An Open Letter to Cheaters

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Based on everything I know, people who cheat REALLY don’t get what they have done.  Yeah, some say they do – they may cry and say they are sorry, but they DON’T GET IT.

They don’t get the damage they have done and the pain they have caused.  They don’t understand how their actions have fundamentally changed the world for the person they have cheated on.  They don’t understand the pain and loneliness, and how this one revelation can completely change everything.  Everything you believed about your partner is called into question.  Every memory becomes tainted.

You find yourself questioning – if they were capable of cheating on you, how well did you actually know them?  If they were able to lie and hide this, what else was a lie?  What is/was real?  Was anything real?

It’s kind of like the movie the Matrix, where Keanu Reeves was going about his daily life and he knew something was wrong, but couldn’t figure out what.   Then he eventually found out his life was a lie and he was really hooked up to a machine; and his whole world changed.

Finding out your partner has been cheating on you can be THAT level of a fundamental shift in your understanding of things.  You may have known that things weren’t as good as they could be (though sometimes people have no idea), then suddenly your world becomes broken and things don’t make sense anymore.

 

Cheaters don’t get this.  They can’t.

Because if they DID get it?

Then they wouldn’t have been able to cheat in the first place.

 

A Breakdown of Trust

Now, I won’t pretend the above is a blanket statement that applies to all cases.

I don’t believe all affairs are created equal.

An emotional affair with an anonymous person over the internet is different from a drunken one night stand.  And both of those are different from long term affairs where someone is leading a double life and hiding their activities from their partner.  There are a lot of different things that can happen, and different “severities” of affairs if you will.

Additionally, I believe that while the person who cheats is ALWAYS wrong, that doesn’t necessarily mean the person who was cheated on is necessarily in the right (to be clear, they are NEVER at fault for the cheating.  They’ve likely contributed to the decline in the relationship that contributes to the cheating, sure.  But cheating is always a choice made by the person who does it).

So affairs can be nuanced, and complex.

 

But they all have one thing in common – a complete and total destruction of trust.  And this is kind of a significant problem, because trust is the foundation relationships are built upon.

So when that is gone, there’s a good chance it will tear down everything else with it.

Your relationship may not have been perfect (obviously it wasn’t, or you wouldn’t have cheated), but chances are even if your partner knew there were issues, they had NO IDEA how bad you felt things were.  They probably thought you were fairly solid as a couple, and you should have been able to work though whatever problems existed.

If nothing else, they trusted you with their heart.

Relationships may be hard at times, but they REALLY don’t have many rules.  Love each other, and be willing to show it.  Try to communicate with each other.  And don’t be selfish – don’t put yourself first all the time, your partner needs to matter too.

If you’ve cheated on your partner, regardless of your reason you have to understand you have broken pretty much every relationships rule there is.

 

Why Did you Cheat?

There’s very little in this world that is black and white; but affairs are one of the few things that are almost universally accepted as wrong.

Something you need to understand is, why?

Why did you do it?  

What in your values allowed you to justify having an affair?

 

This is an extremely important question to be able to answer to yourself honestly.

 

I can understand people being unhappy in their relationship.  I can understand people falling out of love.  I can understand feeling stuck, and wanting some excitement in your life.

There may have been any number of reasons why you felt you would find yourself happier in another relationship.  And they may be completely valid and understandable.

But none of them will answer the most important question of all:

If you were that unhappy why didn’t you leave your existing relationship first? 

If you can’t look hard at yourself and truly answer that question of WHY (even if only to yourself), then you are likely at risk of doing the exact same thing again.  Not saying you will, but it will always be a risk if you don’t truly know why.

When caught, some people will show genuine remorse and make promises that it will never happen again.  And often I suspect they mean it – at least in the moment.  But then it happens again.  Or, if it doesn’t happen it’s mostly because someone is scared of the consequences of getting caught again, and not because they really saw what they did as wrong.

