Those Cheating Hearts
To victim of cheating: What’s going on with you?
Wake up Call
Sometimes it’s true that the partner of a cheater is an innocent victim. She or he made a commitment that the partner betrayed. In that case, the therapeutic work focuses on what the cheater was up to and whether it is possible for the victim and the couple to move past it. The major obstacle to this work is the broken trust. It’s an enormous challenge to rebuild trust with someone who has already proven he or she can break a vow. But when the crisis shows both people how much they really do want to be together, the marriage can be salvaged. With honest work, time, and a recommitment to each other and to the contract between you, it can be done.
Another kind of wake up call is when you, the victim, have to admit that you had a part in letting the relationship slide but regret it. For example: You know there has been distance in your relationship. You know you haven’t been giving it a hundred percent. You’ve let your relationship suffer from not-so-benign neglect. Perhaps you’ve made excuses for yourself as you have made your relationship less and less of a priority. At some point, you think your partner may even be having an affair or you’re tempted to have one of your own. To your surprise, it saddens you beyond measure. This is the wake up call for you. It’s possible to recommit to your partner and put more time and energy into making it work. Talking about it can be an important opportunity for the two of you to appreciate what you almost lost and redouble your efforts to make your marriage whole.
Sometimes it takes two to break a vow. Sometimes, though, the “Cheat-ee” has a role in an affair that is not so innocent. There are situations where the “victim” either inadvertently contributes to her (or his) own victim-hood or actively takes part in “helping” the partner turn into a cheater. This is not a case of “blaming the victim”. Rather, it is a recognition that sometimes unconsciously, or even consciously, the apparent victim played a part. Not too surprisingly, the same dynamics often apply to these willing, if unconscious, victims as to the cheaters themselves.
You have evidence your partner is cheating but you don’t want to deal with it. You hate conflict. You hate to be embarrassed. So you make excuses; lots of excuses. You lie to yourself and you lie to well-intended people who try to help. You help your partner keep his or her secret and by doing so help him or her break your contract. In your reluctance to deal, you help keep it going and probably help make things worse than they have to be.
Sometimes roller coaster riders find the perfect companions. The thrill of the hunt can create quite an adrenaline surge. You look for signs of cheating. You shock your family with speculations and revelations. You look for sympathy from your friends. There is drama and excitement in trying to catch your partner in a lie or in the act. But it’s also unfair. In order to get the adrenaline boost you have to help the cheater keep cheating. So you don’t ever find quite enough damning evidence or you have hysterical fights that never get resolved.
Sometime partners of cheaters find themselves questioning their own moral code. The cheater accuses the partner of being uptight, a prude, or not fun. Rather than be outraged, you get confused! Am I uptight? Am I old-fashioned? He/she always comes home so maybe it’s not a big deal. Stop! It is a big deal. Go back to basics. Did the two of you make a promise that you would stay true to your contract? Has your partner broken your trust? If so, the problem isn’t your attitude or the morals you were raised with. Your problem is that you are letting your moral compass get clouded instead of holding on to what you believe to be true. You’ll eventually come to your senses but while you are figuring out that you have a right to ask that promises be kept, you are unwittingly helping your partner cheat.
Boundaries that overlap too much can be just as destructive to a relationship as boundaries that are too permeable. Unable to manage time alone, too scared to venture into the world as a separate person, or too distrustful to believe in a partner’s fidelity, this kind of individual crowds and isolates his or her partner. Maybe you’re a woman who doesn’t feel whole unless you are with your man. Or maybe you’re a man who can’t bear to have another man even look at, much less be a friend to, your wife. If you are trapping your partner by your extreme need for exclusivity of all time, energy, and attention as well as for the special intimacy you promised each other, he or she may respond to someone who offers to set him or her free.
Think it’s Normal
Up until recently, this thinking was more true of women than men but it’s beginning to change. Perhaps your mother was a martyr to your father’s cheating. Perhaps there is a long tradition in your family of women putting up with philandering men because they believed they couldn’t survive on their own. Certainly there are lots of messages in the media that cheating is normal. Some women (and, more recently, some men) hate that the partner is having an affair but feel that it is just how it is. If you are this kind of person, you always expected that promises of fidelity would be broken. You contribute to your own sadness by accepting your partner’s affairs out of the conviction that only a rare few get to have a really committed relationship and that you can’t expect to be one of them.
This is the flip side of entitlement. So insecure in your own value, you can’t believe that someone would be faithful to you. You cling. You constantly look for reassurance. You quietly, or maybe not so quietly, demand all of your partner’s time and attention. In your anxiety, you are constantly on the alert for signs of betrayal. Your partner may feel increasingly crowded, exasperated, and tired of justifying him or herself. It’s a hard way to live. If a supportive, undemanding person comes along and the partner is worn down, he (or she) may try to get some breathing room by having an affair.
A “Gift” to the Partner
Recently, I’ve received some letters from women (and a few men) who really don’t want a sexual relationship even though they love their partners. These people are relieved that their partners have found a sexual outlet (internet sex, porn, an affair) elsewhere. If you’d like the relationship without the sex, looking the other way while your partner has an affair may seem to be an answer. In this sense, you think you are giving both of you a gift. He or she gets sex. You don’t have to deal with it. There are problems, of course, with this solution. The partner is driven into becoming a cheater and may feel horrible about it. And there’s always the chance that he or she will fall in love with the paramour.
A “Set up” for the Partner
Alternatively, maybe you are one of the mean-spirited people in the world. Such a person doesn’t want to deal with the stigma of being the one to break up a family or perhaps wants to really hurt the spouse. So you set up your partner by looking the other way and giving the impression that you approve of his or her affair. Then: Gotcha! You catch him or her in the act and let everyone, I mean everyone (family, friends, the boss), know how wronged you are. You get all the sympathy – and probably more of the assets.
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2016). Those Cheating Hearts. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 26, 2016, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/those-cheating-hearts/