When Your Partner Cheats

Dear Liz,

Hi, I’m 19. My first relationship lasted one year and he cheated on me every so often and I kept taking him back. We broke up and three years later I haven’t had a relationship since and I’m honestly not attracted to anyone anymore. I am, but I’m not if they actually want to date me. What’s the reasoning behind this?

Dear Friend,

You were 15 or 16, involved in your first serious relationship, one I will assume involved sexual intimacy.   You were betrayed a number of times, and suffered through a break up. You were young, in love, repeatedly betrayed, and hurt…that is why you have been so self-protective, to the point that that protectiveness seems to have morphed into an unconscious reaction at this point.

But there is more to it.  It is not simply the incidents in our life that inform our consciousness (and thus our future) but more importantly, how we react to those incidents—it is about the meaning we attach to an event or experience, not the event or experience in and of itself.  Two people can go through the same set of circumstances, and come out on the other side feeling very differently.  Given how closed off and self-protective you have become, my guess is that the circumstances of this relationship were genuinely traumatic for you—and it also feels like this relationship both triggered and “locked in” a grief; I suspect that behind that grief might be a deeply held belief about yourself:  I’m not worth all that much…I’m not all that lovable…

An important place to begin is to go back to when he first cheated on you, and explore not only your feelings when you discovered that truth, but also explore the depth of the feelings that led you to take him back…and do that for the second incident of betrayal, and then for the third, etc.  I want you to go back, spend time with the deepest feelings that come up for you, and stay with them.  Write what you are feeling if that helps—most importantly, be brave enough to go deep within and get to the heart of it.  This will take some time.

While I can imagine circumstances of infidelity that someone could work through, such circumstances would require:

  1. The infidelity was an aberration, meaning the infidelity is truly a “symptom” of a deeper fracture in the relationship, a fracture that can be healed.
  2. The one who was unfaithful is genuinely remorseful, and other than this break in trust, has a record of honesty, respect for you, and cherishes the relationship you have both created.
  3. The one who was unfaithful is willing to do the deep work and explore what led to such an extreme breach of trust and respect for his/her partner.
  4. The one who was unfaithful is willing to be patient, for as long as it takes, to earn back the trust that was so terribly damaged.
  5. The one who was cheated on is able to genuinely forgive—which involves deep compassion, and a deep intuitive experience of loving.

A fair rule of thumb is that if the cheating is chronic, then monogamy/fidelity are simply not valued, and/or the cheater is able to compartmentalize “love” for you and sex with others.  However, if one has given their word to be faithful, understands there is an expectation of fidelity, yet continues to cheat, then the character of that individual should be called into question.  It is fair to say he doesn’t respect you, meaning he doesn’t regard your feelings as important as his needs, and without that sort of mutual regard, I’m not sure how love survives.  People who love us, people who are capable of loving, will avoid deliberately hurting us.

And now a question for you:  Why did you repeatedly tolerate his unfaithfulness? Presuming the two of you were engaged in an exclusive and intimate relationship, then at a minimum, his cheating suggests he was not nearly as invested in you as you were in him.  And I bet if you go back and honestly survey the dynamic the two of you had, you likely knew this—women’s intuition is very clear, very powerful.

It is natural to grieve the loss of trust and to grieve the loss of a relationship—but grief is meant to lift, and when it does it not, it can take on “new life” in the form of depression, isolation, intimacy avoidance, etc.  What I would love to see you do is reach back not only to the relationship, but to your childhood, and honestly scan your feelings, your emotions, and any circumstances that may have caused you deep pain, circumstances you may not have fully processed.  I suspect his infidelity triggered some other, more deeply held, emotions.  Did you get less than what you wanted/needed emotionally as a child?  Perhaps you have learned to settle for less, because it’s all you believe you deserve?

It may be helpful to read my column, Struggling to Heal After an Abusive Relationship In that column, I explore why it is that we often show up for relationships that don’t meet our needs.

When you are able to unearth the meaning you attached to his infidelity, and then challenge the truth of that meaning, your healing will begin and your openness to dating will re-emerge.

And one more tip:  relationships can start slow, and can begin with a deep openness that includes sharing our fears.  Here’s a promise:  the right guy for you is someone who can patiently hear out your past and your fears, someone who is willing to move slowly and earn your trust—genuine attraction, deep liking and love all look for reasons to stay.  Anyone unwilling to invest at this level is not mature enough to be in a real relationship, and is likely happier in the “friends with benefits” zone, a space I highly recommend you avoid.

Telling the truth about ourselves is the very best of all dating litmus tests—if he can’t pass the test, he doesn’t earn the credits.


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