The Mistake Defense

“It Was a Mistake”

One of the most common phrases we hear from the unfaithful partner is, “It was a mistake.” They may have admitted the affair, or they may have been unexpectedly discovered in one, but for those who don’t want to lose their primary relationship, the ‘Mistake Defense’ is the number 1 phrase in their repertoire.

The betrayed partner finds themselves facing this little nugget of misdirection with confusion. It has become increasingly common for public figures to gloss over their wrong-doings by calling them a mistake - it’s become part of our culture and the betrayed partner may not initially understand the ‘mistake game’ that is being played.

A faithful partner does not want to hear this small, meaningless phrase in explanation of why their world just imploded. They want to hear declarations of accountability, regret and remorse. They want to hear contrition and self-reproach, and to understand how and why their partner did this. They want to hear the cheater take full responsibility for their actions, and for them to understand their flaws and admit their reprehensible selfishness.

Not surprisingly, “It was a mistake” just doesn’t measure up to expectation. Rather than honestly and humbly owning their failings and taking the blame for their actions, most cheaters instead opt to follow the lead of the many public figures who also cover their actions with the, “It was a mistake” comfort blanky.

The Public Figure ‘Mistake Defense’

I’m totally responsible, and those things just didn’t have to happen. I feel like we  all make mistakes. It’s just I made a mistake in using bad judgment and making bad decisions.

Michael Vick

I’m not a proper murderer, I haven’t done it before, this is the first time. I don’t know what I did but I now realise I made a serious mistake.

Foyez Ahmed

Media reporters have pointed out that paragraphs in my Time column this week bear close similarities to paragraphs in Jill Lepore’s essay in the April 23rd issue of The New Yorker. They are right. I made a terrible mistake. It is a serious lapse and one that is entirely my fault. I apologize unreservedly to her, to my editors at Time, and to my readers.

Fareed Zakaria (Time columnist)

This has obviously been a very difficult episode for us. But perhaps my experience can be instructive to others who stumble or indeed fall as far as I did. One learns, after all, that life doesn’t stop with such a mistake. It can, and must, go on

David Petraeus

I made a terrible mistake, but it wasn’t the kind of mistake that I had made time and time again, which is a trading mistake. In my business, when you make a trading error, you’re expected to make a trading error, it’s accepted. My error was much more serious. I made an error of judgment. I refused to accept the fact, could not accept the fact, that for once in my life I failed. I couldn’t admit that failure and that was a tragic mistake.

~ Bernie Madoff

An Affair by Mistake

Over the years of working with those affected by an affair (both the faithful partner and the cheater) it has become clear to me that both parties have often entirely bought into this idea that the cheater’s affair was a mistake. When this thinking is challenged, it can cause anger and denial and upset, because stripping away the familiar and comforting word ‘mistake’ leaves an unpalatable reality. Did Madoff really make a mistake when he committed one of the largest financial frauds in US history, defrauding thousands? Did Vick really make a mistake when he operated his illegal dog fighting venture? Did Zakaria really make a mistake when he plagiarized in Time?

The truth is messy. It’s raw and uncomfortable. You can’t blame people for preferring lies.
~ Holly Black, Red Glove

An affair is not a mistake. A mistake is an unplanned error, or a misunderstanding. A mistake happens when you tried to do something right and inadvertently got it wrong.

Mistake: Thing incorrectly done or thought, through misunderstanding or inadvertence(Concise Oxford Dictionary)

It’s absurd to call an affair a mistake. At no point does someone suddenly wake up in a hotel room with their affair partner and gasp with the sudden realization that they’ve somehow, inadvertently and completely without planning, managed to inexplicably have sex over and over again with someone other than their spouse. It’s not a “Doh!” moment where they cannot understand how it happened, waking up from their obliviousness to the fact that they have done something wrong.

Characterizing an affair as a mistake is an attempt at pacification. Since we all make mistakes, the faithful partner is supposed to have some empathy and understanding that “It just happened”.

