How can I ever trust them again? If they cheated once, won't they do it again?
"Once a cheater, always a cheater" is an understandable response from anyone who has been betrayed; it offers you the certainty to dismiss an unfaithful partner's pleas for "I can change and won't ever do this again," removing the potential for getting hurt, because it allows you to never trust them, and sometimes anyone, ever again.
The problem is that it's too simple and fails to appreciate the complexity of why people cheat in the first place, let alone predicting whether or not they are capable of betraying you again—an important question to ask if you are a victim of infidelity.
The psychology of infidelity is actually quite complex, much more so than the current moralistic conversation about it, where people are "good," "bad," or "flawed," and therefore dismissed as damaged goods. Pundits and gurus abound, offering their take on "Can I ever trust him again?" or "How to affair-proof your relationship," but too often good-intentioned advice misses the real issue.
You see, the question is not "Can I ever trust him again?" but rather, "What contributed to this person's choice to betray me—why did they choose infidelity?" The first question is an unanswerable one, as trusting your partner following an affair has more to do with you and how you choose to respond to being betrayed. The second question is much more interesting, and if answered correctly, more likely to keep you safe if you decide to heal and evolve together following an affair.
Every affair tells a story, and although it is true that the story has something to do with the state of a relationship where betrayal takes place, what's more true is that infidelity tells an important story about who the unfaithful partner is—the state of their own psyche and soul; whether they are even suitable for a real relationship with anyone with the bandwidth to actually love.
Infidelity always has a purpose to it, although most often that purpose is not known or understood, which it must be in order to really answer the questions around "Once a cheater, always a cheater." All behavior is purposeful, and people don't do anything without a reason for doing it. Your task is to become your own "personal psychologist" and ask the right questions about the right issues to arrive at your own truth about keeping yourself safe in a relationship with someone who has betrayed you.
I'm here to help you do that because I am uniquely qualified. I'm an adulterer who happens to be a licensed clinician and willing to tell the truth about why I chose to have an affair. I have an expertise in the "psychology of infidelity," not from a textbook or social media platform, but from living the excruciating pain of having an affair that resulted in a divorce, growing up and searching my own soul for the answers to "why I did it," and earning the trust and affections of the woman I betrayed again, resulting in a magical reconciliation where we just celebrated our 14th wedding anniversary! (Go to www.surprisedbylove.com for the whole story.)
I am going to tell you the "reasons" that contributed to my choice to be unfaithful,and then offer you the context to help you decide for yourself what motivates people to have an affair. My goal is to empower you with choices you may not know you have as you chart your own relationship path.
For me, there were six factors that contributed to a series of choices to have an affair:
1. I believed that the rules didn't apply to me. Being a licensed clinician gave me more excuses and rationalizations to hide behind. The arrogance of having answers for everyone else allowed me to hide from the truth that if you don't show up and ask for what you want in a relationship, you give up the right to expect having it. I expected a lot and didn't show up by being emotionally absent, which set the marriage up to be unfulfilling and fail.
2. I confused significance and self-worth with certainty and success. I became a workaholic, believing that Julie loved me only because of what I could provide her with, allowing anger and entitlement—a dangerous alchemy fueling my acting out—to justify the erosion of boundaries and values, giving rise to my affair. Without boundaries and a value base to live from, anyone is capable of having an affair.
3. I made up that my wife was the cause of my unhappiness and disappointment in our marriage. I felt sorry for myself and blamed Julie for why I was so unfulfilled; once you convince yourself that you're a victim of something, you can justify anything. That belief alone allowed me to have an affair with impunity, believing I had almost a right to find happiness with another—after all, "I had done so much and got back so little from my marriage." Affair psychology is delusional!
4. I was an accomplished liar. Men have an uncanny and dangerous ability to compartmentalize their lives such that one part doesn't recognize the other. In this split, dissociative state, I rationalized everything, including the creation of the two worlds I relished in, calling it "complexity." I convinced myself I was being taken advantage of by Julie, and therefore had the right to find happiness "as long as no one knows, so no one gets hurt." So I did, under the self-deception of protecting her, failing to see that the deception in an affair is where most of the pain lies. Without integrity, life simply doesn't work.
