One of the things betrayed partners invariably want to know is what to expect related to their cheating partner’s recovery process. The first and most important thing to know is that recovery is not linear. It is more like a hiking trail with a lot of switchbacks, side roads, dead ends, and detours. There are parts of the trail that are difficult and no fun to navigate, but they are nonetheless necessary and a sign of moving forward.
Below, I’ve tried to give you a sense of what else to expect as you and your significant other begin the strange journey called recovery. I have started this discussion with the bad news—the parts that are harder to deal with—to get this out of the way. In next week’s post, I’ll give you the good news.
You can expect to witness a significant amount of denial. For your cheating partner to betray a person he loves (i.e., you), he must lie to and manipulate not just you but himself. He does this by rationalizing, justifying, and minimizing his behaviors. And this long-ingrained stinkin’ thinkin’ does not change quickly. It is deeply rooted and must repeatedly be confronted and slowly transformed.
I was sitting with a sexually addicted client recently who told me that he had gone back through his email and chat history and was shocked at the number of people he had met with to have sex. He told me that he had been saying to himself that he ‘actually cheated’ only three or four times. In reality, there were more than two dozen different sex partners in his recent text and chat history. He had hidden from himself what he was doing.
At the beginning of recovery, a cheating partner’s denial can take many forms. He can deny that he has a problem, he can deny that he needs help, he can deny that he needs to stop the behaviors, he can deny the level of harm and damage he has done. The very first task in the recovery process is to break through the cheater’s denial. If his distorted thinking cannot be arrested, the problematic behaviors will not stop, because denial-based thinking gives him permission to continue those behaviors.
For you as the betrayed partner, it is important to know that in early recovery your cheating partner still has a lot of denial. You will want to make sure you do not collude with his denial by agreeing with any of the distorted thinking that shows up. Furthermore, you should not take on the job of trying to help him see through his denial. Trying to be the person that confronts his denial will only cause you more pain as your trauma symptoms around being lied to and manipulated get reactivated. So, if you can, trust that your partner’s therapist, therapy group, 12-step program, and support network are focusing on this task.
Just like denial, your cheating partner has been lying for a very long time. At the beginning of his recovery, that lying is likely to continue. Even if he has told you the whole truth about the betrayal (which he potentially hasn’t), you will continue to catch him lying about many other issues.
This is incredibly emotionally activating for you as the betrayed partner. You already have intolerable pain around the way you have been lied to and had your reality manipulated by your significant other. Continued lying and manipulation just makes it worse. You will probably feel as if the lying must stop immediately or there is no way forward.
Unfortunately, it often takes time for a cheating partner to come to a point of being willing to tell the truth and be fully honest. Most cheating partners, when confronted with questions from a betrayed spouse, respond with dishonesty in an almost habitual pattern. It takes time and intentionality to overcome this automatic impulse to lie and to instead answer questions honestly and forthrightly.
Part of early recovery is learning how to tell the truth regardless of the consequences. The Big Book of AA says that if addicts can be honest they can recover, and if they can’t be honest they cannot recover. Learning to be honest and to apply the standard of rigorous honesty to all of life is a big task. It is a skill that must be learned, and that learning takes time. Figuring out how to overcome the immediate impulse to protect oneself by lying is no small feat, and your partner will inevitably make mistakes and missteps along the way. As long as these are used as learning opportunities, there is hope for lasting change.
To you as a betrayed partner, it may feel like knowing and understanding that it takes time to change such a deeply ingrained behavior pattern is the same as giving the cheater permission to continue lying. It isn’t. Having clear boundaries and bottom lines that protect you if/when your partner continues to lie is important. These boundaries help you feel a sense of empowerment and agency in taking care of yourself while your unfaithful partner gets clear with himself and you about the truth.
Along with denial and lying comes bargaining. Bargaining is where your cheating partner tries to find what the Big Book of AA calls an ‘easier, softer way’ to recover—a way that allows him to get well but to get well his way, without the kind of effort, sacrifice, time, and financial investment that true recovery involves. Bargaining is linked to your partner’s desire to continue being the captain of his ship despite the fact that he has rammed it onto the shoals and caused catastrophic loss and damage.
I see this all the time when cheating partners enter treatment at the Center for Relational Recovery. They give their therapist detailed reasons why they cannot come to therapy every week, why they don’t need to be in group therapy, why the 12 steps are just not going to work for them, why they don’t need to do the homework, etc. In addition to bargaining about treatment, they bargain about their behaviors, saying that the strip clubs and massage parlors are not the real problem and they just need to stop spending so much money on prostitutes, or that the porn and masturbation can continue as long as the in-person extracurricular activities stop.
For your cheating partner, recovery can feel like a new part-time job. He must change his schedule to accommodate therapy and 12-step meetings, create a line item in the budget for treatment, change who he hangs out with as he begins to differentiate between healthy and unhealthy friendships, process tons of new information, and develop a new perspective on life and relationships. That this amount of intervention is required to create long-term change can be hard to accept. As a result, your partner will very likely bargain with recovery at the beginning, trying to find an easier way.
Bargaining is a normal part of the recovery process. As the betrayed partner, you want to be aware of it and to resist colluding with your cheating partner if/when he tries to convince you that he doesn’t really need the amount of help that is being recommended or tries to talk you into overlooking sexual behaviors that are untenable in your relationship. Having a therapist who can help you set and effectively maintain boundaries can help you resist your cheating partner’s efforts to bargain.
It’s Not Easy
Dealing with your cheating partner’s denial, lying, and bargaining is difficult. More so because each of these things is part of the betrayal that you have experienced, part of what has caused you deep pain. If you are like I was at the beginning of recovery, you’ll just want these things to stop and stop now. Learning that these behaviors take a while to curtail is not welcome news. However, one of the hallmarks of authentic hope is that it is grounded in reality. Rather than wishing for a different situation, authentic hope looks at what the real situation is and grapples with dealing with it well.
As the betrayed partner, what you want to do at the beginning of the recovery process is watch for change rather than perfection. When you look at the big picture, are you seeing improvement in your partner’s denial, lying, and bargaining? Are these behaviors showing up less and less? Are you hearing healthier, reality-based talk coming from your partner? Is there more acknowledgment of his problems and the impact his behaviors have had on you and others, including himself? These are the signs to look for, signs that things are moving in the right direction.
Next week we will continue our discussion about what you can expect at the beginning of recovery. But we are going to focus on the good news. Thank God.