Why The Way We Talk About Cheating Desperately Requires Compassion
Most of the great teachers I have studied with emphasize that each person is worthy of compassion and that we grow the most when we can feel compassion toward the people we love to hate. So, just consider the following as something to think about, and pay attention to your first reactions to what I am suggesting.
Sam sat in a chair in my office, slumped over in shame. He was silent, his eyes downcast, and his hand grasping the edge of the chair. His wife sat on the edge of the couch, stiffened in outrage as she recounted the events of the previous day that led to her discovery of his affair.
For over two years, he and a co-worker had been involved in a relationship; they had long lunches with one another, slept together as often as they could find the time and place to do it secretly, and even traveled together to conferences. Sam had managed to keep this liaison totally confidential until he and his wife, Megan, were on a long drive when a text of lust and longing came in from his mistress, which Megan intercepted before he could wipe it.
She was irate; he was contrite and frightened. He didn't want to lose his family, and she said she wanted to walk away that moment, but because of their kids, she would give therapy a chance to help them through it.
"But one thing is for sure: She goes today. You better not speak again to her, ever," she demanded. "She is the meaning of everything which is contemptible in a woman."
Sam weakly protested Megan's demand, saying he needed to at least properly end things with the other woman.
"If you speak to her again, I'm gone," Megan said. "Why would you want to even speak to her again if you care about us?"
This small story illustrates a painful but true reality about what happens during the discovery of an affair. Although this is an imaginary couple and conversation, it is similar to many I have heard in my 40 years of working with couples. As we rush to condemn the betrayal and everything it stands for, we minimize any possibility that it involved a connection between two human beings and do all we can to dehumanize and devalue the third party. Of course, there are many issues besides a major betrayal: the ideal of a code between women that we never get involved with someone else's partner, the ego damage that our partner could find someone else compelling enough to risk everything to be with, and the primal fear of losing our relationship. And that is not to minimize the devastating violation of trust that points to the fragility of everything, including our loves and lives.
And so we lash out with the force of all these feelings against our partner, but sometimes even more against the third party, who is more impersonal and less threatening to rage against, especially if we want to stay in the relationship.
Here are three things we seldom think about when we are dealing with this kind of betrayal:
- This other person may, like the betrayed party, be in a lot of grief, and there may have been real feelings and caring between the affair partners. Most affairs do not begin with an intention to betray anyone or make a mess; they start slowly, with people pushing boundaries a little at a time. Many people have to deal with the anguish of falling in love with the wrong person and the resulting cutoff, which feels brutal, and they have no chance to say goodbye or process anything with this person they may care about. It's a sudden death that may haunt them for a long time, if not forever.
- The cheating partner who feels distress that you are hurting may also feel distress that the affair partner is also in pain. In fact, if they are a person with a heart and a conscience, they will feel this. We have a narrative that there is a "wronged" person and a "bad cheater." It is easy to deny that your partner has a heart big enough to care about more than one person. There is also the third party, who is marginalized and demonized as if nothing about how they feel or their side of the story matters.
- All involved parties are worthy of compassion, regardless of how the mess was created. This does not excuse the damage caused by lying, cheating, or betraying a promise. Two things can be true at once; one can experience justifiable outrage and at the same time acknowledge that the other person isn't a complete monster.
As painful as it is to be cheated on, the tendency to demonize the other person—often viewed as a shortcut to healing—can actually extend the pain.
For example, because infidelity has such a stigma, the cheater gets little support from friends and family, and the last thing anyone wants to hear about is their feelings of loss and regret concerning the other person. But if your relationship is going to get better, your partner needs to be able to heal, not just from the shame and sorrow for the hurt that they caused you but also from the pain they caused themselves and the affair partner.
This is not to say that the one who has been betrayed is not entitled to outrage or to require conditions to trust and heal if that is what they choose to do. But remember that two things can be true at once: You can be devastated and outraged, and you can also honor your partner's humanity and their need for real healing.
How do you do this?
Mindful compassion is a practice, not a place of arrival. When we are hurt, the primitive part of our brain wants to strike back. The problem is that doing so keeps us trapped in the drama and doesn't let us move forward. Of course, there is nothing easy about having compassion for someone who has hurt you. It is totally counterintuitive and a mighty stretch. Give yourself time to feel your raw outrage, but it's important to remember that if you keep fueling the anger, it will hurt you the most.
Compassion does not mean you have instant trust or forgiveness. It takes a lot of time to rebuild a relationship after an affair, and I am not suggesting that you bypass any of the steps. Moreover, working on having some compassion for your partner and the third party is not something you do instead of taking care of yourself. You do need new and firm boundaries, such as insisting that they do not see each other again. This is a time for therapy for you and your partner, and I recommend that your partner do their own work to explore how they made such a mess.
Your primary job is to heal yourself, and that means you give yourself the best medicine and nourishment you can. I once heard someone say, "Resentment is a poison you swallow thinking it will hurt someone else." Working on your own healing will be a lot easier if you replace the venom of hatred with compassion.
Linda Carroll, M.S., LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and board-certified life coach currently living in Oregon. She received her master's degree in counseling from Oregon State University and has practiced psychotherapy since 1981, specializing in couples and communication. She is the author of the highly acclaimed book Love Cycles: The Five Essential Stages of Lasting Love, which has been translated into four languages, and she regularly teaches relationship courses based on the Love Cycles method at wellness spa Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico. Her next book, Love Skills, will be available in February 2020.