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When Partners Cheat: Who Deserves Second Chances?

Is forgiveness always the right thing to do?

Key points

  • If a cheater is a first-time or one-time offender, the prognosis for saving their relationship is more positive than with repeat offenders.
  • Narcissists are not good candidates for committed, monogamous relationships without intensive individual treatment.
  • Everyone should examine their blind spots when it comes to romantic love and choosing a partner.

When it comes to giving a straying offender a second (or third or fourth) pardon, where does one draw the line?

The biggest problem with cheating on a spouse or significant other is not necessarily the sexual liaison itself, but rather the betrayal of trust it causes. This painful rupture of trust in many cases proves too much to get past. But in others, the partners, when willing and motivated, can sometimes work through this trauma together and salvage their marriage.

More often than not, this salvation requires the expertise of a psychotherapist or marital counselor. Seeing a marital therapist or psychologist conjointly is certainly no guarantee of successfully saving the relationship. But, when properly approached, this therapeutic process can help heal the wounds, defuse the anger, foster better communication, and repair the breach of trust the offending partner's behavior has caused. Of course, much of this depends on how committed to rescuing the relationship both parties really still are, how much history they have together, whether children are involved, and other variables.

One of the greatest obstacles to working through this sort of dicey situation is the hurt, anger, and resentment felt by the betrayed partner. These feelings, whatever their roots, need to be openly acknowledged and constructively expressed. Another is the inability to trust the betrayer, who has typically connived, lied, manipulated, covered up, and otherwise deceived and made a fool of his or her partner.

Trust is the glue that holds a relationship together. Love alone is not enough. Commitment is all about trust: making a promise, a pledge, a choice to say yes to this person and no to any others, and then consistently keeping that promise. Once that pledge to commitment is broken, all bets are off. The fragile and sacred container or frame of the relationship has been violated. Trust has been broken. And broken trust is one of the most difficult dynamics to restore in relationships.

Without trust, intimacy suffers. When emotional intimacy dries up, so does sexual intimacy. Defensive walls go up. Communication breaks down. Distance replaces closeness. Resentment festers. Hostility kills kindness and caring. The atmosphere turns toxic. And relationships slowly disintegrate and die.

Is it true that having an affair can be symptomatic of pre-existing relationship problems? Absolutely. Lack of or poor communication, loss of intimacy, hurt feelings, festering resentment, or embitterment frequently lead to acting out in the form of cheating behavior. In this sense, an affair can be a wake-up call to both parties that they have neglected to maintain the health and integrity of their relationship and need to do so if the union is to be preserved and thrive.

Cheating can often be understood as an indirect communication behavior, signaling chronic dissatisfaction, anger, or frustration with the partner's behavior, attitude, or quality of the relationship. Addressing the underlying problems in the relationship in the aftermath of the betrayal can, in some cases, serve to improve communication and strengthen the partnership in the long run. But first, the trust that was broken must be re-established, a delicate process that requires effort, time, motivation, and total commitment.

First-time or one-time offenders

If the philanderer is a first-time or one-time offender, I would say that the prognosis for working things through is somewhat more positive. In order for this to happen, however, the exposed cheater must come completely clean with what happened, take full responsibility for it, and be prepared to beg the partner's forgiveness for his or her devastating misstep. Any pre-existing problems in the relationship prior to the affair (and obviously, an ongoing affair is typically much more damaging than a one-night stand) or indiscretion should be systematically addressed and resolved. Communication skills must be evaluated, improved, and regularly practiced between the couple with a therapist's assistance. And, perhaps the hardest part: Trust must be rebuilt.

Trust cannot--and should not-- just be freely given again. Not after what happened. Trust now has become a privilege, not a right. Trust must be earned, gradually re-established by offenders consistently following through faithfully on whatever they say they are going to do--or not do. There is no real wiggle room here. Zero tolerance. It should be the injured or betrayed party that dictates what will be required for him or her to ever fully trust the offender again. And whatever they say it will take, within reason, is what the offender must be willing to commit to providing unconditionally. And deliver, consistently, willingly, and unequivocally.

Ultimately, the victimized or offended party will have to reach a point (frequently requiring individual therapy in addition to couples counseling) where they can get past their hurt, humiliation, and anger to a place of forgiveness and compassion. And find the courage to trust again. We all make mistakes. Humans are imperfect beings. But we can also learn from our mistakes, so as to avoid repeating them.

