It’s quite the mental conundrum – they claim to love you and yet they have been the source of your greatest pain. Does this mean that the love was a lie? Were they merely stringing you along in order to get what they wanted? Or, did they somehow manage to both love you and betray you?
There is no argument that choosing to cheat is both cruel and cowardly, a selfish act that leaves deep and lasting wounds in the ones betrayed. It is never the right choice and once made, it can never be undone.
Yet, one question remains. Can somebody cheat on the one they love? Or, does the act of cheating indicate that love was never present in the relationship?
Are love and infidelity mutually exclusive?
I don’t believe they are. While cheating highlights many flaws in someone’s character or coping mechanisms, I don’t think that it necessarily indicates that a person is incapable of love.
It’s difficult to accept this when we’re the ones betrayed. After all, the discovery of betrayal is the furthest from an act of loving kindness that we can imagine. Taking it a step further, proclaiming to love someone and continuing to hurt them (even behind their backs), is emotional abuse. So it’s no surprise that many of use reach the conclusion that the entirety of the relationship was a lie.
Yet life – and those of us trying to make through it the best that we can – rarely exist in those absolutes. And sometimes people act in opposition to their feelings for a variety of reasons –
Maladaptive Means of Protection
I think in his own twisted way, my husband was trying to protect me. He was depressed. Defeated. Scared and addicted. And I don’t think he wanted to burden me with his mental demons. So he pulled back, pulled the wool over my my eyes as he began to live two lives – one where he had to hide and another where he could play-act at being the man he wanted to be.
Others may be coming to terms with desires that they fear their partners will not accept, and so shame encourages them to stay silent as they believe that the truth would cause distress. “What they don’t know, won’t hurt them,” the cheating spouse says to themselves to excuse their behavior.
This motivator becomes a slippery slope as one lie inevitably leads to another because as the betrayals grow, so does the hurt that would come from its discovery. There is ego in this approach as one person becomes the defacto gatekeeper for the marriage, controlling what truths are revealed. It’s a situation where the perpetrator convinces themselves that they’re acting for the good of their partner, while at the same time, removing agency from their spouse.
This powerful mental dance of self-preservation is responsible for many poor behaviors in people. On the front end of an affair, cognitive dissonance allows people to make decisions that put themselves in situations that can easily go too far. “I am a good person and so I would never cheat on my spouse,” the soon-to-be-cheater tells themselves as they begin to hide text messages from their partner.
And then as the choices begin to move into more blatant cheating, cognitive dissonance creates a blackout around the source of distress. They try not to think about what they are doing, acting more on instinct and self-preservation than deliberate planning. They simply cannot see what they are doing and hold onto their own self-image at the same time. So they keep their eyes closed.
These are the cheaters that may even act confused when they’re eventually caught. “How did I get here?” they wonder. Cognitive dissonance can also result in the cheater directing the blame outward, pointing fingers at the affair partner that seduced them or the unsuspecting spouse who wasn’t fulfilling their needs in some way.
These cheaters convince themselves that this thing has nothing to do with that. They see cheating, as long it is kept hidden, as being entirely separate from the marriage and their spouse. In some marriages, this filing system is aboveboard and accepted. But when one person is electing to erect walls that inevitably impact another, it is a betrayal of trust and autonomy.
Sometimes compartmentalization is necessary and healthy. It’s what allows doctors to keep their cool in the emergency room and allows parents to set aside their own distress to tend to that of their children. Yet when compartmentalization occurs in an attempt to avoid discomfort or discovery, it is not an appropriate use of the strategy.
And when it comes to affairs, any belief that that the actions of the cheater have no impact on the marriage or the spouse as long as they are hidden is a complete fabrication. Because whatever you nurture, grows. So when one spouse’s attention is turned outside the marriage, the marriage will ultimately suffer.
“The attention I get from my affair partner makes me a better spouse.”
“My spouse doesn’t want sex anyways, so it doesn’t matter if I cheat.”
“I love my spouse, but they wouldn’t accept this side of me. I’m doing what’s best for them.”
All of these beliefs and more can be used to try to justify the cheating. As nonsensical as it seems from the outside, these mental gymnastics can make complete sense to the one choreographing the excuses.
The use of rationalizations indicate a person who is not very self-aware and who is also uncomfortable confronting any hard truths. They are deceiving themselves as well as you.
Sometimes an affair is a sign that someone doesn’t love themselves, not that they don’t love you. When self-worth is low, they are going to seek validation and acceptance from wherever they can. Even if that means it’s coming from outside the marriage.
On the one hand, it feels good to believe that you were loved (even as you’re reeling from the pain). On the other hand, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to comprehend how somebody could cause so much pain to someone they loved. And so wondering if the love was real becomes simply one more thing in the long list of uncertainties that cheating forces you to accept.
Even if they do love you, that is not a reason to tolerate bad behavior. And even if you still love them, that alone is not a reason to stay.
See the video that spurred the whole debate – Is it possible for somebody to cheat on someone they love?