Cheaters have been big news lately from Tiger Woods to John Edwards. The media asks who does it, why they do it, signs to look for, types of cheaters and is it an addiction? Although that discussion is important it tends to neglect the equally important questions of what is it like for the partner of a cheater, who are they, how do they feel, do they ever recover and how do they decide whether to stay or leave?
Joanne discovered that her husband was having an affair in the typical way, she looked at his cell phone, called the unknown number she found and a woman answered. She hung up the phone and began to pace. The thoughts that followed were "NO, NO, NO not me, not him, not our marriage. He wouldn't." The next thought was a recollection of a moment of suspicion - or was it clarity- she had several weeks before when she noticed an odd receipt in his jeans pocket from a Saturday afternoon when she had to work. It was a restaurant they went to when they wanted to "connect" because it was quiet and convenient, a place for them to talk. When was the last time they went there? 2 months, 6 months, a year? Why didn't I ask him about the receipt? Why did I call that number? Did I know he was cheating? Why didn't I see it, say it, and face it? Then the sickening feeling hit her that her life was about to change forever.
Pursuit of Truth
Joanne desperately wanted the TRUTH but what she got was the edited "truth," one painful piece at a time. Craig (her husband) said he wanted to protect her from more pain so he edited the details as he began to fess up. She wanted to believe him but the more she reviewed the past they shared the more glaring the inconsistencies became. Her thinking became obsessive - depriving her of sleep, appetite and any sense of normalcy. "Am I stupid?" she asked herself when she began working through her rage and grief.
The Need to Fix It
After discovering the facts and surviving the confrontation, regardless of gender, the process evolves in a familiar pattern. Both partners are understandably panicked. Some cheaters continue to lie for a while hoping to dodge the bullet. Some apologize profusely and promise fidelity hoping for a quick fix and forgiveness. Unable to cope with the inconsolable pain of their partner, the cheater may call a therapist leaving a frantic message requesting an emergency appointment. The injured party is devastated, terrified, angry, hurt, sad and more. Even those who may have cheated themselves react as if they had no idea it might happen to them. This is an entirely new experience.
Lingering Doubt and Distrust
If only we could do a System Restore for a damaged relationship like we can with a broken computer - Just set the calendar back a few months or years and do a better job of protecting ourselves or preserving our marriages. We could erase our memory and move on.
Not so after infidelity. The memory lingers for the injured party playing over and over raising more questions and doubts which lead to more questions and more pain when questions are answered. How long does it have to take? The cheater says "Stop dwelling on it! I can't do this much longer if you are never going to forgive me anyway."
Unfortunately that approach makes it take longer. The victim wonders if their unfaithful partner is more upset about being caught than having hurt them. That is a fair question and the cheater may also miss the person with whom they had the affair and show signs of grieving the sudden loss of what was seen as a legitimate loving connection. If the relationship is going to survive, the affair must end and all contact cease. Even then, suspicion and fear will come and go but is lessened by consistent honesty and empathy from the partner.
Why Can't I Forgive?
Victims of infidelity want to forgive as much as the cheater wants it, possibly more. Men with a cheating partner may obsess for years about their lover being with another man, focusing more on the sexual relationship.
Women may do that as well or be stuck on the issue of deceit, unable to trust their partner's word any longer. Although it is painful, the only way out is through it. In counseling, Joanne and her husband learned to have safe conversations about the injury to their relationship and Joanne's trust. She needed to talk and ask questions when she was triggered by a place, a movie, an anniversary of the event. He needed to hear it without reliving it and getting angry at her for bringing it up again. These conversations were fewer and shorter over time and his ability to respond with empathy changed the way she saw him and helped both to heal together. That does not always happen.
Loss of Innocence
Lynn is a perfect example. She and Carl both in their second marriages, believed they had found their "soul mates" and began a fresh start with their 6 school aged children planning to do it all right this time. True love with the right person would conquer all.
For six years Lynn was convinced she had accomplished just that and had the full agreement and admiration of friends and family. What she did not know but later discovered was that her likeable gregarious husband had several affairs both sexual and emotional during even their most blissful years. Her fantasies of their fairy tale relationship were destroyed and were replaced with the reality and disappointment that she had been duped.
After much therapy and periods of separation she chose to recommit to her husband although never truly forgave him for his infidelity or herself for her naivety and blind trust. Love of family and roots prompted that decision. A new bond of honesty and reality had to be built and lived one day at a time.
Healing and Embracing the Truth
Healing will not begin until the cheater is willing and capable of listening, responding honestly (every single time), demonstrating that they have a deep understanding of what they did and how they hurt their partner. Forgiveness must be earned not given freely just to get over it.
Life after the affair
There is no fairy tale ending to this blog. It may in fact be the end of fairy tales of perfect love for many. Some stay, choosing to learn and grow from it. Some stay together but never heal or forgive or trust. If they choose to grow and deepen their connection they may some day be secretly grateful that it was the wake up call they needed.
Those who are able to face it honestly and directly will need to revise their belief that some of us are exempt from such unforgivable acts or are so special as a couple that they are immune. The injured partner may gradually assume a degree of ownership for thinking that a marriage will just carry on without effort and that we can truly depend on another human being to never hurt or abandon us.
The decision to stay or leave can be complicated. We all like to say "I would never put up with that!" A zero tolerance policy, however, is difficult to follow through on when your heart and the history you may share are involved. My experience with couples is that a great deal depends on how willing a cheater is to accept full responsibility on a long term basis.
If he or she cannot take the heat and allow time and experience to heal the tear in their relationship then trust will not return and many victims (and possibly cheaters) decide to quit trying. Another predictor is whether the injured party is willing to accept partial responsibility for the vulnerable position of the relationship prior to the cheating.
It goes without saying that if the cheating continues and/or the dishonesty and secrets are still there, the relationship is technically over and it's time to move on. Triangles do not work. If the third party is in the picture, even in your partner's mind, it is time to quit. Victims in the triangle are often left waiting and hoping they will be the one chosen, demeaning themselves and missing the point - that it is not about love at all. In this scenario, the cheater can't commit and will not be present in any relationship. It is about self centeredness and having a partner that will always be looking for something better.
Whether the relationship survives or dissolves, the injured party does not need to remain a victim full of fear and resentment. With self exploration this adversity can make us wiser, more self aware and if we choose, better prepared for an authentic, although imperfect relationship in the future.