Repeat offenders

But what of repeat offenders? Here, the prognosis gets poorer. Once can be considered a slip-up. An aberration. Twice or more is a pattern. Why should the serial cheater be forgiven or provided a third, fourth, or fifth chance? Of course, this is for the person who was betrayed to decide. Some see their own unequivocal commitment to the relationship and love for the offending partner as reasons for either overlooking such bad behavior or for giving them repeated chances to change. This can become a kind of co-dependency, unintentionally enabling and perpetuating the problem. As with domestic violence, the victim may be bamboozled and confused by the offender's apparent heartfelt contrition and proclamations of love and dedication. Or they come to see the offending partner as suffering from some mental disorder or substance or sexual addiction that both compels and excuses their abusive behavior. In certain cases, say of severe bipolar disorder, substance abuse, or compulsive sexual behavior, it may make sense to compassionately support and stand by the offender during his or her treatment or rehabilitation. After all, that is part of what true commitment is all about: In sickness and in health. Till death do us part. But the key is that commitment is a two-way street. Both parties must be equally committed to the relationship and to monogamy if that is what is promised and expected. Commitment is an existential choice. A choice one reaffirms each and every day. One chooses not to cheat not necessarily because one doesn't desire to. But because one chooses to honor one's commitment and because one cares about and values the relationship with the partner so highly that taking the risk of threatening, damaging, or losing that relationship and deeply wounding the partner is completely unacceptable.

Women vs. men

Are there fundamental differences between women's infidelities and men's? Yes and no. Both are betrayals. And both damage whatever level of trust had been built up to that point in the relationship. But sex for women has a different psychological and biological significance than sex for men. Generally, men tend to be more able to dissociate their emotions from casual sexual behavior with other women, whereas women tend to become more emotionally involved and attached. This is just one of the innate psychobiological differences between the sexes. Women seem to recognize this gender difference, often citing it to rationalize forgiveness and reconciliation. But, apart from gender, cheating on one's partner is always a betrayal and sets into motion a complex and sometimes subtle set of dynamics, both personally and interpersonally, that can tear apart even the strongest of bonds.


Now, what happens when the offending spouse, of either sex, suffers from pathological narcissism? This is an even more dubious situation. Such narcissistic (or sometimes even antisocial) traits or tendencies are notoriously resistant (though not impervious) to treatment. Narcissism (self-love) makes true intimacy and empathy impossible. Remember the Greek youth Narcissus, who was so riveted by his own reflection in a pond that he rejected Echo's love and eventually withered away from lack of sustenance. Narcissists constantly fantasize about obtaining more success, power, superiority, and idealized love. They feel entitled to greedily take whatever they want, and grandiosely believe they are smart enough to get away with cheating without having to pay the consequences. There can be a profound lack of caring and consideration for the partner's feelings, needs, and personal perspective. And the constant craving for "narcissistic supplies"-- excessive admiration, love, sexual variety--keeps the severely narcissistic offender always searching for his or her next "fix." But, as with any addictive behavior, that next narcissistic fix is never enough. Narcissists tend to be repeat offenders. Clearly, such selfish and immature individuals are not good candidates for a committed, monogamous relationship. Not without intensive individual treatment.

Responsibility of the "victim"

Finally, what is the responsibility of the so-called "victims" in this excruciating scenario? The most difficult thing to do in psychotherapy and in life is to look at ourselves and consider our own complicity in contributing to our troubles. Betrayal of trust in a committed relationship can be considered an evil deed. Not necessarily violent, but destructive and hurtful, no doubt. Yet, many betrayed women and men freely chose (and often continue to choose) to be with their boyfriends or girlfriends and marry their spouses. And they do so, presumably, after some protracted period of dating and getting to know the type of person they are. Or did they? How conscious was the choice? How wise? Were there no early warning signs? No indications of narcissism? Or lack of integrity? Of lying? Often such red flags are blatantly obvious to everyone but ourselves. Love can definitely be blind. Were they deceived from the very start? Sold a bill of goods? Or were they unconsciously attracted to certain types of men? Immature, self-centered, selfish men, incapable of real commitment? Men whom they thought could be changed by merely loving them? Men (or women) who personify those shadowy aspects of ourselves we suppress, but secretly desire to vicariously express? Which part of the personality played the more prominent role in making this momentous choice: the mature adult or naive, needy inner child?

This is not about blaming the victim. Self-blame is frequently the prime reason betrayed partners remain in such relationships. Offenders are responsible for their evil deeds. But we all have blind spots, complexes, especially when it comes to romantic love and choosing a partner. What do these choices say about us psychologically? About who we really are, and about how we really feel about ourselves? About the willingness to turn a blind eye to a partner's past and present inappropriate behavior, and the decision to suffer remaining in a relationship in which the commitment to monogamy and exclusivity is disrespected and repeatedly violated? Are we not worthy of love, respect, and commitment? Must one always settle for crumbs? How much are we really willing to put up with and forgive just so that we can avoid being alone? Feeling abandoned? Getting back in the dreaded "dating game?" Or keep the family together for the sake of finances or the children? These are the tough questions so-called victims of infidelity (men and women) must be willing to honestly ask themselves before they finally decide whether or not to give serial (or even first-time) cheaters yet another opportunity to re-victimize them. While compassion is spiritually commendable, forgiveness is not always the answer, reconciliation is not always the right solution.

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