5. I confused sexual attraction and fantasy for love. Early in life, I learned to use sex as a drug and means of escape where I could nurture myself and soothe the chaos of an abusive childhood. When confronted with parallel lives, a child-focused marriage, and the perceived neglect and lack of appreciation I felt in our marriage, I turned to strip clubs and pornography as a cure that only made things worse. A real relationship can never compete with a fantasy, and sexual attraction isn't love. I confused an experience of excitement and novelty with a person I called my "soul mate" and chased that person as if they were the source of feeling alive. They weren't. Affairs are not real relationships; they're fantasies on speed built on deception that cannot stand the light of day.
6. I didn't take responsibility for my mental health. To love someone requires that we grow up, rise above our wounds, and take responsibility for what we need as adults. I failed to manage my depression, something I had struggled with since childhood, evolve beyond my family of origin ghosts, or attend to my mental health needs. By not doing the necessary work to grow and heal, I never matured into someone capable of giving and receiving mature love. Intimacy, what I claimed to want and crave, was actually not something I was capable of, yet I blamed the marriage and Julie for "denying it to me," further reinforcing my sense of entitlement to get that need met somewhere else.
While there is never a sufficient "explanation" excusing why someone is unfaithful, there is always a reason with a purpose for why affairs happen. Failing to understand what those reasons are robs you of the opportunity to learn from the experience, your best response to it, and can remove the chance to save a marriage ravaged from its effects.
I told you that the psychology of infidelity is complex, and now I will tell you why: The purpose of every affair is often as unique as the personality, life history, beliefs, values, needs and relationship dynamics of the person being unfaithful. And for that reason, I dismiss pithy, overly simplistic explanations that try to answer complex questions through three-step programs. The questions "Why did they do it?" and "Will they do it again?" can be answered, if you know what "type" of affair it is and the "purpose" of that specific affair. All affairs are not equal, although all are devastating.
After searching my own soul for several years, and now walking that same journey with people trying to answer their own questions about being unfaithful with people around the world, here's what I've learned about "why people have affairs" and the truth about misguided advice like "Once a cheater, always a cheater."
Type I: Fantasy and Flight Affairs
After hearing hundreds of personal accounts of clients struggling to discover "why I did it," I am convinced the vast majority of infidelity falls into the fantasy and flight category. Here, the "purpose" of an affair is romanticism gone awry, where the need erroneously being met is to feel something you have convinced yourself is missing in your primary relationship and assume it now exists exclusively in your affair partner, the most unlikely place for it.
I call this affair pattern the "Soul-Mate Trap," because people confuse an "object" (the affair partner) with an "experience" (the feelings you get from being with a new person), collapsing them into a narrow reality they call "a soul mate," based on a fantasy made up of fiction and emotions on speed.
The pursuit of a "soul mate" as justification for choosing to have an affair is the desperate attempt to find what is incomplete and missing in you. It is a plea for connection, wholeness, and getting "that loving feeling" again, using the fantasy you create with an affair partner to bring you back to life.
Here are some patterns of fantasy and flight affairs:
• Accidental Affairs: An "unconscious" person not in touch with their feelings or needs, not honest about what's missing in their marriage, and vulnerable because they wrongly believe that "I'd never be unfaithful," can find themselves in a perfect storm situation, where too much alcohol, too much enjoyment, and not enough boundaries blow their life open when they find themselves in a place with a person they never imagined they would.
• Soul Mate Affairs: Confusing a feeling for a truth that's based on a fantasy that never will be, you convince yourself, and anyone else who will buy it, that you've "found your soul mate" and do whatever it takes to legitimize the affair.
• Flying Boys and Girls: A large group of "purposes" can be found here to include the proverbial mid-life crisis and feeling alive through the attention of someone 20 years younger, pursuing the fountain of youth, White Knight rescue missions, alleviating the panic of impending mortality or simply the commitment phobic amongst us. Here, the combination of refusing to grow up fuses with "time's running out" on the existential clock, and "I got to do what I got to do" to feel relevant and vibrant, so I might as well use an affair to fix that problem.
