Something that most faithful partners struggle with is trying to understand how their cheater could cheat. What was the reasoning and thinking that led them to make the choice to have an affair? How could they ignore, break, or suspend their commitment to their partner and their families?
There are various mental gymnastics that can go into a cheater’s rationalization of their affair.
If you’re trying to understand cheater-thinking, it’s helpful to understand excuses and justifications. They are both affirmative defense strategies that seek to shift blame from the cheater to someone or something else.
Most cheaters offer (at least initially) excuses for their affair. These excuses might morph into justifications later, but being presented with either leaves you none the wiser and with a decidedly nasty taste in your mouth.
a) Excuses: Yes, I cheated, but it wasn’t my fault. I was seduced. I was drunk. It was my addiction. i.e. I am not responsible for my actions.
b) Justification: Yes, I cheated, but you were so awful that I had no other choice. You drove me to it. My mother cheated – it’s what I know. My childhood issues have messed with my head. It’s a mid-life crisis. You wouldn’t satisfy my sexual desires so I had to go elsewhere. i.e. My actions were necessary/unavoidable because of what I was facing and therefore I am vindicated or cleared of wrongdoing.
A cheater who is engaging in excuses and justifications is seeking to alleviate either internal or external judgments about the wrongness of their behavior. They are not denying their actions, but are trying to mitigate or remove culpability.
Many justifications are retro-fitted after affair discovery, and often center around the faults and failings of the faithful partner. It’s not uncommon for these ‘issues’ to suddenly surface and be presented as Defense Exhibit A when there has been no hint of them before, even in long-term marriages.
How Could I?: Well, it was more your fault than mine. If you only understood what I was facing, you would see that I had no choice. I was compelled to cheat because of these circumstances. Anyone in the same situation would also be compelled to cheat.
2. Moral Licensing
“The talent for self-justification is surely the finest flower of human evolution, the greatest achievement of the human brain. When it comes to justifying actions, every human being acquires the intelligence of an Einstein, the imagination of a Shakespeare, and the subtlety of a Jesuit.”
~ Michael Foley
In articles about infidelity that include soundbites from the cheater community (like AshMad or similar), you might find cheaters making declarations like these:
- “I did it for us, baby.”
- “It kept our marriage together.”
Notions such as these are the foundation of the upsurge of the ‘Affairs Save Marriages‘ mindset.
When someone holds two cognitions that are in opposition, often the actual resolution to the dissonance is not the answer that the individual wants. e.g. Smoking kills, but I smoke two packs a day. The obvious and rational resolution is to quit smoking, but smokers who enjoy smoking (or find it too difficult to quit), have to find another way to make their smoking less troubling to them.
They might come up with:
- “I will take the risk to my health, for the benefit of those around me, because smoking relaxes me, makes me easier to get along with, and less aggressive. If I stopped, I’d be subjecting people to a tenser, more aggressive, difficult version of me, so I’ll keep smoking, altruistically.”
This easily correlates to affair behavior, even in those who hold a firm view against infidelity:
- “I am in an unhappy marriage, but divorce would hurt my children as well as my spouse. My affair gives me a way to release/escape the pressure I feel about my unhappy marriage. Though affairs are wrong, a divorce would hurt a lot of people very badly, so my affair is preventing a greater wrong.”
- “My husband has ED so cannot satisfy me sexually. It’s far preferable for me to satisfy my physical needs elsewhere and continue in our happy marriage, than to end it over something that is easily rectifiable by my affair.”
- “Adultery is a sin, but I’ve found my soul mate. God wouldn’t have put them in my life for no reason, who am I to question that? True love is a gift from God, and it’s wrong to ignore it.”
- “The reason I am conducting my affair in secret is to protect my spouse from hurt. I love my spouse, and it’s not like I am going to leave them for my affair partner. What my spouse doesn’t know won’t hurt them.”
- “I’m not having a tawdry affair like bad people do. We might flirt and express feelings for each other, but I haven’t had sex with the other person – I am just providing them emotional and practical support. I am doing a good thing but I hide it because my spouse always misunderstand my motivations and thinks the worst of me.”
