Today’s blog is written not just for you as a betrayed partner, but for your therapists, your pastors, your friends and family members, your 12-Step fellowship group members, and anyone else who is part of your support system as you seek healing. What I want to talk about is the difference between who your cheating partner is before the cheating is discovered and who he is after the cheating is discovered.
If you are in a relationship with a cheater who is remorseful and who wants to do whatever is possible to repair the relationship and heal the breach he has caused, then this before and after phenomenon is something you may have already experienced. But not everyone’s cheating partner is remorseful and has intentions to repair the damage he has caused, so not everyone will relate to the experience I am about to describe. Either way, this discussion is relevant for all betrayed partners and anyone in a position to support a betrayed partner.
After discovery of the cheating behaviors, if the cheater is remorseful and does not want to lose his relationship, he is often making major changes – hoping to stop the emotional hemorrhaging in his relationship and to repair the damage of betrayal. He may come into therapy and work hard at getting honest. He may stop the cheating, do whatever his therapist tells him to do, complete his homework, attend 12-Step meetings, listen to your pain and anger and try hard to empathically show you that he is truly sorry for what he has done. He may be humble, teachable, contrite, and willing.
What can be easy to forget – as the therapist sitting with this remorse-filled client or as friends and other support system members walking alongside him – is that this version of the cheater (the sorry, anxious, worried, trying-hard-to-make-it-better version) is not the version that you, the betrayed partner, have been living with. You have been living with the before version of the cheater, often for years.
Before discovery, you were living with the version of the cheater who cheats. And this person lied. A lot. He missed important family events because he was with a prostitute or ‘staying late at the office’ to use porn or hook up with his affair partner. He made you feel crazy and wrong and like you were a bad person for suspecting things. He manipulated and schemed and led a double-life, working hard to convince friends, family, pastor, and boss that he was a good guy and a good family man. He put your health at risk. He drained your family’s financial coffers, or he got someone else pregnant, or he put the burden of raising your children and keeping the family afloat on you while he carried on with his extra-curricular sexual life.
You, the betrayed partner, have been living with that guy. Not the guy showing up in his therapist’s office or priest’s office or 12-Step meetings filled with remorse and trying to change. You have been living with the before discovery version of the cheater for months, years, maybe even decades. Therapists and other support system people need to remember this. When you come in with enormous shock, anger, disgust, rage, and pain, it is not related to or directed at the remorseful version of the cheater that may be sitting there beside you. It is a result of living with the other version of this person, the cheating version, for long periods of time.
Therapist and author Tian Dayton has a great quote about this. She says, “You can tell how sick an alcoholic is by how crazy his wife acts.” What she means by this is that as part of supporting betrayed partners who are trying to heal, it is important that we recognize that the partner’s reactions and emotions are an indicator of what it has been like to live with the cheating and the experience of betrayal. A betrayed partner’s intense feelings are not about what is happening now; they’re about what happened before.
This before and after dynamic creates a disconnect between the experience of the cheating partner and your experience as the betrayed partner. The cheating partner is, if remorseful, trying to take responsibility and do what’s necessary to heal the breach in your relationship. He may even feel relief that the lying and hiding is over, and he can now be honest and come clean. He is moving toward his own personal healing and the healing of his relationship, and that feels like a good thing.
Unfortunately, you are left back at the starting line, just having discovered that who you thought your partner was and what you thought was happening in your relationship is not true. A whole alternative reality was going on and you have only just begun to wrap your mind around what that is and was. You do not have relief, you have shock and confusion. You do not have willingness but resistance to accepting that this could be true. You do not have clarity or forward movement. Instead, you are peering backward, trying to sort through the rubble of your life.
The reactions and emotions that you, as a betrayed partner, initially bring into therapy or to the listening ear of friends and family are about the before discovery version of the cheater, not the after discovery version. Having a support network that understands this and provides plenty of space and room for you to process and talk about what that experience was like – the experience of living with the cheater while being cheated on – is a vital part of your healing process.