Are Cheaters Repeaters?
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Are Cheaters Repeaters?

If your guy has strayed, will you ever be able to keep him on the path? Or has he permanently lost his way?

Trust Over?

The secret is out: The man you married broke those vows, and everyone -- from your mom to your hairdresser to the entire Lifetime network -- is telling you never to trust him again. Conventional wisdom says once a cheater, always a cheater. But is that really always true? Does infidelity lurk deep in one's genetic makeup, or can a guy slip up once and then bring himself back from the brink?

"When I remarried, I swore I wouldn't get cheated on again," says Phoebe, 44, a mother of two in Portland, Oregon. "I knew the signs. But 10 years and two kids into our marriage, my second husband had a midlife crisis and took up with a younger coworker. We went into counseling and he moved out, but two years later, we still felt we were supposed to be a family, and we got back together.

"I don't think of it as remaining in the marriage after his affair," she says. "I look at it as, we got married twice, with a long, difficult break in the middle. I don't fully trust him now, but he understands why I check up on him the way I do, and he keeps his life an open book for the sake of our marriage. He didn't like being single. So whatever he has to do to work through the depression and other issues that made him act out, he's willing to do."

Phoebe's experience highlights an important point, according to Joel Block, PhD, a clinical psychologist and author of Broken Promises, Mended Hearts: Maintaining Trust in Love Relationships (McGraw-Hill, 2001). "An affair is often the collusion of temptation -- and vulnerability makes you all the more open to temptation -- and opportunity." Phoebe's husband was vulnerable because of his midlife crisis, and both temptation and opportunity appeared in the form of an enthralled coworker with a crush.

What's interesting, he adds, is that Phoebe's husband isn't necessarily the one they have to watch. "Now she's the vulnerable party," he points out. "She's hurt. And the person to have an affair is the one who was wronged in the first place. A sense of loss is the most common basis of an affair, and she lost her pride."

Still, the fact that they're processing their problems with a counselor is a good thing. "It's necessary to go through a legitimate healing process," Block says. "The affair doesn't tell you anything about the future of the marriage. What happens after the affair -- that's the predictor of the couple's success or failure."

Why They Stray

"I cheated because I knew something was deeply wrong," says Lisa, 36, a dog trainer in Bloomfield, New Jersey. "It was immature and stupid. I knew things weren't right between my husband and me, but he didn't listen when I tried to tell him.

"Finally I just lied to myself and said, 'eh, having sex with a friend, it's no different from having dinner with a friend,'" she recalls. "It's really different, duh! The affair made me feel so alive, it pointed out everything wrong in my relationship, and I acted in ways that let him find out. Once I was discovered, he insisted on counseling, and we talked about what we both needed. It was an eye-opener. In the end, we split, but only after we gave it every chance and realized we just had different goals in life -- not because of the affair."

"The alarm -- getting caught -- is sometimes the best thing," says Berger. "It can alert the guilty party to the fact that something's wrong, and make the couple pay attention to the problem." Once the couple's in therapy, she says, they can take the necessary step to heal -- or end -- the relationship.

Block points out that in this case, the affair was with "a friend," not a real emotional partner. "There are different kinds of affairs," he points out. "A one-night stand is not a grand amour. If Lisa had wanted to stay in the relationship, the chances of that working out were better than if she'd felt like she'd met her soul mate."

"I could stop, but I don't want to," says Tom, a father of two in Brooklyn, New York. "My wife probably knows I cheat on her, but she loves me, so she closes her eyes to it. Since it doesn't bother her, I shouldn't have to give it up." The first years of their marriage, he says, were fine. "The birth of the kids didn't stop our sex life, it was nothing like that. She's the perfect woman for me, but she's just not deeply sexual like I am; the connection isn't there." About a year ago, he fell deeply in love with a woman, had his first affair, and was destroyed when she broke it off. Since then, he's had a long and varied series of affairs with everyone from the neighbor's nanny to an old college friend.

What's missing in this case is honesty between the couple and accountability. "If there's no guilt, no remorse, if there's a sense of entitlement -- you've got a problem. That person isn't going to stop," says Berger.

"An affair sets up barriers -- and it's meant to," she adds. The intimacy of Tom's marriage was probably too much; the affairs give him a distraction, a way to run away. "Someone else might play too much golf, hang out with his friends, work too much." Cheating, she says, may be the most painful, but they're all ways of evading the problems within the relationship. Since both partners ignore the problem, the chances of changing the underlying issues are slim to none.

"Life's too short," says Block. "She should dump him." An inveterate skirt chaser, even one whose first affair began out of that understandable vortex of temptation and opportunity, is not the sort of person to suddenly see the light.

When you look deeper than the movie of the week and its betrayed heroine/heartless cad stereotype, the truth, as you might expect, is a lot more complex. Most experts agree that infidelity does not have to spell the end of a long-term love or marriage -- but glossing over the event, hoping he really means it when he says it won't happen again, is a surefire recipe for failure. Determining if your guy's going to do it again is a job for both of you, and it ain't easy.

Signs of Straying

So what are the signs that he might stray again? How can you tell if he really means it? There are a few red flags. Watch for them, and you might save yourself a lifetime of frustration.

  • Is he willing to go into counseling?
    More to the point, is he forthcoming in counseling? Will he talk about why he strayed, and work with you to find a compromise or a solution? "If someone ends the affair, but doesn't address the issue that they used the affair to handle, the possibility of straying again is greater," says Berger. He's got to work with you, not just promise it won't happen again. If not? Strike one.
  • Was the cheating for love or sex?
    "An emotional affair is more risky and damaging to your relationship than a fling," says Berger. "Much more so." If he was deeply involved, and that intense connection was interrupted, there's no way he's going to be able to give it up. "They're going to get in touch again," says Block. "There's bound to be a follow-up if the connection was intense and the breakup left them wanting more."
  • Did he confess?
    People who express remorse, realize they screwed up, and feel horrible -- really feel horrible, not act like someone who feels horrible -- are more likely to change. "If the person who has the affair realizes 'something's wrong here, this isn't the way I usually behave, I have to deal with why I did this' -- that can be the thing that saves the marriage," says Berger.
  • Is there a pattern?
    If your guy didn't do this once, but over and over and over again, the chance for change is small. The question isn't will he do it again; it's can you live with not knowing, and do you really care if he does. Perhaps you don't.