Think Cheaters Are Always the Bad Guys? You May Be Wrong…

It’s all over the media, Maury Pauvich,  Joey Bosco’s “Cheater” series,  the front page of the New York Times with the story of Elliot Spitzer, and of course, Bill Clinton.  Now, in our culture, there is nothing worse than a cheater, is there?

We hate them for being unfaithful to their wives, husbands, girlfriends, or boyfriends, for breaking their contract to be faithful.  We love country and western songs of retaliation for cheaters. (e.g. Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats”) In Texas, not so long ago, it was legal to shoot your wife if you found her having sex with someone else.

Cheaters are considered the worst kind of bad guy. Our hearts go out to the poor victims of a cheater’s actions.  It makes for great drama involving our anger, rage and sense of self-righteousness.

Why cheating is so disturbing

The whole concept of “cheating” is something I find intriguing.  If you have a relationship with someone, don’t you want them to want to only be with you?  Of course you do!

That’s why it breaks our hearts when they chose to do otherwise.  But if they want to be with someone else, well, we don’t really have the relationship we thought we did do we? That, to me is the place for the pain.

Cheating is a symptom of a relationship that is not complete.  I think this is what “Dr. Laura” was trying to say about Elliott Spitzer’s wife, not that she was responsible for his cheating, but that, hey, something had to be amiss in the relationship for this to be taking place.

When someone “cheats” they are seen as the “bad guy” and the poor hapless “victim” is the object of our compassion, while the “cheater”, well, he’s just “bad”.

We have these marriage contracts and unwritten contracts with our partners that we will be “faithful” to them and our rage is incited when they “break the contract”.  We don’t stop and wonder, “Oh, what is going on here that my partner wants to be with someone else?”  No, we think, “That jerk!” (or whatever expletive we choose)

Has someone been wronged?

Our focus is on someone having been “wronged”, “done dirty” and leaving the “victim” to be perceived of as the “helpless victim” of this “bad person” who cheated on them.

When someone is having sex with someone other than his or her partner. Well then, they don’t really consider that person their partner do they?  What has happened is that the partnership is null and void at that point.  So in reality, there can be no “cheating” when there was no partnership in place anyway.

When I realized my husband was having sex with someone else my heart was broken.  But I did not and do not think of him as a “cheater.”  Our relationship was in shambles at that point and he was acting out on the pain he was in by finding someone else.  My heart was broken because the reality of his choosing to have sex with someone else meant that he no longer considered me his partner.  It meant he had given up on us. This is what broke my heart.

What the marriage contract really about

Our contract as a couple is not to ‘be faithful no matter what” or even to remain together no matter what.  Our contract as a couple is to work on being a couple, together.  When that stops happening, then the relationship is in trouble.  The contract is being re-negotiated constantly.

When we settle for a less than intimate connection with our partner we are agreeing to the reality that we are not really in true partnership, and that the possibility exists that our partner may choose to move into an intimate relationship with someone else.

Partnerships, off all sorts, require constant re-negotiation and re-commitment.  When there is a break in the intimate connection of a partnership we are responsible for working toward re-connecting.  If we spend weeks, months, years out of connection with our partner and then find that they have had sex with someone else we have no right to blame them.

I am not saying that having sex outside of a committed relationship is honorable or even “excusable.”  What I am saying is that there is not a “bad guy” and that both parties bear some of the responsibility for what is occurring in the relationship; even the cheating.

Different relationships, different reactions

Christine and Lew had been married for 8 years; they had a lovely 6-year-old daughter and lived in a nice home in Plano.  Lew came to therapy because he had been discovered having had an affair with someone he had met on a business trip.  By the time it had been discovered, Lew had already broken off the relationship with the woman because he had, on his own, realized he didn’t want her, he wanted his wife.

But he knew there were things wrong in the relationship that needed to change and that his having the affair was a symptom of the problems.  Christine came to therapy a few times, but she was so hurt and angry she could not address the problems between them.  She considered that Lew had broken their marital vows and that she had no responsibility in what occurred.

She refused to look at the marriage, insisting that the problem was all with Lew.  She saw herself as a hapless victim of this cheater and that was all there was to the story.  I don’t know what happened to them because with Christine unwilling to continue in therapy, Lew stopped attending.

Contrast this to Jayme and Ryan who have now reconciled after a year of exploring what went wrong with their idyllic marriage.  They both came to recognize that things they did contributed to the environment of disconnection that led up to Jayme going outside of their relationship for intimacy she felt was lacking in her marriage.  She still loved her husband, and didn’t want a divorce, but was feeling a desperately needy.

Her having chosen to remain home with their new child over Ryan’s protests had resulted in Ryan being angry and critical of Jayme.  With all the chemicals of having just had a child going through her system, combined with an immature reaction to his rejection of her led to her reaching out to another man for comfort.  Ryan, hurt and angry, divorced her quickly after discovering the “betrayal”.

But through months of therapy, he was able to resolve his anger by recognizing that he had responsibility in what happened, too.  Jayme, struggles with her shame about what happened, but realizes, too, that she was in a terrible place and made bad choices.  Both have begun to forgive each other, and themselves, for  the behavior that led to the affair.

“Cheating” is only a symptom of a relationship with problems.  Even if the “cheating” is a result of a sexual addiction; the addiction is the problem, not really the cheating.  Addictions are caused by a need, a wound; pain that needs to be resolved by the person and an addicted person cannot express or experience true intimacy.

The partner of someone with a sexual addiction has accepted a relationship with someone who is emotionally unavailable.

If you are concerned your partner is “’cheating” then you have to acknowledge you would not be having that fear if the relationship were right.  Stop ruminating about the cheating and start working on the relationship.


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