Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Other Kind of Cheating

Here's a true story. A friend of mine was invigilating a first-year biology exam years ago in a large university lecture hall when he noticed one young man acting suspiciously. My friend decided to watch him more closely and before long he saw the young man pause to ponder, look around for a moment, sneak a look under his wristwatch, and then continue writing on his exam paper. Wanting to put a stop to this, my friend moved so he was standing closer to the guy and stared in the student's direction, making it rather obvious that he was watching. The student glanced up nervously and then bent over his exam paper, studiously avoiding looking anywhere else. Before long, though, he twisted his body slightly to one side and snuck another rather obvious glance at the underside of his watch.

My friend had had enough. He marched over and asked, "Can I see your watch for a moment?" The student appeared to be flustered, but he had no choice. He fumbled off his watch and handed it over. Surprise, surprise; my friend found a small piece of paper taped to the back, with a single word written on it: "Gotcha!"

I have caught people looking at their neighbor's paper in my exams. The university has an official policy for dealing with this situation, which involves standardized procedures and student appeal committees. I have a simpler solution. When the cheating is obvious, I simply present myself to the student, smile warmly at them, all friendly-like, and inform them quietly that I have a nice seat for them at the front of the room right beside me, where they have no other students sitting next to them. I haven't accused them of anything but everyone in the room can undoubtedly guess why I am moving them. Besides removing the opportunity to cheat, the embarrassment factor works like a charm.

One of my colleagues tried a unique approach to detecting cheaters. He made up two different exams. Then he interleaved the stack of papers -- exam 1, exam 2, exam 1, and so on. When he handed them out, each student had a different paper than the neighbors to their left and right. Several students ended up answering questions perfectly ... the corresponding questions from their neighbor's exams, that is.

Cheating in that context means to gain an unfair advantage based on what others have done, not on your own efforts. The word has a different connotation when applied to relationships; we typically use it to refer to the involvement of a third party. The first meaning of the word, however, can also apply to relationships.

How often do we hear about a partner who doesn't step up to their end of the bargain in some way? Perhaps they rely on their significant other to do most of the communicating, or to take on the lion's share of the housework and running errands. One could argue these are people who want the benefits of a relationship, but seem unwilling or unable to put in their share of the effort.

I often receive questions about spouses and boy/girlfriends who apparently don't contribute equally on an emotional level. Perhaps conflicts fail to be resolved because only one partner is willing to work things out; the other consistently clams up and walks away. Or maybe only one of the two recognizes the value in keeping a bit of romance alive in the relationship. Are these different forms of cheating, of relying on the significant other to pick up the slack?

We should all be careful, though, when we are tempted to accuse our partner of this kind of negligence. Oftentimes there are two sides to the coin. For instance, a recent study involving 275 couples examined the split of domestic work between husbands and wives. (Lee, Y.-S. and Waite, L. Husbands' and wives' time spent on housework: A comparison of measures. Journal of Marriage and the Family, vol. 67, 2005, pp. 328-336.) The women handled an average of 61 percent of the workload while their men took care of the other 39 percent. This is consistent with historical trends. One interesting finding, though, is that both husbands and wives tended to overestimate their own contribution and underestimate the amount of work done by their spouse. Men claimed they did an average of 42 percent of the work, while the wives thought their men averaged only 33 percent.

The point is, our own perceptions of inequities in our relationships may not always be accurate. I suspect most of us have had the experience where we feel badly about something our SO has done, only to find out later they also had an equally valid concern about some failing on our part. The old saying is true; it usually takes two to tango.

So what can we do to avoid that "other" type of cheating? We can look in the mirror. Some morning when you are putting on makeup or shaving those stubbly whiskers, pause for a moment and ask yourself, "Am I doing my best to make this relationship as good as it can be for the two of us?" Now that doesn't mean being perfect, because we are all a long way from that. This is about making the effort -- doing whatever work is necessary to keep the bond with your partner spit-shined and polished as best you can.

If you can make that kind of effort ... well, that's really all any of us can do, isn't it?


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  1. in spirit, i agree with this

    but i think the first thing that should be said in the morning mirror is:

    i love you

    if we loved ourselves then we better have the ability to love and care for others..

  2. I do not agree that the definition of "cheating" similiar to that on tests should relate to relationships in how you have incorporated it.

    We often know what we are getting into when we get into serious relationships (living together / marriage). Our SO's strengths may be our weaknesses and vice versa. Therefore two people may contribute equally (or fairly equally) to a relationship, but just is different ways.

    I would also caution people from jumping onto that train of thought too quickly for the same reasons you have pointed out.

    If we are describing any "flaws" in either ourselves or others, psychology usually means that we have to underestimate our own flaws to minimize any guilt feelings and overemphasize any flaws of our partners to elicit justification. This ingrained pattern is why we shouldn't just rely on our own perceptions when making a decision on the health of our relationships.

    Besides, to be committed to a relationship, you have to take the good with the bad. To take time to get to know someone before progressing the relationship to the next stage is the only way of seeing if what we see is what we'll get, although there is the odd time when there are absolutely no warning signs, but then we normally have the power of choice at that stage - if considered a "deal breaker".