You’ve heard the saying/warning probably a million times since you were a teenager: “Once a cheater, always a cheater.”
The assumption is that a person can have many flaws and make several relationship mistakes — he or she can lie to you, say mean things in anger or even squander money without telling you about it — but if adultery is committed, forget about it and accept the end of your relationship. You might as well find yourself a new partner or embrace being single because a tiger who cheats doesn’t change its stripes.
But why is cheating treated like the relationship blunder from which there is no return? Understandably, many people feel like it’s the ultimate betrayal of their trust and a complete slap in the face. The feeling may be that one person was in it whole hog, resisting temptation in an effort to focus on the relationship and keep it strong, while for the other, their whole time together was treated like his or her personal free for all.
The problem with this way of thinking is that it makes the incorrect assumption that cheating is only about sex — in reality, experts say, sex may be the least important aspect of an adulterous relationship. Another error we might be making is believing someone has cheated on us to “get to us” and ruin our lives.
“Often people think about cheating as an offense to another,” says certified relationship coach Nwasha Edu, the bestselling author of You Are What You Cheat: A Guidebook into Understanding and Overcoming Infidelity. “But the true core of cheating is not honoring a promise you’ve made to yourself. The purpose of all relationships is to perfect your character, but many of us satisfy our personal needs through our relationships. We also use affairs/infidelity to also satisfy our core needs of certainty, variety, significance, love, growth, and contribution.”
Edu says that, stereotypically, men cheat to feel more significant or for variety and women cheat for love, attention and to emotionally connect with someone else. She balks at this idea and that there is always one cheater and one victim. Instead she calls on couples to both assume responsibility in whatever part they played to weaken their relationship. Because, yes, at the end of the day, most people who cheat were not in perfect unions.
“It’s a hard pill to swallow, but if you’ve been cheated on, you have to admit you didn’t satisfy your partner’s needs,” Edu says. “You also didn’t develop the skills to be in a successful relationship (whatever your definition of success may be). You didn’t notice your partner was unsatisfied and chances are you weren’t satisfied either. A person’s core needs are normally fair and basic (certainty, variety, significance, love and growth).”
Jennifer Kelman, LCSW, agrees and says it’s important to look at why infidelity occurred and what were the motivations behind it before jumping to conclusions and generalizing that all cheaters are programmed to cheat again. Some of the issues she encounters with couples include communication problems, fear of commitment and even self-loathing. “If these individual issues are worked through and addressed, then cheating may not happen again,” Kelman says. “I do not believe there is one type of personality that leads one to become a repeat offender. When the thrill in couple-hood takes a back seat to the more mundane daily tasks of life, affairs can provide the self-esteem boost and thrill that is lost. But if that magic is recreated within the relationship, then many don’t cheat again.”
Most couples licensed marriage & family therapist Anita A. Chlipala, owner of Relationship Reality 312, Inc., works with are actually not repeat offenders when it comes to infidelity, but she says many people who cheat are conflict avoidant. “Not addressing conflict and needs can perpetuate unnecessary unhappiness, and makes a person more susceptible to the attention of another,” Chlipala says. “Part of the healing process in the relationship is for the cheating partner to prove they can handle conflict and speak up for their own needs.”
Chlipala maps out how couples ended up cheating, and finds that, although there are many variables at play, there’s usually a combination of unmet needs and opportunity. Many people she has worked with say they were lonely in their relationships, or kept asking their partner for their needs to be met but their partner couldn’t or wouldn’t comply.
“I don’t mean to simplify this answer because again, it is complex, but when my clients realize how they were able to cheat (what their reasons were to justify their behaviors), we’ve worked on making sure that doesn’t happen,” she says. “It’s not a personality trait so much as it is the context of their relationship.”
Bottom line, Chlipala confirms: “The simple answer to this question is that, no, once a cheater is not always a cheater.” The couple just has to be willing to work into the issues instead of away from them.
A version of this story was published January 2016.
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