Before I start, let me preface this with the fact that I do not condone cheating. Infidelity rightfully causes resentment and rage and understandably flips lives upside down. The individual who cheats has broken promises, betrayed commitments, and violated boundaries.
Now, even though I do not condone cheating, I must use a particular lens when I view cheating in my office. When I am working with a couple who has decided to work through someone’s infidelity, people are often surprised to understand the kind of perspective a good therapist must take in order to help their clients. While the cheater is often persecuted in their personal life, the psychologist cannot relentlessly finger-point and reprimand. Instead, the practitioner must put both parties in the hot seat. Wait! In the beginning, of course, the victim’s emotions must be understood, processed, and acknowledged and the cheater must own his or her responsibility in the infidelity. However, when both individuals are ready to move forward (which could take a long time, if ever), we must explore the relationship as a whole. We must explore the faulty patterns of BOTH people, the one who cheated and the one who was cheated on.
For example, a client of mine found herself cheating; something she never believed could happen. While I expressed that I could not condone her behaviour, I did convey that I knew she was cheating for psychologically legitimate reasons. Upon digging a bit deeper, we slowly understood that her husband had been under-functioning in their marriage for many years (he never helped with the kids, he never visited her family, he never initiated dates with her, and he rarely took vacation days). Now, I stress that his under-functioning is no excuse for his wife’s infidelity; she made all of their relationship issues exponentially worse, and almost irreparable, by cheating. However his under-functioning does explain her discouragement, dissatisfaction and unhappiness. When we work with couples, it is this information that we seek out; we strive to understand the beginning of relationship disappointments and the unmet needs of both parties.
The point I’m trying to make here is that while the individual who cheated committed a major violation, the relationship problems started way before the decision was made to cheat. Again, cheating is horrible and responsibility must be owned, however cheating is a manifestation of a larger, more unspoken problem. And what can we partly blame: faulty communication. People are afraid to communicate and purposely avoid conflict because it’s “easier” or they “don’t want to hurt the other person” or they “don’t want to start anything.” Well, let me tell you that unless you’d rather deal with excruciating heartbreak, mediators, and custody fights, start brushing up on your communications skills pronto! And if you really don’t have the emotional resources to effectively communicate, seek out your own therapy for that specific reason. You have to know that communication is the only way to work through significant marital strife. If you don’t have the skills, go get them!