Calling an affair a mistake is a minimization. It’s an attempt to minimize responsibility and its intent is to also reduce the importance that the affair had to the cheater. Their expectation is that the faithful partner will also see it as either no big deal, or at least something that they can either forgive or get over quickly.

Add in the words “It was just …”, or “It was only …”, or “It was a stupid … “, and the “It was a mistake” phrase is further minimized. The expectation in the use of minimizing language is that the cheater mitigates (or entirely deflects) their responsibility for their actions. If they can successfully jettison their accountability for the affair, neither they nor the faithful spouse have to look at the reality of their actions and motivations with the light on.

Choosing an Affair

An affair is a choice. A choice is when you are faced with different scenarios, and you select an option from one of them.

Choice: Selection, decision between possibilities (Concise Oxford Dictionary)

People have affairs because they choose to. They have affairs because at the fork in the road, they choose the path that takes them to the affair destination.

Moreover, engaging in an affair is not the product of a single choice, but instead the result of a series of choices that all lead the cheater to the affair. A long-term secret affair requires not only the repetition of many of these choices, but it also requires a decision to deceive and lie to the faithful partner.

This I choose to do. If there is a price, this I choose to pay. If it is my death, then I choose to die. Where this takes me, there I choose to go. I choose. This I choose to do.
~Terry Pratchett, Wintersmith

A cheater doesn’t suddenly find themselves having an affair, when instead they meant to go home and take their partner on a date. They don’t find themselves wrinkling their brow in puzzlement about how they are having sex with someone else when instead they intended to be having sex with their partner. They don’t trip and fall and find, to their shock and consternation, that they managed to land in the exact position (unclothed in all the right places, as fate would have it!) that meant that they were accidentally having sex with someone else.

Poor Judgement

Whilst an affair is not a mistake but a choice, we are all capable of making poor choices. I challenge anyone to honestly assert that they have never made a bad choice, or exercised poor judgement, or miscalculated the impact of their decisions.

A cheater may eventually understand that they made a bad choice, or that they misjudged the impact that it could have on their partner. However, many continue to defend that their affair was an error of judgement that constitutes a mistake. I could agree with that definition in general terms, but it is not an ‘error of judgement’ to have an affair - the consequences are not at all foggy.

When a cheater has sex (or some other unfaithful behavior) with someone other than their partner, they are not concluding that the result will be that the spare room got painted, or that they would be playing football with the kids. No. It is entirely accurate to conclude that having sex with someone else means that they are being unfaithful to their partner. If this were not the case, why is the cheater taking any measures at all to conceal their actions?

It’s fair to say that the cheater may in hindsight judge that the risk and the damage wasn’t worth the affair, but it is not an error of judgement that an affair happened as a consequence of their actions.


I don’t believe that many of us have lived a life truly free of selfishness, without flawed reasoning or disregard for certain consequences. I believe we are fundamentally flawed and we can often find ourselves making choices and decisions that we are not proud of, or that hurt either ourselves or others.

We all choose differently. We each hold individually assessed value in the world around us - what is important to one may not be equally important to another. Making a selfish choice does not inherently make someone a wholly bad person - it only means that in a given situation they chose selfishly.

How we subsequently deal with the consequences of our actions also speaks to character. Holding ourselves fully accountable for our choices and the impact that those choices had on others, can mark the start of our desire to repair the damage we caused.

The final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.
~ Anne Frank

Owning our horrible choices, gracefully expecting and accepting the full and individual burden of the consequences of our decisions can be a foundation to regain respect. Being willing to act and choose in someone else’s interest, and to make amends for the pain we caused them, turns our feet to a new direction, ready to take a first step on fresh ground.

~ Wayfarer


“I'm not a teacher, only a fellow traveler of whom you asked the way. I pointed ahead - ahead of myself as well as you.” ~ George Bernard Shaw