It’s crazy to me, but through this blog I have talked to a number of people who have cheated.  And one of the common things I have heard is they are sorry for hurting their partner but they aren’t sorry for the affair!!!  The regret is mostly for the damage done and the consequences they have suffered.  But they really don’t regret the cheating, or breaking their vows.

I believe serial cheaters tend to be people who have never taken a hard look at themselves and tried to understand how their values became so broken that they were able to do what they wanted and not care enough about their partner to think of how their actions could impact them.

 

When someone has cheated, I think one of two things has happened.

Scenario one, they are people who always put themselves first and think the regular rules of relationships shouldn’t have to apply to them.  In their minds, they are special and feel entitled to do whatever they want to achieve their own “happiness”.  They believe they deserve to be able to do what they want, when they want, and not have to worry about the consequences of their actions and how it impacts others.  Because of course, they are the ones who matter.

These people are true narcissists, people who don’t actually care about anyone but themselves.  So if the opportunity was there?  Sure, why not.  They either don’t really see what they are doing as wrong, or maybe they do and they simply don’t care.

 

Another scenario is someone was unhappy and feeling emotionally dead – often due to something like depression or unresolved grief.  Their emotionally dead state made them start to believe there was something wrong with their relationship, and to believe they have fallen out of love.  While in this emotional state someone started to give them the type of attention they felt they were missing – and they liked how it made them feel.  One thing leads to another, and before they realize what has happened they are in an affair.

These types of affairs often stem from a state of anhedonia, and become like an addiction the person can’t give up.  When someone talks about how their affair allows them to “feel alive again”, often the person who is cheating is dealing with underlying issues with depression or something similar.

These people do realize they are doing damage, and will go through periods of guilt and shame for their actions.  They may even start to hate themselves for what they are doing.  But like an alcoholic with a bottle, they find themselves unable to stop.

In both cases, the cheater likely has underlying issues that need to be faced, and resolved before that person will ever be able to have a healthy relationship.

 

What Now?

It’s always important to understand the “why”, but if you are someone who already HAS cheated and is trying to hold onto your relationship, what do you do?

 

First off, you have to TRULY want the relationship, and you need to be able to say WHY you still want your relationship.  You cheated, so you can’t have wanted it that badly at the time.  What is different?  Why do you want it now?

Your answer can’t be that you are scared of losing it, losing your family, or being alone.  Wanting something and being scared to lose it are two VERY different things.  And unless you TRULY want it, you are never going to be capable of putting in the work required to (potentially) save it.

Even if you do truly want it, you need to accept that there is a very good chance you are going to lose it.  That’s just the reality.  You’ve broken every rule of relationships, and actions have consequences.

Anyone trying to decide if they want to stay with you now will be struggling with the fact that commitment seems to mean something very different to you than it does to them.  The cheating has happened.  It can’t be changed now, but trust is destroyed and that will color the future if it’s not rebuilt.  And only you can rebuild it.

This isn’t the sort of thing you ignore.  It’s not the sort of thing that you say “sorry” and then move on as if it has never happened.

 

I’ve spoken with people who are trying to rebuild/hold onto their marriages after an affair, and the healing process is a slow and difficult one.  It will likely take years, and realistically if the relationship IS salvaged, it will never be the same.

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Understanding that, here are a few tips for anyone who is hoping to hold onto their marriage.

First, it HAS to be over.  There can’t be contact with that person ever again.  If you think you can either keep it going, or even just be friends with that person in the future then you are proving you REALLY don’t get what you have done (not to mention you are a sh*tty person).

Likewise, trust with you ever being alone in the future with members of your gender of preference is probably gone.  You have cheated, and it’s now up to YOU to make this better.

You need to sell your partner on why they should stay with you.  And you need to understand that you’ve already shown yourself to be dishonest, so this selling job will take a very long time.

It will take consistent effort, probably for the rest of your life.

 

You need to own your actions.  No blaming, no rationalizing, and no minimizing.

