Now, there are those who will tell you that I don’t exist. That cheaters will always be cheaters, and that change is but a temporary illusion. And I’ll admit, that attitude is probably a safe, if not 100% accurate one. Because I can tell you from first-hand experience that change is really fucking hard. So hard that most fail, and ALL fail who try to change in order to please or appease someone else.
However, I am living proof that change is possible, if (AND ONLY IF) the cheater in question genuinely wants to make a change. So for those brave few who are ready to turn over a new leaf (or rather a giant, mud-covered boulder), and all those of you who want to better understand chronic cheating, read on.
While I’m sure there are as many reasons for cheating as there are cheaters, most of those “reasons” are merely after-the-fact justifications. After much observation and self-exploration, I’m convinced that there is a single underlying reason for nearly all chronic cheating:
Guilt over transgressions (or even imagined transgressions) of the past creates a feedback loop of never-ending dishonesty and disloyalty by triggering the following behaviors:
- Repeating the same bad behavior over and over to assert its rightness. People have a need to be right, and to feel like good and ethical people. So when they make a bad choice, it’s a very common defense mechanism to simply delude themselves into believing that the choice wasn’t so bad after all. And in order to do that, they have to keep on making it. Over and over.
Let’s say you’re going to a pot luck, and you decide to make salmon mousse. Now, you’ve never made it before, and you know that it carries a high risk of food borne illness, but you make it anyway. And sure enough, after the potluck everybody comes down with a terribly case of salmonella. You know you shouldn’t have made the mousse, and you feel guilty. But you can’t accept responsibility for making all those people sick! You had the right intentions, after all, and you aren’t some kind of sadist who likes to make people sick for fun. Right??
So when your sister asks you to make something for her wedding reception, you (subconsciously) see an opportunity for redemption, and make yet another, equally terrible, salmon mousse. The entire wedding party is hospitalized, your sister’s honeymoon is postponed, the guilt is compounded, and it becomes more and more difficult to confront the consequences of your actions. So what do you do? Make another salmon mousse, of course, to bring to your sister in the hospital!
The same thing happens with cheating.
You cheat once, it turns out badly, your Significant Other (hereafter SO) accuses you of being a terrible human being. But you know in your heart that you aren’t a terrible human being. And so, to prove this fact to yourself, and to the world, you must cheat again. And again. And again.
Ironic, bizarre, and absolutely true.
- Creating justifications. After a while it isn’t enough just to rationalize to yourself and others why it was imperative, or at least not so bad, to break your romantic agreements. The guilt becomes so overwhelming that you actually have to start creating justifications for your actions. So you pick fights, or you make yourself unattractive enough to your SO that s/he stops having sex with you, or you simply stop having sex with your SO, thereby pushing him/her toward cheating on you, etc. Then when you go and screw the neighbor you can say to yourself,
“S/he drove me to this!”
- Lying. Lying and cheating go hand in hand. You break an agreement, you fear the consequences of the broken agreement, and so you withhold that information from your SO.
But it doesn’t stop there. Lies in a relationship multiply like fruit flies on a compost heap. You need lies to cover up your lies. You need lies to back up those lies. After a while you have so many lies built up that you feel like your entire relationship is built on those lies, and that if your SO ever learned the truth they would despise you.
Furthermore, because of your guilt, you begin to believe that if anyone knew the real you, they would despise you. And so you lie to everyone. You lie unnecessarily. You lie gratuitously. You lie to make yourself look better. You lie to make yourself look worse. You lie so much you don’t even remember what’s true anymore.
Your life becomes a lie.
You feel guilty about all the lies, and thus the cycle continues ad nauseum.
- Encouraging others to transgress. Like an alcoholic uncle who is always trying to talk you into having a drink with him, the chronic cheater isn’t content to simply break his/her own agreements. S/he is continually pushing others to break theirs as well. To make poor choices, put themselves and/or others at risk, and to lie about it.
Again, this is behavior is directly linked to guilt. Because the cheater knows what s/he is doing is wrong, s/he needs others to take wrong actions, too, so that the relative badness of her/his own actions appears diminished. But of course, corrupting others only ends up making him/her feel more guilty, and so on.
