I had the honor of joining Helen Tower last week on her podcast, Sail Infidelity. A listener, an unfaithful spouse, sent in the question, “How can I get my wife to move on from my infidelity?” My first thought was,
“I wonder if he’s asking because he hates seeing his wife suffer and wants her to feel better or if he’s uncomfortable with her strong emotional response and he wants to alleviate his discomfort.”
Nobody likes to be on the receiving end of someone’s anger or disappointment. None of us like to examine our own fears and regrets too closely. We all can use avoidance tactics to put off difficult conversations or decisions or find an illusion of security in denial.
Those who choose to cheat cannot handle emotional discomfort.
Yet for most of us, difficult doesn’t mean we don’t do it. We accept that the emotions – either our own or those of another – are uncomfortable and yet we do not turn away. But the cheater? They run. Or shut down. Or turn it back towards you.
Those who choose to cheat seek to outsource their emotional regulation.
When they are feeling insecure, they look for others to alleviate that feeling through attention and accolades. If they’re anxious, they use sex like a drug to feel better in the moment. Instead of learning to self-soothe, they expect those around them to make them feel better.
Those who choose to cheat struggle to stay present with difficult emotions.
When faced with intense emotion, those who cheat are more likely to flood or flee. They have not learned to name and accept myriad emotional responses as a natural side-effect of being human. Instead, they become fearful when emotions run high. But of course, they can’t accept that fear either. So they dismiss it all entirely or stuff it into their shame sack where they can pretend it doesn’t exist.
Those who choose to cheat fail to recognize the impact of their own traumas.
For so many of us, we continue to play out our childhood traumas in our adult relationships. With awareness, this can become an opportunity for growth and healing. Yet those who have a propensity for infidelity often remain unaware of the impact their own past has on them. Instead, they act out their pain in unhealthy, immature and selfish ways.
Once a cheater, always a cheater?
People can grow. People can change. If the unfaithful spouse is willing and able to give space for your emotional reaction without seeking to control it or stifle it, that’s a sign that they’re learning. Furthermore, look for evidence that they are becoming more comfortable sitting with – and taking responsibility for – their own emotions. And finally, if they’re trying to make amends, pay attention to whose pain they are trying to alleviate – yours or their own.