Don’t say you made a mistake.  You may be still telling yourself it was a mistake as a way of rationalizing it to yourself, but it wasn’t a mistake – it was a choice.  And even if someone is willing to buy into the idea that an affair can be a mistake, that only applies if you did it once.  When you continue it and see that person a second time, it becomes a pattern of choices.  And another word for a pattern of choices is behavior.

So no, it wasn’t a mistake.  Here’s what it really was – an opportunity.

You saw an opportunity to live outside the “rules” of your primary relationship.  To do what you wanted, even at the expense of your partner or any promises you may have made to them.  And you did it because you thought you could get away with it.

Sometimes when they are caught, cheaters will say things like “I never stopped loving you” or “I never meant to hurt you”.  For someone on the receiving end, it’s pretty incomprehensible to understand how cheating is an act of love, or to think that you could cheat without realizing you would hurt them.

You didn’t just hurt them, you destroyed their world.

And to hear you “never meant to” just proves what they have likely believed all along.  You didn’t mean to, because you were never even thinking about them.  You were never even considering them, their emotions, or the damage you would do.

You were only ever thinking about yourself.

 

Here’s something you need to understand – the cheating isn’t the actual problem here.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s a pretty big f*cking deal.  The REAL issue is the lying.  The deception.  The double life.  The time, energy and effort that was put into another relationship instead of being put into the primary relationship.

More than the cheating, it’s this deceit that will likely tear your relationship/marriage apart.

And there’s only one way past that.

You’ve been dishonest and broken trust, and it’s time for that to stop.

A common thing for cheaters to do is to downplay what they have done, figuring the less their partner knows the better.  Or perhaps figuring that although they are now caught, they will only own up to the things that they have actually been caught in.

You partner is going to want, and even NEED to know things that you probably don’t want to tell them.  And you know that the truth is going to hurt them, and likely push them even further away.

But the truth is the ONLY way out.

Because relationships are built on trust, and that trust is already broken.  So if you EVER want to repair it, you need to start with truth – no matter how difficult it is.

If they want to know the truth, you need to tell them.  All of it.

Yes, they may cry, they may scream, and they may leave.

Better to leave knowing the truth though, then to try to rebuild a relationship on a rotten foundation.

Because I can promise you one thing.

If they give you another chance and you continue to hide things and lie?  After they have tried to forgive and tried to rebuild, if they find out you were hiding things and not being honest?

Well, the trust that needs to be rebuilt will be shattered again.  And once you have broken it a few times, there won’t be any more chances, and there won’t be any going back.

 

Actions have consequences.  And if you’ve chosen to cheat, you will need to live with yours.

 

Expectation vs. Entitlement

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Expectations seem to be getting a bad rap these days.

In recent posts I’ve discussed the idea of expectations in relationships (yes, they exist – and I would argue that’s a good thing). I’ve also discussed the idea that expectations are a part of setting goals, and having a vision for yourself and what you want in life.

Yet I continue to read things like “I just want people to love me without expecting anything from me”. There’s this idea that in unconditional love expectations are bad and people should just be satisfied with anything.

When exactly did “expectations” become demonized, and why? I suspect it’s due to a sense of confusion between expectation and entitlement.

Expectations are tied to our needs and wants. We need food and shelter to survive, so in the modern world some form of income is a need. Sex is a basic human instinct, and there is no clear consensus on whether it is truly a need or a want, but the fact that the argument even exists tells me that at least in some capacity sexual fulfillment is a need. The lines between needs and wants blur, and it’s pointless to try to differentiate the two; but expectation is a belief that our needs and wants are important and that we will attempt to fulfill them and that those around us will care about them.

However an expectation of something doesn’t mean it “will” happen, and periodically we find that our expectations are adjusted when reality doesn’t line up with them. But expectations are important, and there is nothing inherently wrong with them.

Life is an Exchange

When looking at expectations and needs in a relationship, I think you can draw many parallels to the world of work.

