In my 37 years as a marriage counselor and sex therapist, I’ve worked with about 1.3 jillion extramarital affairs. Men and women marry, so men and women cheat. Sometimes it’s once, with no emotional attachment. Sometimes it’s years with a beloved in the next town—virtually a second husband or wife.
Many unfaithful partners get caught, as their suspicious spouses play Sherlock Holmes. Some cheaters feel so guilty or angry that they unconsciously arrange to get caught. In other cases people unintentionally betray their own secrets; it’s very, very difficult to flawlessly deceive the person with whom you live over a long period of time.
And secrecy is lonely, so sooner or later most secret-keepers want to tell somebody. I recall one patient who successfully kept her secret for years, and then finally revealed it to her best friend one night, who told her husband, who…well, you know how that ends.
Lenny Bruce used to joke that if you get caught cheating, you should always deny. In fact, even if your spouse catches you in the act, Bruce advises you to say “Honey, it’s not what it looks like, it’s really nothing. Who you gonna believe—your loving husband or your lying eyes?”
When both partners agree that one has cheated—whether through detective work, tearful confession, or evidence right in front of someone’s “lying eyes”—a couple can take several different directions. Some of the Betrayeds are out the door (or throwing the Cheater out the door) faster than you can say “Ashley Madison.”
However, many of my couples dealing with the discovery of infidelity want to reconcile. While there are lots of books and websites about making reconciliation less painful or more effective, I’ve never seen one about how some people make infidelity’s aftermath worse.
It often involves denying responsibility for one’s behavior. So here are eight ways that Cheaters, once caught, can make things even worse by evading responsibility for their actions:
* Say “it happened” instead of “I did it”
* Call it “an indiscretion” instead of “I chose it”
When people disapprove of their own infidelity, they don’t like to stand up and say “yes, I did it.” Through a simple twist of language—which isn’t deliberate, although it is effective—Cheaters can create distance between themselves and their choices. Betrayed spouses instinctively resent this, even if they’re not linguistically sophisticated.
When kids misbehave we expect them to say “yes, I did it,” right? An apology without that is meaningless. It’s reasonable to expect the same from adults—“yes, I did it,” rather than “that thing that got done.”
* Blame your partner for not being sexy enough or wanting sex enough
I’ve seen unfaithful spouses blame their infidelity on their partners’ weight gain, poor hygiene, refusal to dress up, dislike of oral sex, and much, much more. But it never goes over well when adults blame others for their choices. And blaming a person who themselves feels like a victim is especially hurtful.
I’m very sympathetic about the pain of being sexually rejected, and the frustration of one’s mate not living up to one’s ideals (whether those are realistic or not is an entirely different question). That said, blaming our mate for breaking our promise to him or her reflects a lack of integrity, not to mention sensitivity.
And it certainly doesn’t encourage the Betrayed to trust an unfaithful spouse—after all, if you blame my weight or lack of interest in cunnilingus and I know that isn’t going to change, why should I expect you’re unfaithful behavior to change?
* Blame work stress
Everyone here in Silicon Valley—and almost everywhere else in America—talks about work being stressful. I sympathize—people feel overworked and underappreciated, and they’re spending longer and longer sitting in traffic. To make things worse, most people have put themselves on 24-hour alert with umbilical connections to their phone and “smart” house.
Our nervous systems are not evolved to deal with this constant vigilance and stimulation Different people deal with it in different ways—too much TV, too much alcohol, too much shopping, too much porn, too much videogaming…and infidelity.
Of course, work stress (and smartphone stress) doesn’t dictate how we deal with it, only that we must. I’m not judgmental about the problematic ways people choose—but I do know that when one’s choice hurts others, they’re not going to settle for “it’s not my fault, blame my job.” In fact, they’re going to figure, “Oh, even though you’ve apologized, I guess you may be unfaithful again—because you’re still at your high-stress job.”
That’s not an unreasonable assumption.
* Say “I’m going to try harder” to be faithful.
Doesn’t saying “Starting today, I’m going to try harder” mean someone wasn’t already trying their hardest? If they were weren’t already ‘trying their hardest’ to stay faithful, why not? And why will they ‘try harder’ now?
And what does ‘try harder’ actually mean in this context?
* Say “I feel so guilty I can’t stand to go over this again”
The person who cheated may have spoken to a therapist or a clergymember for months or even years. The Cheater may indeed have flogged themselves mentally, done penance, lost a year of sleep, even changed for the better.
But the infidelity is fresh the day a spouse finds out about it. That’s the moment the clock is set to zero. Telling a Betrayed “I’m already in so much pain about this I don’t have the energy for your pain is saying ‘Even though I’m the one who hurt you, my pain is more important than yours.’ Nobody in pain—absolutely nobody—wants to hear that. It guarantees outrage and conflict. Blaming the Betrayed for being unsympathetic in that situation is inviting him or her to never trust you again.
* Say “I’m ready to put this behind me, so please don’t dwell on the past”
* Say “It happened so long ago (“She’s dead!”) there’s nothing to say anymore”
Yes, looking at the future together is great, and planning your new life together is very positive.
Assuming, of course, that the other person is ready. If they aren’t, they won’t appreciate the Cheater dictating (or even gently suggesting) the timetable for ‘moving forward.’ In my experience, Cheaters almost always want to ‘move forward’ more quickly than Betrayeds do.
Showing concern and sympathy about the Betrayed’s timetable for ‘moving forward’ is one of the first tangible things a Cheater can do to demonstrate their willingness to deal with the infidelity as a team. Actually slowing down and grasping a partner’s experience, rather than judging how they ‘should’ feel, is essential for building trust—far more than the recitation of details about which positions, which restaurants, and what kind of lingerie.
The discovery of infidelity almost always precipitates a crisis in a relationship. Too many couples waste that crisis by focusing on trivia, or deciding who’s more blameworthy, or who did what eleven years ago.
Since most of us only get one or two marriages, a marital crisis really is a terrible thing to waste.
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