While damaging and hurtful, these affairs are often the most responsive to good help, great boundaries, and sincere healing efforts. Once they "wake up," assuming they decide to grow up, the prognosis is good that you get an evolved partner who is much more aware and awake to themselves and their relationship, as well as motivated to keep that healthy relationship from ever going there again. Stick with it, work with a competent therapist, and do your homework to grow and design a new relationship with more transparency and higher standards for both partners.
Type II: Pathology and Deviance Affairs
If you're trying to make sense of being betrayed and/or sorting through the pieces of an affair, remember this: All affairs are not created equal, and not all people can be faithful. Fortunately, this next affair type is typically the minority of actual affairs that occur in marriages, yet they are the ones that get the most attention, because of the press that celebrity infidelity garners in our society.
The "purpose" of pathology and deviance affairs is straightforward: serving needs that are skewed, distorted, and often unconscious, rooted in family of origin wounds that were never dealt with. These affairs have everything to do with the unfaithful partner and little to do with those they betray.
In other words, you can be in what by all accounts is a "great relationship" (e.g., Ask Maria Shriver about Arnold), and the affair will still happen, leaving betrayed partners very confused and blaming themselves or their relationships for failing to meet the needs of people who are really "black holes," when nothing real will ever suffice to meet their needs.
Here are some patterns of pathology and deviance affairs:
• Narcissistic Affairs: These are the proverbial "black holes," where entitlement and a mind-blowing lack of empathy make intimacy near impossible for these sad souls. Plagued by a diminished capacity to love or emotionally connect, flagrant disregard for others, hedonistically self-indulgent and feeling justified in doing so, these folks don't have a core or solid sense of "self." They use relationships as a means for filling up a deep psychological void created by either the absence of nurturing and love in childhood, for which they are compensating for in adulthood, or were objectified themselves as children, and sometimes adults (celebrities, politicians, pro atheletes), highly indulged and given special privileges and treatment in exchange for the worship of family, friends and caregivers.
• Sociopathic Affairs: Stay away from these people once you know this is what you're dealing with! The most damaged souls amongst us can also be the most charming; however, their lack of remorse (cannot take responsibility) alongside with their inability to see, understand, or recognize the pain they cause the betrayed (no empathy) is a telltale sign you are dealing with an antisocial personality disorder or "sociopath." The purpose of an affair here is simple: "It is always and will always be about me," and you can expect compulsive lies, gross irresponsibility, blame of the betrayed, lots of drama, and a confusing absence of "normal" emotion when caught or confronted about their infidelity. Run don't walk!
• Sexual Compulsivity, Addiction, and Philandering: Sex and love addictions are real, and although similar in how they operate, each has a different purpose. Philanderers are love addicts who have such low self-esteem they need the attention and constant experience of "new love" to feel alive and worthwhile, whereas sex addicts do not feel much of anything unless an orgasm is involved, so they confuse sexual attraction for real love, engaging in compulsive rituals that often involve infidelity in desperate attempts to jumpstart their numb existence.
This affair "type" only gets better with a lot of commitment to recovery and lots of therapy, which many in this category refuse to subject themselves to. Absent treatment by qualified mental health professionals, a robust accountability system and serious commitment to heal, grow and evolve, these "types" are unfit for relationship with anyone except maybe a goldfish!
Type III: Poor Strategies and Bad Intent Affairs
Let's face it... relationships are hard and most of us simply suck at them. Many have had poor relationship role models and examples, have acquired lousy coping skills, and despite the Oprah effect, are pretty ill equipped to succeed in proportion to what we expect to receive from love and relationships.
Sometimes, it isn't bad people with bad morals, but rather, just people overwhelmed and under-resourced to such a degree they do really stupid things like have affairs doing more damage than if they simply dealt with the negative feelings fueling their poor choices.
Here are some patterns of poor strategies and bad intent affairs:
• Passive-Aggressive Affairs: The purpose here is the expression of anger in the form of contempt and the ultimate form of criticism through the ultimate invalidation—sleeping with someone else. The message is: "Kiss my ass, you worthless partner; you haven't been there for me in years, so I'll do whatever the hell I want to meet my needs; if you find out so be it—you deserve it." Nasty stuff!
