What’s the first word that comes to your mind?
You wouldn’t be wrong.
Goodness knows I have felt – and said – those words along with much worse in regards to my cheating ex and others that have betrayed their partners. I’ve even felt physically ill when in the presence of strangers that seem to be involved in illicit activity.
In the beginning, I was all-rage. It was black and white in my eyes and he was the monster that swallowed all the light.
Then some things shifted. The anger softened. I started to think a little more and feel a little less.
Cheating is wrong. That is clear. It is never acceptable to betray someone (especially the one you promised to love and care for) in order to have your own wants (because let’s be honest, these are not needs) met. It is a selfish choice. The lies and manipulations that the cheater uses to hide their activities are often cruel. It’s a decision that has horrific and lasting effects on the one betrayed as they struggle to regain their confidence and ability to trust.
Yet as I gained a little more distance from my own experience being betrayed, I came to some startling – and difficult – realizations. I struggle with these still. On some days, I want to shuttle all of the cheaters to Greenland and leave them stranded with nothing but a pair of shorts. And then on other days, I respond more compassionately, seeing them as emotionally stunted, immature and blatantly self-unaware.
Difficult Realization #1
You Know – and Probably Like – People That Have Cheated
After my ordeal, I had several people in my life open up to me. And I learned that there were people that I liked, cared for and even respected that had been unfaithful at some point in their past. Since I wasn’t the one betrayed in these cases, my response didn’t have the same emotional intensity as it did with my ex.
I considered these people. The entirety of them. Learning that one fact about them was upsetting and unsettling, but it also didn’t erase the rest of the person that I had known for some time. Also, and this is key, all of them had taken responsibility for their actions and had made significant changes since the time they were unfaithful.
They hide in plain sight. It’s not like most people go around and brag about their infidelity and many people that have been betrayed choose to stay quiet. Simply based on probability, you have family members that have cheated and some of your friends and coworkers have betrayed their spouses.
People are complicated. You can have great people that do shitty things and shitty people that do a great job at pretending to be great. Betrayal is certainly a shitty action, but does automatically flush away the entire person?
Difficult Realization #2
Cheating is Common
I get frustrated sometimes with the assumption that cheater = narcissist. Considering that the prevalence of Narcissistic Personality Disorder is around 1% of the population and it’s estimated that somewhere between 25-50% of people have cheated at some point, there are far more people cheating without that diagnosis (or there’s a handful of narcissists that have been VERY busy).
To me, the fact that it is common is evidence that it’s not only monsters that make this decision. Instead, it’s evidence that humans can do dumb things, act without consideration for others and engage in extreme cover-ups to avoid getting caught or having to face the truth themselves.
Part of accepting its prevalence is coming to terms with the fact that there is no such thing as an affair-proof relationship. You can choose wisely, pay attention to your partner and the marriage, and still end up finding that awful text message on their phone. And, especially after going through betrayal, that’s a tough pill to swallow.
Difficult Realization #3
Cheaters Are Not All Alike
Some cheaters are just plain terrible people. They continually act without regard for others, endanger their partner with their actions and refuse to accept any responsibility for their choices (often gaslighting and projecting in an attempt to blame their spouse for their wandering genitalia). These people suck and I would love to crowdfund a one-way ticket to Greenland for the lot of them.
But that’s not all of them. Some (often dubbed “unicorns” in affair-recovery circles) do everything right once the affair is revealed. They own up and do the work. Others may get there eventually, but it takes them more time. And then some are just plain clueless.
The motivation for the affair is also important. Some are truly in loveless marriages (although they all claim that, don’t they?) while others betray a loving spouse in the most brutal ways. There are cheaters who battle addiction – sexual or otherwise – that complicates their decision-making. And as difficult as it is to accept, sometimes they do fall in love with somebody else (although the way they handled it is far-from-okay).
Cheaters form a very diverse group. It doesn’t do anyone any favors to lump them all in together.
Difficult Realization #4
“I Would Never…” is a Dangerous Road
I have never cheated. I have never come close to cheating. I cannot imagine cheating. Yet at the same time, I’m careful to not say that I would never cheat.
Because that cocky certainty can easily lead to making some bad choices that would send me to a slippery slope. In fact, that assuredness is one of the common ways that emotional affairs begin.
I don’t believe we all have the capacity to act like terrible people described above. That takes a special kind of suckitude. Yet we all can do some pretty crappy things. We all can make choices that hurt our partners. And we all can struggle with facing hard truths.
When we say, “I would never…,” we’re opening the door.
Personally, I choose to say, “I never want to cheat” and then I make sure that my choices and actions are in alignment with that statement.
These Realizations Don’t Dictate Your Response
No matter how many people you like that have cheated in their pasts, no matter how common infidelity is and no matter what degree of suckitude your cheating partner reached, you can set your own boundaries for what you will tolerate.
The pain from betrayal is brutal. Learning that the person who vowed to protect you has instead been eating cake while slipping you poison is earth-shattering. The aftershocks last for years and the loss of blind trust lasts a lifetime. Infidelity is theft. And you have a right to all of the emotions that it brings up in you.
When it comes down to it, the collective nature of cheaters doesn’t matter.
Only your situation does.
And if you do decide to send them on that one-way trip to Greenland, don’t forget the polar bear bait:)
For those of you hurting, maybe this can help.