been playing Michael Jackson’s Beat It and Bad incessantly in the car…

    De Man and Cheating Douchebags do have a lot in common…Brilliant observation, CL, thanks again!

  • You’re brilliant. Doing God’s work. BS, here. Played super hardball. He’s signing over fancy house and I’m getting 3/4 of everything he has and lifetime support. I threw him out even after a long marriage & brood of kids. Happily dating. Can you talk about the “sickness piece.” Bipolar II diagnosis seems legit and he’s addressing (daily) for substance abuse. I’m middle aged but still hot. The sperm repositories were horsefaces clear cases of sexual trading down and everything was wham bam thank you man. (I’m a detective by trade.) Of course he wants back in. I told him maybe in 3 or 4 years. I have spent 2/3 of my life with him and for all but 1.5 years he was a good but not excellent spouse. Is it ever not a mistake to take these lying sluts back? Can you comment.

    • Comment? Lots there! First, kudos on getting an excellent divorce settlement. Why would you take him back? You’ve achieved what few do — a sustaining settlement. So economics are on your side. (Not to be too hard nosed about it, but I come from a long line of ruthless capitalists.) Per the in sickness and health, http://69.195.124.65/~chumplad/2012/08/dear-chump-lady-but-i-took-a-vow/ I talk about that here.

      I left my first husband because of an untreated mental illness. It does get trickier when they treat it (my ex had no such interest, it could be argued that’s part of the illness). It’s such a personal decision and a complicated issue. I think many cheaters point to mental illness to explain (and give a pass to) infidelity. I dementia being used as an excuse for midlife crisis. (Which if true, makes NO sense why you would reconcile with someone who is apparently neurologically incapable of being faithful to you).

      Mental illness, addiction – are things that can put you seriously in harm’s way. I personally think that is too great of a burden to bear, and we should not martyr ourselves to a bad marriage. If someone is that disabled by addiction or illness, they have disability, to work, and IMO to do the work of marriage and parenting. I think you should lovingly detach (as they say in the addiction recovery language). You can love someone and not be married to them, and put yourself out of harm’s way. Self love is important too.

    • Niamb:

      Since you are a detective by trade, is it possible to find out about past affairs? Or is the trail too cold?

      Since reading about red flags and the behaviors of a cheater while married, there are several periods over the past 15 years in which I feel my STBX had to be cheating. He exhibited all the behaviors as in the last affair he was caught in. Including a secret bank account.

      It would be nice to know about this and also use it when finalizing the divorce.

      I did try to find proof but can’t. Just curious.

  • So many things to relate to but, unfortunately, not a fabulous divorce settlement. Hindsight is 20/20. Just wish I had looked after my own interests a lot better and listened less to his career focus as being for “all of us”. It wasn’t.
    Empty nest now. Upset daughter rang me last night to tell me that I was “well out of it” as she’d tried to talk to him, but he just couldn’t relate to anything she said, and was antagonistic to anything but his own way. I realised how much of a buffer I was for everyone else.

  • Yes! Gorgeous thinking and so true. Two phrases stand out: “Convince people that oppression is what they deserve” and “… you were once a vibrant person, fluent in your own identity.” YES. That fluency is what we need to restore … and sometimes, there’s been such a wipeout of being that we need to learn a new tongue. That’s how the process feels to me right now.

    That’s no useless degree you attained, CL 🙂

  • This is why I have opted not to get married. However, I am learning that marriage does not have to be bad but one needs to know what a healthy marriage is in order to create one.

    • LJ — the best advice I got on that is find another giver. Another (recovering) codependent. Someone who can cope and shoulder their share (and is used to shouldering more than their share). I found another giver — and marriage is infinitely, indescribably different for the better.

      • I think that’s excellent advice. I suppose you also have to be patient to distinguish between those who are “givers” and those who are “playing” at being givers. I realise I haven’t had a clue for so long. Mind you, they’re not queuing up.

      • I worry that after so long I won’t know how to accept someone else actually trying to give… it sounds awesome in theory but might be weird for me in practice. Sadly, I even have realized I might actually feel guilty about “taking” too much. But maybe that’s just because that’s how I felt about asking my STBX for anything. And him giving without me asking for it? Almost unheard of!

        I mean, intellectually I know I deserve someone like that… but intellectually I knew I deserved it before and never took a step back and realized I wasn’t getting it at all until all this shit hit the fan.

  • I got African history, the psychological legacy of colonialism, humor and the deconstruction of infidelity in realpolitik terms all in one article.

    Such awesomeness cannot be confined to a blog. The people request a YouTube channel.

    • Aww, thanks Opera. I’ve got three episodes of me on HuffPo Live (links on this blog somewhere…) Which is probably enough of me to inflict on the general public for now. But thanks for the suggestion!

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