There’s a saying, “Once a cheater, always a cheater.” It’s reassuring in its definitiveness, but is it actually true? Is someone who cheated once destined to cheat again? The conventional wisdom suggests that people who cheat are characterologically unable to remain faithful. They are not a person who cheated, they are a cheater—and therefore always will be. Therefore, if their partner stays in the relationship, they are setting themselves up for trouble.
It can be incredibly upsetting to discover that your partner has cheated on you. It can turn your whole life upside down. You thought your partner was one type of person and then suddenly they showed you that they are not. This might then mean that your relationship, and your life, aren’t what you thought they were either. Maybe nothing is what you thought it was. Discovering a partner’s infidelity can be one of the most upsetting and disrupting events a person can go through.
In the midst of all the emotional upheaval, it is tempting to look for something solid to grab onto. Part of you wants to kill your partner and part of you wants to hold them close and never let go. You are furious at them for the betrayal—and at yourself for being tricked. You feel self-righteous but also ashamed. Most of all, you feel hurt.
All of this uncertainty and contradiction can make you feel unsure of what to do. This is why black-and-white advice can feel so appealing, whether it’s “once a cheater, always a cheater” or “stand by your man.” Obviously, it’s easy for others to give simple advice when they don’t need to face the emotional complexity that you must.
The Details Matter
If you discovered that your partner was unfaithful, you need to decide how to respond: Should you stay or should you go? Relationships, and happiness, are complicated, so there is no easy answer. Many believe that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. The key word here is “predictor” which is not the same thing as a determinant. Someone with a long history of infidelity, across multiple relationships, is more likely to repeat that past behavior. On the other hand, someone who cheated once is less likely to cheat again, especially if it was long ago and a lot has happened since then. There is also a big difference between one impulsive or drunken hookup and an ongoing emotional affair that involved conscious deception across a long span of time.
It also matters whether the person doing the cheating feels badly about it. Most people do, and feel guilty for going behind their partner’s back. In addition, they feel like they aren’t being true to their own set of morals, even if their partner never finds out. They may feel like they can’t stop themselves, but they’re still tortured by what they’re doing. Conscience can serve as an important brake on infidelity and be an important driver of learning from it. By contrast, people with more sociopathic traits won’t feel much guilt for their actions which makes them much more likely simply to take advantage of the next opportunity that presents itself.
It’s easy to say that you will kick your partner to the curb if they cheat—until you have intertwined your life with theirs. Suddenly that decision is much more complicated. If you find yourself in the position of needing to face this decision, my first piece of advice is to not make any big decisions quickly. This could be the decision to leave, but also the decision to stay. Take your time and think it through.
What does this infidelity reveal about your partner and their ability to be faithful going forward? How they respond to the revelation and how they handle themselves in the aftermath will tell you a lot about what you can expect from them in the future.
- Are they able to empathize with your pain and genuinely apologize for causing it?
- Are they able to be honest with you about what they did (although you may be better off not knowing all the details)?
- Can they own up to the choices they made, as opposed to blaming others?
- Are they able to think about why they did what they did without blowing up or shutting down?
- And, maybe most important, do they have a desire to grow from this experience?
How they handle the fallout from the revelation of the infidelity may tell you more about how past behavior predicts future behavior. They were a cheater once. They may or may not be a cheater again.
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