One confession that I make with some trepidation is that I was an avid watcher of the reality tv show “Cheaters”, in the 90’s. Joey Greco who was the host of the show built the cases up well and it made for interesting viewing. If you could put aside the drama and the firm suspicion of the show being scripted, you got the clear impression of how much effort it truly takes to cheat on a partner and keep it going without being caught. Some were obviously more adept than others but on occasions, it was akin to a military operation. Many of the victims appeared to be clueless until Greco produced evidence via camcorder of their partners infidelity. Often followed the statement: “You think your partner is at work. In fact he is with (insert name) right now. Would you like to confront them?” Invariably, they did and the confrontation was the crux of the show. It all seemed so black and white. Someone cheats, someone finds out, someone confronts cheater and end of relationship, full stop. I am sure this does happen in reality a lot of the time but other scenarios can occur that make the relationship equally untenable.
Those of you who have experienced infidelity will testify to the pain associated with it. I always prepare my couples clients for three very likely scenarios when infidelity happens. They usually come into therapy a short while after and the pain for the “victim” is unbearable but mixed with confusion about how to go forward. One of three things is likely to happen and it really depends on them which one:
- They will separate a short time after and the relationship is finished. This usually takes place before therapy starts, especially if children are not involved.
- They try to form a new basis unsuccessfully but stay together anyway in a marriage of convenience. In this case, the resentment and contempt are rarely spoken about but stays an underlying factor meaning intimacy is kept at a minimum.
- An aware couple will try to learn lessons from the infidelity and make a clear commitment to build a stronger, healthier basis for the relationship, leaving aside blaming and perpetrator/victim mentality. This takes a high level of forgiveness, commitment and a strong willingness to stay together.
Many couples believe they are engaging in the third option but end up with the second and maybe the first. We have to stress at this point that infidelity breaks the trust needed to make a relationship functional and any options that keep a couple together should contain a large element of the “victim” setting the lion’s share of conditions. Cheaters lose all rights to a say when they make that choice to cheat and yes, it is a choice. Many cheaters claim that they had no idea why they did it. This is a lie. There is always an opportunity to do the right thing and choose your partner. If you are unhappy in your relationship, work it out or end it but don’t cheat. No-one deserves to be on the end of that!
Infidelity can happen in any relationship irrespective of age, culture, race or sexual orientation. It is a common factor in breakups and equally so in the aftermath. However, if we add in the complication of one of the couple being codependent, it adds a whole new aspect to the ability to move forward.
When I start therapy work with codependents, one thing becomes clear very quickly in many cases. Many of them have a definable history of being cheated on. Worse still, they had mostly accepted it and taken their partner back. On some occasions, this had taken place multiple times. Some of them believed they were practicing healthy concepts as described in option 3 above, while some knew that they were in option 2 and feared option 1. In many cases, I recognized a clear pattern in how they processed not only the cheating but the period after.
- They often blame themselves and feel that they are the main reason that cheating occurred. This means to them that their efforts to please and fix need to be increased. One comment I remember: ” If he was happy, he wouldn’t have cheated. It is my job to keep him happy” (seriously?). They put their needs aside and think only of accommodating their partner.
- They are devastated by the betrayal of trust but cannot find the courage to leave, stay and subdue all feelings and concepts that could help. This type, along with the one described above are very resistant to therapy and being shown reality. They will usually drop out fairly quickly and they will inevitably leave themselves open to being abused again (and again).
- This will be hard to believe but this next type really does exist. Codependency is generally about control and some codependents like to look for anything that will push the balance of power in the relationship towards them. They are the ultimate point scorers and will love having the upper hand in who has “suffered” more. They will use the guilt and willingness to put things back in order displayed by the cheater to take maximum control of the relationship. They will see their partner as having no rights of expression and will constantly remind them of “what they did and how they must make amends”. They themselves might feel that they have to contribute nothing. This can go on indefinitely with neither willing to change the situation.
- All of the above are driven by fear. Codependents often have a dysfunctional connection with their partners which mirrors that they experienced with caregivers. The thought of being alone and the work needed to make a new start will often drive them to take the easy way out.
As you can see, Joey Greco only had part of the story!!