Are Cheaters Repeaters?
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.