When looking at a prospective partner we are like a company doing interviews. We have a wish list of criteria and we are looking for someone that meets as many of those criteria as possible.

Depending on what you are looking for in a relationship these criteria will vary, but they usually include things like physical attraction, common interests, similar outlook or goals in life, sense of humor, reliability, sexual compatibility etc. If the relationship is serious things like outlooks on kids, responsibility and some degree of financial stability are also important. Criteria of a desirable partner is pretty subjective, but we all have *something* we are looking for which provides a perceived benefit to the relationship.

Finding someone who meets your criteria fairly well doesn’t mean you have a relationship though. Your partner has things they are looking for too. Their criteria may not be the same, but they also have to see value in what you bring to the relationship. It’s not a relationship unless both parties see some sort of benefit.

Even if the exchange is simply the enjoyment of each other’s company, both people must see some sort of value in maintaining and growing the relationship. If only one person sees value, the relationship won’t last – to suggest otherwise seems foolish to me.

Beyond criteria of what we are looking for in a partner, we also have some sort of vision of what we want our relationships to look like – with upper and lower boundaries of what is “enough”. Most people probably have not actually thought through what these boundaries are, they only know when expectations are not being sufficiently met.

I suspect most people understand that their partner could better match their “ideal” standard, but they could also be a lot worse. So this question of “what is enough” is central to determining the viability of the relationship. Relationships struggle when needs are no longer being sufficiently met on one or both sides. When this happens, each partner is really evaluating “is this still enough for me”? If not, some leave. Others believe it can it be better, and look for ways to improve things.

It is when relationships are struggling that resentment about “expectations” arise, but the expectations in question have likely always been there. It’s only now that they have become an issue.

My belief is, expectations are natural and we all have them. They are actually positive, because if we didn’t have them then how could we judge if our relationship was still working? Would we just have to put up with anything?

Entitlement

Instead of expectations being a problem, the REAL problem is entitlement.

Entitlement is all about a sense of ownership or a belief that you *deserve* something. I see entitlement as having two main forms:

  1. I should get this because I want it, “no matter what”
  2. because I have done this you now have to do that

It is fine to have expectations of someone else – but that doesn’t mean you are entitled to anything. The other person matters here, and what you want doesn’t matter if they don’t also want the same thing.

I don’t care how nice someone is, how pretty/handsome they are, how much money they have, how many people they know or how educated they are. Sure, some of those things influence the opportunities you have, but that doesn’t mean a damn thing.

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Fulfilling Expectations

If expectations are fine and are the criteria for relationship satisfaction, but the fulfillment of those expectations is not guaranteed; how should people best position themselves to ensure their expectations are met?

The answer to that is, the only thing you truly have control over. You. Your choices, communication, and your behaviors.

This is where the golden rule comes in. People should try to live their lives in a way that their choices and behaviors are in line with their expectations.

If you want someone to treat you with love and kindness, *maybe* it would be a good idea if you were to treat them that way. If you are hoping to have your needs met in a relationship, you had better be working to understand your partners needs and trying to meet those. And it shouldn’t be a calculated “hmm, if I do this for him/her then they will do something for me” – this isn’t a financial transaction. You need to be doing it because you genuinely want to meet their needs – because you care about them and want to see them happy.

You also need to communicate your needs and wants. Many people hold resentment for unmet expectations, when they were never clearly understood by their partner in the first place. As I’ve said before, guys are dumb. Sometimes what one person thinks is clear is not clear to the other person.

So communicating expectations and reciprocating for your partner puts you in the best position for your expectations to be met. But that’s all it means. It doesn’t guarantee anything, and it doesn’t mean you will get what you want when you want it.

You may end up disappointed in some circumstances but over a period of time hopefully you will find that you and your partner are meeting each other’s expectations. In doing so, you should both find you have a high degree of satisfaction in the relationship.