• Sabotage Affairs: These are "coward affairs" where the unfaithful partner is not willing to take responsibility for their dissatisfaction in the marriage by doing something proactive about it. Instead, they live on a precarious edge, where they feel both emboldened and justified to engage in the affair "in hopes" that the infidelity will be found out and usher in the separation or divorce they fantasize about, but are unwilling to assume accountability for.
• Revenge Affairs: Driven by irrational rage in relationships with a history of stored-up resentment and hostilities which lie dormant and underground, the purpose of the affair coalesces into a grand finale in the form of a payback affair, where the intent is to injure and hurt the self-esteem of the betrayed partner, who is made wrong and killed off, thus allowing the unfaithful to justify any action to "pay them back' for the hurt they believe they've been a victim of."
These are immature, un-evolved people who blame others instinctively and tend to see the source of their troubles originating in things outside of them, versus where they are—in how they think about and relate to the world around them. That said, people can learn and grow up, therefore change, and with the right support and new strategies, more adaptive ways to be with a partner can happen, leading to a healthier relationship if both parties are willing to work at it.
Type IV: Benevolent Neglect Affairs
The "common cold" of modern marriage is de-vitalization where the friendship tanks, both people take each other for granted, one person focuses on the kids, the other the career, parallel lives ensue and you stop meeting one another's needs slowly euthanizing the soul of the relationship leaving both partner's numb and dead to one another.
The "purpose" of benevolent neglect affairs is to feel alive again, but in the wrong place; trying to find fulfillment with an affair partner (not happening, because they're based on fantasies and fantasies don't last!) by bringing your best to someone else. That would actually vitalize the marriage that you're fleeing from!
Here, you typically find good people who are "staying for the kids," or some other seemingly "good" motive, who are using an affair as a very maladaptive way of coping with very real dissatisfaction in their marriage.
Here are some patterns of benevolent neglect affairs:
• Parallel Lives Affairs: The roles and responsibilities you create and design your life around leave little to no space, time, or energy for either of you to meet your deeper needs for closeness, connection, nurturing, attention, or fun. You choke on tasks and are overwhelmed by responsibilities; you feel alone and unappreciated for doing. You attend to each of your respective lanes with diligence and discipline, giving you the experience of being responsible and "serving" the other. The problem is you live in a state of perpetual disconnect—while you are doing many of the right things, you become "roommates," not passionate lovers, and the thought of existing this way the rest of your days, especially if you're over 40, scares the hell out of you, making you a prime candidate for an affair!
• Just Friends Affairs: A common affair pattern is that women are more likely to have affairs for love and companionship, while men are more often content with sex alone, confusing it with love and companionship. Women are likely to believe that their infidelity is justified if it's for love; men are likely to believe their infidelity is justified if it's not for love. In both cases, needs which are neglected and not met in the primary relationship are being met through an emotional affair (eventually sexual), almost always justified on the basis of "we're just friends." People have affairs to experience an emotional connection that they feel is lacking in their primary relationship. They stray in search of someone who pays attention to their feelings and encourages meaningful contact, be it "emotional" (female pattern) or "sexual" (male pattern), citing a need for "friendship" as the culprit.
• Child-Focused Marriage: Child-focused marriages where the needs of the children or "family" take precedence over the needs of the adults in the marriage are both sad and ironic affair types. Sad, in that there is typically a lot of love in these relationships, and ironic that it is so misdirected that it often leads to unnecessary divorces after being ravaged by an affair. Inverse priorities are the problem here, where the sexual and emotional needs of the adults are relegated to last place, and where the focus of time, energy, and attention goes exclusively to the kids or "family." The purpose of the affair is a misguided attempt to satisfy legitimate longings in very illegitimate ways, undermining everything that is really important to both partners.
The good news, if there can be any in this territory, is that benevolent neglect affairs have more to do with bad priorities than bad character. Misdirected energy can be leveraged and focused in the direction of an anemic relationship in need of care, nurturance, and being first for a change; this makes the survivability of a marriage after an affair quite possible in these situations.
So, "Once a cheater always a cheater" is really a defense mechanism, and it, too, has a purpose: to protect you from getting hurt by never trusting anyone again. Don't do that! Instead, get smart by understanding what drives someone to betray and determining the "purpose" of the affair. For Julie and I, it was in the ashes of our marriage where that purpose was discovered, and together we made new meaning and determined to grow from it.