We have talked in previous posts about the dilemma that betrayed partners experience when they feel attachment ambivalence toward their cheating partner. Attachment ambivalence is the dynamic of feeling simultaneously pulled toward reconnection with the cheater and disconnection from the cheater, with both responses serving as attempts to regain a sense of safety. This is the “I love you, I hate you” emotional rollercoaster that partners find themselves riding in the aftermath of betrayal.
Betrayed partners are not the only ones caught in a relational dilemma involving feelings of attachment. Cheating partners have their own dilemma. The dilemma of competing attachments.
Whether cheaters have been involved in an affair or are dealing with sexually compulsive behavior, they have formed an attachment to the individual or behaviors they are cheating with. An affair, even one that is “just about sex,” meets some type of need that keeps cheating partners connected to and engaged in sexual encounters with the affair partner. And let’s not fool ourselves, sex is, by its very nature, an intimate act, so two people who are having sex, even without an emotional component, are experiencing some level of connection with each other, even if it is primarily physical.
Addictions, whether to alcohol, food, shopping, drugs, or sex, become the primary relationship for an addicted individual. All other relationships take a back seat to the addict’s “need” for the next high, the next hit, the next round of relief. As a result, the primary relationship in a sexually addicted person’s life is the relationship with sex. Sex becomes a dependable source of relief, excitement, validation, and comfort, and because of that, it is the relationship the addict turns to first.
When the cheating is discovered, cheaters are plunged into a relational crisis. They are caught between their competing attachments: their significant other versus the addiction or affair. They may love their significant other and very much want the relationship to continue. But, at the same time, they are attached to their affair or addiction and are not ready or willing to give that up.
This is an enormous dilemma for cheating partners. Their relationship with their significant other is on the line, and that fills them with anxiety and fear. At the same time, they are not ready or willing to give up the affair or to acknowledge that their behaviors may be compulsive. The affair or sexually compulsive behaviors have been serving a purpose, meeting some important needs, and they do not feel able to tolerate the loss of this.
When faced with this attachment dilemma, most cheaters initially try to solve it by attempting to keep both attachments intact.
Cheaters apologize to their significant other, make promises, tell a portion of the secrets they have been keeping, and work overtime to manage the crisis they have caused. They attempt to soothe their betrayed partner’s anger and fear and to reassure their partner that they have ended the affair or stopped the addictive behaviors. They swear they have seen the error of their ways and will not hurt their partner again.
During this attempt to rescue the relationship, the cheating partner will often tell themselves that they are going to break off the affair or stop their compulsive behaviors. They not only make promises to the betrayed partner, they make promises to themselves, telling themselves they are not going to keep doing the destructive things they have been doing. They tell themselves they are choosing their relationship over the addiction or affair. They even take steps in this direction, breaking off the affair, often saying goodbye to the affair partner with a great deal of drama and pathos. Or they delete the apps, website memberships, and phone numbers they used in their addiction. They even go to therapy with their betrayed partner, where they continue to make fervent promises to themselves and their significant other that the cheating is over.
But behind their own backs, cheaters are often doing something very different. Despite saying goodbye to their affair partner, they continue to text that person, giving them updates about what is unfolding at home and anguishing about how much they miss them. In such cases, it is only a matter of time before they meet the affair partner again and the cheating resumes. Or, with addiction, new online accounts are opened, new apps are downloaded, old phone numbers magically reappear, and they start to “just look,” even as they continue to vow to themselves and their betrayed partner and anyone else who’s listening that they are not going to actually do anything. But then, before they know it, they are once again acting out in their addiction.
Caught between competing attachments, most cheaters try to maintain them both, at least for a while. During this time, the betrayed partner is usually being lied to and manipulated as the cheater tries to keep the whole truth about the cheating from being known, and also tries to hide the continuing affair or acting out behaviors.
As unwelcome as it may be to acknowledge it, cheaters, when caught, do have competing attachments. They have been maintaining a relationship with you, the betrayed partner, while also maintaining a relationship with their sexual behaviors. And it is normal for cheaters to struggle with these competing attachments when they are discovered.
However, enormous relational damage can happen while cheaters come to grips with the need to choose between competing attachments. Of course, as cheaters try to maintain both attachments and avoid the necessity of giving one of them up, they may lose the ability to choose. Often, the betrayed partner cannot tolerate the lying, manipulation, and ongoing betrayal and so makes his or her choice and terminates the relationship in order to rescue themselves out of the hell of watching their significant other refuse to choose them.
The reality is cheaters must choose, and they must do it sooner rather than later. They can keep their affair or addiction, but they will lose their relationship with their significant other. Or they can choose their relationship with their significant other and end the affair or enter recovery to deal with their addiction. Keeping both attachments is not a viable option. And trying to keep both adds insult to an already agonizing injury, bringing a relationship that can often be repaired and restored to the breaking point.
Taking responsibility for yourself as the cheater means making a conscious choice and following up on that choice. Taking responsibility for yourself as the betrayed partner means facing the reality that the cheater must make a choice and holding the cheater accountable for that choice, even when that is scary, and the outcome is uncertain. The worst of all options is moving forward in the murkiness of competing attachments that are being maintained behind a screen of secrecy and continued lies.