When Expectations are not Met

Entitlement is believing your expectations will be met when and how you want them, or that others should conform to your needs. Yet expectations and needs are real.

If you find yourself unsatisfied in your relationship, then chances are your expectations also are not being met in some way. If this is happening in individual cases it’s not an issue. But when it becomes a pattern over extended periods it can become a significant problem. When this occurs, it’s important to understand what the problem actually is.

Are specific expectations that are not being met? If so, take a good look at them and ask yourself if they are fair expectations to have. Maybe they aren’t, and you would be best served by adjusting your expectations. If you look at your expectations and feel they are fair, then it’s important to discuss this with your partner.

Let’s look at one of the most common issues in a relationship – sex. I’ve written about sexual issues in the past, and the reality is that due to differing drives sex is always a potential source of conflict.

To be clear, no one is entitled to sex.

Entitlement is when someone expects sex “on demand”. Or believes that if they do something for their partner, they should get sex in return – regardless of what their partner wants. This is wrong.

However another version of entitlement is that if someone is not interested in sex they should not have to have it – regardless of what their partner wants. Due to the nature of a monogamous relationship I see this as equally wrong. This may not be a popular view, and I’m not saying someone should ever “have to” have sex when they don’t want to. But although a sense of entitlement around sex is wrong, an expectation of sex in a relationship is not wrong.

Entitlement says “I need sex, and it doesn’t matter what you want”. Or “I’m not interested in sex, and it doesn’t matter what you want”.

Expectation says “I need sex as part of this relationship, and I am not satisfied without it”.

These are different.

People need feel fulfilled sexually, and this requires communication. To have a successful relationship, both partners need to care about what the other one wants. Nothing should ever be entirely on one person’s terms. As discussed earlier, for all needs people have upper and lower boundaries of what is “enough”, and every couple needs to find a way to navigate these boundaries that works for them.

I use sex as an example because this is the one situation in a relationship where someone’s level of satisfaction is completely dependent on their partner (which is probably why it is a source of conflict). Most other needs can be satisfied individually or with other people. But these ideas of boundaries apply to all needs. In a relationship your partners needs should be important to you, and you should get satisfaction and enjoyment from seeing them met.

For some needs, one persons lower boundaries may be the upper boundaries the other, and this is natural. As long as their needs are still being met enough to meet the lower boundaries, there is no conflict. But when the upper boundary for one person doesn’t even approach the lower boundary for the other, over time conflict will arise.

With healthy communication, a couple will try to work on things and see if they can improve the situation. Maybe there are reasons, and if those reasons are understood there is often a willingness to adjust expectations and change these boundaries accordingly.

If the lower boundaries of needs aren’t met however, eventually this will start to poison the rest of the relationship. Expectations form our measures of success. It’s pretty simple – If expectations are being met we’re happy, and If they aren’t we aren’t

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Changes Over Time

Learning to communicate and adjust expectations is important for the success of any long term relationship.

People change, and the things we are looking for may also change over time. People also go through different life events, so even if your criteria don’t change your partner may no longer meet them in the way they once did. Plus relationships start as “new and exciting”. Passion is based on this excitement, but it can be hard to maintain that when you know the other person so well that there isn’t really anything new left to say.

Due to these things all relationships will struggle at times. During those times, if you truly want to weather the storm you need to be able to deal with difficult issues. You need to communicate with each other honestly and openly, addressing problems and working through them together. This is the hardest part in any relationship, and it is something that can definitely feel like work.

When I compare relationships to work, what I am saying is that you NEED to actively work on them. And if you don’t, there is a very good chance that you will either be unhappy, or it will fail (or both).

So accept that both you and your partner have expectations of each other, and communicate those. Your expectations will differ, and this can cause conflict – but it’s important that you work to addressing these conflicts in a way that is satisfactory to both. No one is ever entitled to having their expectations met, but finding a middle ground that works for both people is needed in order for any relationship to succeed.