Infidelity is a terribly taboo topic. And that lack of education and/or societal support can make cheating feel nearly impossible to navigate. So, when it wove its way into our marital narrative, I was at a great loss.
We had no children, had only been married for a couple years, and I had just watched my brother be convicted of murder a few months before. I didn’t know if I should cut and run, or work on a marriage I had poured my heart into.
Until then, I had always said cheating would be the end for me. But as there are all types of infidelity, there are all types of responses. So, instead of divorcing, we initially sought counseling and support from select loved ones, hoping it would help us realign after trauma.
Unfortunately, it didn’t, and we not only grew further apart, but we also grew to mistrust each other even more. Thus, seven years after he had a bachelor party indiscretion (and because of other issues that developed as well), we divorced.
I share this not because it is a large piece of my trauma over the last several years that I’ve never really ever publicly shared about before this article. I am also not sharing it for pity or sympathy, maybe not even for inspiration.
I’m sharing to add to a dialogue often left on mute.
I also share so I can pass on the wisdom I have collected in my healing — because no matter what happens to us, we can always choose growth in time. Here are the eight most important lessons I learned from being cheated on.
Being cheated on, no matter the circumstances, feels awful.
I can remember expelling months of tears following my ex-husband’s admission. And even though we are divorced now and almost ten years from the “occurrence,” it still impacts me in small ways to this day. But that is all to say, as deep and dark and depressed and isolated as I felt, I would not always feel this way. I can’t tell you how long it will take to feel entirely “healed” or even “happy,” but I can tell you with enough internal work, you will one day. The only way out of the trauma is slogging through it though.
It might take “two to tango”, but if you are not the partner who cheated, you have no responsibility for this scenario.
You do not need to soul search for flaws or failures. It doesn’t matter if your marriage was rocky or your intimacy had eroded (physically or otherwise); cheating is not necessary. In fact, it’s the coward’s way out of conflict. If someone is truly unhappy or unfulfilled, their responsibility is to advocate for themselves. However, if they also have a spouse, they are to advocate for that spouse, too.
Communication is key, as therapy can be, too.
It isn’t your fault things got hard (they tend to do that), and it’s also not your fault your spouse sought anything outside of you. Your spouse’s needs are not yours to always meet; cheating is based in a transactional relationship model, not a true partnership.
Cheating does not have to be “make or break”, nor is it necessarily going to happen again.
Each relationship is different, as is every infidelity. If you and your partner work together heartily on getting to the root of what caused them to cheat, then heal from their actions, anything is possible. I mean, we all know marriage is about working as a partnership through anything life throws at you. And anyone who’s been married knows that (unfortunately) includes what your spouse elects to throw at you, too. Plus, we all make mistakes. The way we choose to make amends for our transgressions can sometimes be more telling or important than our initial indiscretion.
However — despite the fact that “once a cheater, not necessarily always a cheater,” a pattern is a pattern.
Besides the infidelity in my marriage, I have knowledge of one other indiscretion in my relationship history. That man in particular had shared with me that cheating had been a consistent pattern in his own history. He professed deep feelings for me, but I was seeing other people (which he knew). Thus, I thought his past cheating was a non-issue. Until I found out he wasn’t single, and he had unknowingly forced me to be the other woman for quite a while.
I had ignored his pattern and red flags because from my privileged perspective, I thought it wouldn’t affect me. Also, when you’re wearing rose-colored glasses in a situationship, red flags can look just like normal flags. But no one can nurture the pathology out of someone, and turning a blind eye to their “issues” doesn’t make the relationship more functional either.
The cheating might not have been your responsibility, but your healing absolutely is.
No matter how much you feel you need your partner to restore your trust in them, that process is not a one-way street. Trust is built between two people, and you must have an active role in doing so, too. Because you might not have played a part in the infidelity to begin with, but you have to play a part in healing if you want to keep a healthy partnership. And even if there is no intention of staying together, one must still take the personal responsibility in healing if you want to find happiness again. Otherwise, putting your healing process in someone else’s hands is just too precarious a project.
Other people’s actions don’t define you.
Sometimes our confidence is as insecure as the stock market, ironically enough. And after infidelity, it can feel even harder to believe in yourself or your worth. But my husband or boyfriend or any one else’s choices do not define me. I am worth every ounce of the love and trust and compassion I offer my partners. In the same vein …
Past relationships do not dictate future ones.
It’s as simple as that. You can live and learn and love again, but you do not have to relive any cycles. As long as I open my heart but protect my energy when I’m ready, I will make progress.
I realize that sometimes it really is impossible to detach from the disappointment and heartache that cheating leaves behind. And in those moments, it often helps me to know I am not alone. In fact, although it’s hard to know for sure, NPR reports that about 21% of married men engage in sexual infidelity, and 19% of married women do, too.
Of course, there is no joy in finding out about other people’s heartache, but there is a great deal of community in knowing you’re not alone. With community comes communication, and a byproduct of communication is almost always catharsis. I highly suggest finding a support group, talk therapist, or even people in the infidelity recovery community online.
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