How Could I?: I found a way to use something ‘good’ to give me permission to do something ‘bad’. It’s your own bias and wrong thinking that chooses to focus on the bad of my actions, instead of the good.
3. Escalating Commitment
“It is commonly expected that individuals will reverse decisions or change behaviors which result in negative consequences. Yet, within investment decision contexts, negative consequences may actually cause decision makers to increase the commitment of resources and undergo the risk of further negative consequences.”
~B. M Staw
Part of the rationale with many cheaters in long-term affairs is about return on investment and avoiding negative external and internal judgment.
Cheaters risk their stability, family, and lifestyle for someone whom they initially believed to be worth it (or perhaps not even a someone, but perhaps a ‘something’ like a sense of their own freedom or autonomy). When the affair progresses and devolves into dysfunction and unrealized expectations, the cheater faces two possibilities:
a) Exit the affair relationship and admit they were duped, foolish, or had poor judgement, and stand observed as nothing more than sordid cheater.
b) Stay in it, determined to be seen to ‘gain’ from the massive risk they took, even if the ‘gain’ isn’t real.
How Could I?: After I crossed the line the first time, it was easier to keep crossing it. I was knee deep in the big muddy, so after taking the risk, I wanted the reward.
4. Mechanism of Prior Induction
Cheaters can find it very easy to return to cheating, as seen in serial cheaters. Where a cheater sees their present circumstances mirroring past situations in which they chose to cheat, cheating again can feel normalized or resolving. If their thinking and view of their lot in life is equally ‘unhappy’ as it was when they first cheated, it becomes less difficult to cross the line again into an affair.
Factor in too, that their first affair probably resulted in them being rewarded by the faithful partner (many faithful partners scramble to be perfect or better, in order to keep their cheater), so the idea of cheating again might feel very attractive.
If a cheater did not see any personal negative fallout of an affair it can be easy to slide down the slope of thinking that their affair ‘couldn’t have been that bad’, because the faithful partner stayed with them. The cheater didn’t lose all of the things they ‘risked’, so they minimize the ‘bad’ of an affair – what once was unthinkable becomes a viable possibility.
For first time cheaters, their observed consequences of affairs around them (in the media, friends, family, history, religion) can be part of their own induction to cheating. They can interpret the societal or familial reactions to affairs as also normalizing infidelity.
How Could I?: I don’t see any terrible consequences for having an affair … in fact, maybe there’s an upside for me.
Don’t discount the very real possibility that an affair could be also be founded in (and fueled by) punishment and Yah Boo Sucks for a cheater’s perceptions of your crimes against them.
Exit affairs are commonly retributive. In truth, the validity of the cheater enacting the affair as some form of vengeance is wholly spurious, but it doesn’t negate the cheater’s own perception that both you AND they deserve their affair. More often than not, the exit affair results in the cheater feeling no need to explain, justify, or mitigate their choices – it’s a fait accompli, no discussion or explanation owed or required.
How Could I?: You wronged me, you made me unhappy, and that entitled me to pursue an affair and cause you pain.
There are many other issues at play than just the few touched upon here. However, unless there is a deliberate and guilt-free embarkation on the Affair Luurve Boat, the cheater will in all likelihood be engaging in thinking that helps maintain a reasonably healthy self-view.
Creating a story that ‘soothes the soul’ to mitigate ‘bad’ behavior is something we can probably all relate to. This story, coupled with the positive energy and feedback a cheater gets from their affair partner (and the scrambling faithful spouse), provides release from the negative emotional stress caused by the deceit, betrayal, and disrespect an affair requires.
I have yet to encounter a justification for an affair that meets the test of reasonableness. An affair is not a reasonable or reparative response to conflict, unhappiness, or general dissatisfaction in a relationship. A cheater having an affair neither seeks to resolve issues nor to improve the quality of the primary relationship.
The daily workout at the Affair-Mentality Gymnasium (and the story that results) is designed to assuage guilt and support a self-image that the cheater can live with. Despite their efforts, it doesn’t change anyone else’s reality.
“How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg?
Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.”