- Needing approval from others. Because guilty people question their own status as good and ethical people, they desperately need others to see them as good and ethical. They cannot stand being made out to be a villain, especially over some misunderstanding or incorrectly perceived wrongdoing or character flaw, and will go to ridiculous, often self-destructive lengths to change that perception. They are therefore dangerously easy to manipulate emotionally.
That means that even if a guilty person doesn’t particularly want to have sex, or continue to have sex, with someone, they may be so concerned with the emotional repercussions of not doing so that they capitulate in order to please, appease, or earn the approval of that person.
They are also easy to take advantage of or talk into transgressing, since they have lost their moral altitude, and thus feel that they have no right to judge the actions of others or to stop others from taking wrong actions.
All of which leads to…
- Apathy about doing the right thing. When in a fairly clean environment, a dirty dish stands out, and so we feel a kind of social pressure to put the dish in the sink. But when the whole apartment is a disaster area, we feel no compunction over leaving our dish right where it is.
So it is with our conscience.
The cleaner your conscience is, the more compelled you feel to do the right thing and take responsibility for the few wrongdoings that do occur. But when your conscience is saturated with guilt, you become apathetic in regards to ethics. Knowing how much work it would take to make the place presentable, you don’t even bother to clean up after yourself anymore. You stop questioning your own actions, stop trying to make amends for wrongdoings. You just give up and declare yourself a hopeless case.
Maybe you even label yourself evil, or a super-villain, or a siren/succubus, or just plain bad.
And therefore you start…
- Pushing people away. Your guilt makes you feel like a bad person and therefore dangerous to good people, and because you are, underneath it all, a good and ethical person, you want to protect good people from danger. Therefore, ironically enough, you keep the people you care about the most at an arm’s length. You destroy healthy relationships, and run screaming from anything that reeks of intimacy. Conveniently, this also serves as a justification to cheat, since you were only protecting your SO from the force of chaotic evil that is you.
Unless/until a chronic cheater addresses the underlying problem, their guilt, it is very likely that they will continue to cheat.
If you’re ready to address that problem, then I have an assignment for you.
It’s a deceptively simple assignment, but trust me, if done correctly it may well be the hardest thing you’ve ever done.
Get yourself a notebook and a pen. Write down, by hand, every wrong action you’ve ever taken in regards to sex and relationships. Every transgression, every omission, every action you took or didn’t take that you know to be wrong. Not that someone else told you was wrong, mind you, but that YOU KNOW in your heart to be wrong. Describe each event in stark, factual terms. No justifications, no backstory, no emotionally charged language. Then describe any known consequences.
Here’s an example of how NOT to do it:
This is not a trial: you are not here to defend your actions, only to describe them.
Another example of how NOT to do it:
This is not about clobbering yourself over the head with guilt. Feeling guilty hasn’t helped you in the past, and it isn’t going to help you now.
The point is to fully confront the reality of what occurred, and to take responsibility for having caused any consequences that resulted.
If, in the process of writing this (and it will probably take you hours if not days or weeks to complete it), you discover a consequence that you could still help to fix, or in some way positively affect, do it. In the example above, you could reach out to your old buddy, come clean and apologize for making out with his girlfriend all those years ago, and if possible, try to mend the friendship.
As to the rest, simply confront. See it there and sit with it without trying to justify or explain it away. Recognize what you caused, and hopefully, at the end of it all, you will recognize that you are neither a helpless victim nor an evil villain. You are a good person who made bad choices. You are a powerful person whose actions have a powerful effect. And it isn’t too late to start choosing to have a different, more positive effect.
The final step is to show your list to another person. That’s right, you’re going to have to make yourself that vulnerable to another human being. Pick someone you trust, and ask them to read through the whole shebang. Let them know you aren’t looking for judgment, empathy, or even for help. You simply need a witness.
This does two things: 1. It unburdens you of the stress of carrying around all those secrets, and 2. It gives you an opportunity to be seen, and hopefully accepted, exactly as you are.
But truthfully, the only person whose acceptance you need is you. Because once you have that, you can start the process of becoming the person you want to be.
Take it from me: it’s never too late to be the person you know yourself to be, underneath it all.