Cheating can be intoxicating, but it’s also soul-destroying. You can break the cycle.
In the infamous words of Hank Williams, (though I prefer Patsy Cline’s pleading delivery), Your cheatin’ heart/Will make you weep/You’ll cry and cry/And try to sleep/But sleep won’t come/The whole night through/Your cheatin’ heart will tell on you…
And friend, ’tis true. Someone knows you are cheating. That someone is you. (And hopefully the person you are cheating with.) The reality is you. just. can’t. stop. Or, maybe you don’t want to. Either way, cheating is as powerful as a drug, and we know this now because of nifty brain science. The neurotransmitters you get from the thrill of 1. having illicit sex and 2. keeping it from your partner (even if you wish you weren’t) are way more intoxicating, and therefore addictive, than, say, a day of Frappuccinos and vodka. Hank was right on about the weeping and lack of sleeping, and that is why this needs to stop. It will reek havoc on your mental and physical well being, to live in a state of discongruity (a word which, Mr. dictionary.com, is not obsolete for therapists!)
The self you put forth into the world, as you step into your wingtips or loafers or flip flops in the morning, and then out your front door into the bright of day, needs to be a somewhat harmonious, unspilt self. So that you can function at work, be a contender in your racquet ball game, be a good dad, a decent partner, and feel like a stand-up-guy. If you are cheating, and you already know this of course, this isn’t possible. You defend that you really are a stand-up-guy who is forced to behave in such a way because your life is such a miserable wreck, or maybe your wife is such a miserable wreck, and cheating is bringing joy, or release, or relief, or something. It is bringing something. Sooner rather than later it is bringing a wrecking ball to the rest of your life, and that is why coming clean now may preempt some of the damage.
How do you do it? First, you come clean to yourself. Cheating is not simple—you aren’t possessed by a demon that can be eradicated with a saging ceremony. You are going to need some help. To come clean to yourself that you are cheating means that you get real that you are doing something destructive to your life as you know it. That’s it. You don’t need to heap yourself in shame or judgement or put a scarlet letter on your face. You are doing something destructive, perhaps because something needs to be destroyed and you don’t know a better way to destroy it, perhaps because you became weak in the face of temptation. Perhaps it is something more serious and you have a sex addiction. This is murky water and this is where you need to take step two, which is to come clean to someone else. (Very obviously, I hope, the person to support you through this is absolutely not the person you are cheating with.) A good someone else is the person in your life who is a locked down vault for secrets. If you aren’t sure, don’t share. This person also needs to be on your side and willing to help you through, but not judgmental. I don’t recommend a priest, but that’s just my slant. This person also needs to be strong enough to challenge your perceptions. Because like any addict, you are going to justify the addiction and you need to be pushed a little. This might be your brother, your best friend, or a therapist. I like therapists, because I am one, they get paid to do this, and they are probably, hopefully, trained. They have no strings attached. They can shine a light on a dark gloopy monster hiding in the shadow of your heart and help you stare straight at it. Sometimes.
Last is the super ugly hard one. You have to come clean to your partner. And I don’t mean if you were drunk and kissed someone at the office party five years ago. I’m talking about “I did not have sexual relations with that woman!” when, you know damn well what the definition of is is. (Sorry, Bill, I do love you.) This is also where some coaching and role play with a therapist ahead of time can help. Coming clean is going to be very hard. You need to be very brave. I really recommend you do this with a third party present, because people feel completely threatened and like their life is utterly upended when they find out their partner is cheating. Chances are, your partner knows, but she is keeping it in the back of her mind and naming it something else (“Work is really getting to him/He’s depressed/He’s having a hard time turning 40/ He just loves the gym!/ Is he doing coke?”) Your partner will likely be devastated. Hopefully, you are devastated too and you can communicate that.
If a therapist can be a part of this conversation, awesome. A huge mistake that is often made when coming clean is giving too much detail about the affair— who it was with, their physical description, their contact info (under no circumstance do this), what exactly took place, where, when, how frequently, etc. Try, try, try not to deliver these details. They unleash something even more destructive to your relationship— the wild, threatened, imagination of your partner. Decide, before this conversation, what you want from this relationship. You may very well not get it, but you may. If you can clearly say that you are still in love with your partner and are willing to get help for cheating, because your partner means the world to you, go there. Or, maybe your affair illuminated that your relationship is deficient and the two of you need help— then ask gently for that. This conversation is not the time to place blame on your partner. That is a very destructive move that will probably lead to the end of your relationship. Blame belongs to you, ultimately, for choosing to cheat. You need to be ready to take that on. It doesn’t mean that other dynamics didn’t contribute to this breaking point, but your taking responsibility for cheating could lead to saving the relationship, if that is your ultimate goal.
Don’t ask for forgiveness, yet. It is too great a request initially. You can say that you hope for it in time. That you will work for it. That you would like to earn it, if that is the case. After the initial shock wears off (which could be days or weeks), ask what your partner might need from you so that he or she is willing to offer you forgiveness. It could be a little unreasonable, initially. She might need to check your texts. He might want you to not go alone to business conferences. It will depend very much on the circumstances surrounding the affair. Some advice: indulge these requests IF they don’t build resentment in you (resentment leads to… guess what?) and you agree that together you are working towards forgiveness. Ultimately, you also will need to forgive yourself. Sometimes that is the hardest piece. Not feeling forgiven can be a projection and an indication that you haven’t offered this to yourself. This is a process that also takes work and you will benefit from a coach of sorts.
Remember if the affair has been more than a couple of encounters, it may be truly difficult to extract yourself. I wasn’t being glib when I said it was like an addiction: it is. You need to arm yourself with resources and strategies from experts— there is ample help out there if you look under the right rocks. If you work with the person you’ve been cheating with, you need a hiatus or to leave your job. You need defenses against temptation, and oftentimes you need to acknowledge that your own will is faulty. That’s part of our humanness. Again, a therapist can help you figure this out.
An authentic life requires extraordinary courage. We all have that courage within us and there are great rewards to accessing it and using it wisely. This sounds hokey— but if you are cheating you already realize this— more than anyone, you are cheating yourself. Out of something honest and real. It is not illusive, though. When you come clean to your partner, it will change your life, probably forever. It might not be in the way you anticipate. But. You changed your life when you started an affair. In a strange way, that was the beginning of the work that you now have to finish. Finish the work. Ultimately, you will be better for it.
Photo: Flickr/Andrea Guerra