I admit it: I’m hooked on “True Tori”, the reality show following Tori Spelling and her husband Dean McDermott, who confessed to a two-day affair (after Tori got the heads-up that the tabloids were about to run the story.) A recent study says that the key element in whether a relationship can recover from infidelity is if the cheating party confessed. (Unsurprisingly, no studies have been done to show whether confessing under threat of tabloid exposure meets the criteria.)
There’s the old adage: Once a cheater, always a cheater. I haven’t found that in my professional experience. I do, however, find that some cheaters are a whole lot more deserving of second chances than others.
Learning that your partner is cheating is a devastating experience. It causes you to question everything you knew about the relationship, your partner, and your own judgment. You might also question what kind of partner you’ve been: Did you do something to drive the other person away? How could you be so oblivious?
Affairs come in many shapes and sizes. Some are one-offs. Some are protracted and involve lots of lying and sneaking. What they have in common is a disregard of the rules of the primary relationship–a violation of intimacy, a sharing with someone else of what the partner considers exclusively theirs, the destruction of trust.
In my professional experience, the greater the disregard of a partner’s feelings, the worse the prognosis. For example, if someone conducted the affair in their marital bed for many years, this is an indication of either deep anger toward their spouse, or perhaps of narcissistic tendencies. At the other end of the spectrum would be a one-time drunken tryst with an immediate confession.
A good prognostic indicator is whether the partner takes full responsibility for the affair and for the damaging choices that were made. If the person really gets the impact of the affair and feels genuinely contrite with an appropriate level of guilt, that’s a positive sign. If the person is blaming (“I wouldn’t have cheated if you’d given me more sex”), forgiveness probably shouldn’t be imminent.
When considering whether to give your cheating partner a second chance, you want to think about what the affair reveals. If your partner has been telling you for years that he/she is unhappy and you haven’t been willing to make any changes, then you’re the one who’s been disregarding their feelings; in that case, the affair could be a catalyst for improving the relationship.
But if your partner has never expressed dissatisfaction and seemed to be completely engaged and happy in the relationship, all the while carrying on relations with one or multiple partners–look out. That smells like narcissism to me: the insatiable need for others’ approval, the lack of empathy and concern for others, the remorseless pursuit of their own pleasure.
How do I know they’re not remorseful, you might ask? Because true remorse means stopping the behavior, on their own, not under duress. It means putting a greater ideal and another person’s feelings above your own.
If your partner doesn’t seem subject to a conscience, think about whether it’s safe for you to even attempt to repair the trust. You’d have no protection the next time your partner gets an urge to scratch. Because you can’t police them all the time, right? No one would want to. That’s why you need to rely on your partner’s basic moral makeup, and their love and empathy for you.
Cheaters are not all a homogenous group. Some have characterological issues; some have temporarily lost their way. I hope this blog can help you figure out which is which, and when it’s worth reinvesting in the relationship.