From Tiger Woods and Russell Brand to John F. Kennedy and Charlie Sheen, the headlines for celebrity “sex addicts” and serial cheaters always seem to pique people’s interests. However, the reality of cheating in non-celebrity relationships is just as startling – one study suggests that 22% of married men and 13% of married women cheat on their spouses at some point in the relationship. Another study offers that upwards of 45% of all relationships involve cheating in some form.
The pervasive nature of social media, the emotional needs and sexual drives of some people, and the glorification of the “player” life often portrayed by the media all contribute to these numbers. Yet for those amongst us who have been on the receiving end of someone’s cheating ways or who are desperately trying to find a way to trust someone with a “reputation”, it’s common to wonder if it is even possible for a cheater to change. And while there is no clear “yes” or “no” answer to such a loaded and complex question, there is, in fact, hope.
Why Cheaters Cheat
As unfortunate as it seems, the reasons people cheat (though always dishonest) are not always clear-cut and not always about a “problem” with the cheater. Many times, cheating is merely a manifestation of deeper problems within a relationship. In other words, partners who are too scared to break up or ask for a divorce manufacture one through infidelity. Cheating can also be a response to emotional distance in a relationship – a cry for attention, much like an ignored toddler will make a mess or start to cry on purpose.
And while cheating is as much a sign of immaturity as that mess, it’s less of an issue when compared to those who are “serial cheaters”. The serial cheater may want to remain faithful in his or her relationship. They may even describe the union as “happy”. However, he or she finds monogamy impossible. These men and women have much deeper psychological issues that drive them to cheat, like in the case of sex addicts, for example, which are much more difficult to overcome.
How Cheaters CAN Change
As should be clear, there are a class of “former cheaters” who can, and do, change. This can occur within the relationship where the affair took place or in new relationships that happen after an affair. One of the most important things for these cheaters to do is work through the problems that led to the cheating, specifically through counselling and couples therapy. By addressing the whys of what led to the infidelity, many couples have actually strengthened their relationships over the long term, growing closer and happier as a result.
In other cases, people who were driven to cheat by immaturity often need time to “settle” and the opportunity to meet the right person before they “change”. Many young people who cheat in relationships early in life are perfectly capable of remaining monogamous in a different relationship at a different juncture of their life. While it is always appropriate to discuss your relationship histories and set expectations about cheating with your partner, holding someone’s past against them is unfair and can create the type of distrustful environment that leads to a relationship self-destruct, either through cheating or something else.
How Cheaters CANNOT Change
In the case of men and women who cheat due to deeper emotional or psychological issues (i.e. sex addiction, abuse, etc.) the trail to true healing is a lot more complex and difficult to navigate. This isn’t to say that serial cheaters and sex addicts cannot have healthy, fulfilling relationships, but it does mean that achieving this will take a lot more work, on the part of both partners.
Sex addiction, like alcoholism and other addictive diseases, is a life-long struggle that involves constant treatment and counsel. Like an alcoholic, the sex addict needs to be ready to admit to the addiction and do the work to overcome it – Every. Single. Day. Like partners in Al-Anon, partners of sex addicts also need support and they need to understand that there will be difficult, rocky times ahead. Dealing with sex addiction and chronic cheating as a mental “disease” and not a personal affront helps, but doesn’t mean that the future will be easy. It’s not totally impossible though, as long as your partner is really willing to change his or her devious ways, and both of you vow to actively work on building trust again.
Dealing with a cheater will take its toll on anyone’s psyche and the question “Should I stay or leave?” can prove to be very challenging – and your decision may be biased because, more often than not, your judgment is clouded. The good news is this is where I come in as a relationship coach. Sign up for my coaching program to know whether there’s still hope for your relationship… or if it’s time to put it behind you for good.