DEAR DR. JENN,
My boyfriend of two years cheated on me. He apologized and wants to move past this—and honestly I do too. But how do I know if I can trust him again? Can a cheater change? —Now What?
DEAR NOW WHAT,
Some people think cheating is a sure end to any relationship—not so. But in order to assess the likelihood of further cheating and figure out how viable a relationship is post-affair, I look at a few factors.
First, is this a one-time event? People make mistakes, and while cheating is never okay, there is a big difference between someone who screws up once and someone who is a habitual cheater. The latter shows a pattern of hurtful behavior, poor impulse control, and a lack of honor. Also, was this one ongoing affair or a one-night thing? Again, neither is okay, but there is a difference between someone who someone who got drunk while out of town on business, made a terrible mistake, and confessed it to you immediately and someone who has been looking you in the eye on a daily basis while having an ongoing affair over months or years. The second requires a level of continuous deceit that is particularly concerning.
Second, what was going on in the relationship that left him vulnerable to having this affair? Let me be clear: It is never the victim’s fault when a partner has an affair. If the relationship is not working a person can always get out, ask for a separation, or push their partner to work through the issues. That said, cheating generally doesn't happen in a vacuum. There is usually problem in the relationship leading up to the affair.
When M. Gary Neuman, a highly respected therapist and researcher, performed a study in which he asked 200 men—100 cheaters and 100 non-cheaters—to complete questionnaires and participate in interviews about what makes men cheat, he found that only eight percent of the cheaters said that unsatisfying sexual relationships with their wives drove them to infidelity. The number-one reason these men gave for cheating was emotional dissatisfaction. In fact, 48 percent of the men who had cheated reported that this was the primary issue that led them to cheat, and 88 percent said that the women they cheated with were no more attractive than their wives. When he looked at cheating women, the results were almost identical. Only seven percent of the cheating women claimed that sexual dissatisfaction was the primary factor that prompted them to cheat. When asked about emotional issues in their marriage, the number-one problem women reported was not having enough time with their husbands, closely followed by feeling underappreciated. I talk about this in more detail in my book, The Relationship Fix.
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In my experience, the couples that survive affairs best are the ones that are willing to look at the flaws in the relationship system that led to the affair. This is painful and difficult to do, especially after being betrayed and hurt so deeply. A well-trained couples therapist can be very helpful here.
To figure out if your relationship is worth saving, you have to put aside the judgments of others. Many people are quick to say what they think you should do or what they would do in your situation, but at the end of the day only you can decide. It is possible to rebuild trust after an affair. But forgiving a cheater takes a lot of time and proof of good, consistent behavior. It also takes a willingness on both ends to do a deep dive into the relationship to help figure out how you got off track. It is completely reasonable to end a relationship because your partner was unfaithful; that’s common, and getting over a cheater is hard. Possibly even more difficult is forgiving them and rebuilding if indeed you decide that your bond is worth saving.
If that’s the direction you want to head in, then, third, look at how the other person makes amends. Specifically, I look for the four R’s from someone who has cheated:
1) Remorse. A heartfelt apology comes from the realization of the hurt you have caused, even if it was unintentional, followed by feelings of remorse. This expression of regret serves as the first step toward repair. Your boyfriend must verbalize that he is hurting because of the pain he has caused you, while keeping the focus on you.
2) Responsibility. To take responsibility is to take ownership of your actions and their impact, even if they were unintentional. It is a statement of regret for having caused damage. That damage may be to the relationship (“I know you have trouble with trust, and my lying and cheating makes it harder for you to trust me now”), but it must be acknowledged. Your partner taking responsibility lets you know that he understands the gravity of the situation he has caused and recognizes that what he did was wrong.
3) Recognition. Feelings must be processed and recognized. Too many couples undermine their apologies by trying to prove that their partner’s perception is wrong; they argue over the details or invalidate their partner’s feelings.
4) Remedy. I can’t tell you how many calls I’ve gotten on the radio from listeners whose spouses have done something terrible, like commit ongoing infidelity. If the caller has chosen to take their partner back, I ask, “What did he do to make you think it would be different this time? What plan of action did she have to correct this bad behavior?” The answer is too often the same: nothing. “He said he was sorry and that he wouldn’t do it again,” the caller will tell me. Can a cheater change? Yes. But without a plan of action? No. To take someone back who has repeatedly harmed you but is not committed to doing anything differently is to sign on for more of the same hurtful behavior.
For the remedy to work, your partner must take steps to avoid repeating the behavior and set himself up to succeed with a plan of action. A plan of action might mean getting therapy in order to address the underlying issue that led to him acting out. If inappropriate social media was involved, it might mean choosing to shut down his account or sharing passwords. If drinking or drugs were involved and that is a problem, it might mean getting into a 12-step program and getting sober.
And then he must do the work to repair the damage he has caused. Once the cheating party has created an action plan to avoid repeating the same bad behavior, they must start working on repairing the damage they have done to the relationship. Sometimes there is some overlap. For example, going to couples therapy may have been part of your action plan, but it is also an important step toward repairing your relationship. Typically, the behavior that nurtures your connection as a couple is most valuable in repairing the relationship.
In situations like this, I eventually always ask the person who has been cheated on, “What was your part in this?” Not everyone is able to answer that question. “If I got him on the phone with me right now, what would his complaint about you be? What would he be most frustrated about?” The answer is always revealing. The client who has no idea what they might have done to contribute to the problem has told me, without realizing it, that they are not self-aware, they are not in touch with their partner’s needs or feelings, and they are invested in being a victim. This is a problem. Without the willingness to look at your part of a problem, nothing will change. With the exception of abuse, we are always participants in our relationship problems. It takes two to tango.
No matter what you two choose to do, there is going to be a very painful transitional time while you heal and redevelop trust.