The Transparency Trap
“You must have transparency!”
It’s typical advice in infidelity forums and one that is frequently espoused as a necessary part of reconciliation:
When you discover that your partner is cheating/has cheated, demand and expect transparency from them if you wish to reconcile.
What Does ‘Transparency’ Mean?
Well, in the broadest sense it requires the cheater to be open, honest, and live in the spirit of full disclosure to the faithful partner. In narrower terms, it often becomes a list of things that the faithful partner wants:
- Passwords and access to:
- Email account
- Facebook/social media accounts
- Itemized telephone bills
- Credit cards/bank accounts
- Personal journals
- Remaining accessible to the faithful partner:
- Taking calls from the faithful partner immediately
- Forewarning when the cheater will be late home etc
- Taking the faithful partner with them on business trips
- Changes to lifestyle:
- No more girls/guys nights out
- Scheduled date nights/more ‘couple time’
- Spending more time at home
- Disclosing all opposite gender interactions to the faithful partner (I won’t delve into the same-gender affair here)
These are just examples of some typical modes of post-affair transparency - it’s not exhaustive and could include many other stipulations.
What Does Transparency Do?
Well, the better question is probably, “What is the claimed intent of transparency?” The reasons for it are generally suggested as:
- Prevents another affair (or the continuation of one)
- Shows a willingness to reconcile
- Demonstrates openness and honesty
- Reassures the faithful partner of the cheater’s commitment to them
- Promotes greater intimacy and couple-hood
Does transparency actually do any of these things, and if not, what DOES it do?
Power and Control
Yes, that old chestnut again. During an affair, the power imbalance is significant - and the both the cheater and the faithful partner feel it. For the faithful partner it is frustrating and demeaning and infuriating to have all of the fallout from the cheater’s choices thrust upon them, without their consent.
The faithful partner is suddenly faced with the reality that their relationship (and often by extension, their emotional well-being) can be dismantled at the cheater’s whim, regardless of their own desires and wishes. It’s destabilizing and frightening, and it threatens the security of the family and home.
When a couple agree to reconcile, the faithful partner understandably wants to redress the balance. The adage, ‘knowledge is power’ is part of the transparency rationale - if the faithful partner can keep tabs on the cheater and has access to the flow of information to and from the cheater, they can satisfy themselves that nothing untoward is going on. (As an aside, it also keeps the faithful partner engaged in and involved with the affair drama, even when the affair is over.)
Does Transparency Work?
Well, that rather depends on what you’re specifically expecting to get out of it. But let’s look at the oft-claimed benefits of it:
- Prevents another affair (or the continuation of the one):
- No. Affair prevention is a myth unless you’re single. Maybe with a cat. And even then, cats tend to hang out with whomever feeds them.
- Shows a willingness to reconcile:
- No, not necessarily. On its own, it only shows a current intent to remain not-divorced - which isn’t the same thing at all.
- Demonstrates openness and honesty:
- No. It shows a willingness to give you access to whatever the cheater has given you access to.
- Reassures the faithful partner of the cheater’s commitment to them:
- Sadly, the answer here is all too often, yes. When the faithful partner is scrambling to hold onto their relationship, desperate to see re-commitment and reconciliation, they can clutch at these things as evidence of it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything of the sort.
- Promotes greater intimacy and couple-hood:
- Well, it might. Similarly, it might not. It might foment greater feelings of dissatisfaction in the cheater. It might result in them feeling controlled, parented, and disempowered.
The Transparency Trap
It’s comforting to have information about your recently-former cheater’s whereabouts and their to’ings and fro’ings. It is - it’s an undeniable security blanket that you can cling to, conflating it with your desire to reconcile and have the whole sorry mess resolved, and reading much more into the significance this type of transparency.
A cheater (or declared former cheater) who wants to continue to cheat, will find a way to do so. Yes, they might play along and let you think that they have bought into all the transparency and open and honest communication etc. But there is another adage that is relevant here: Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
As one of our members here said:
I see it as an exercise primarily in power-shifting with the cheater symbolically willing to cede a bit of control to the betrayed spouse. I say “symbolic” because it’s very easy to use web-based email, swap out sim cards, and use burner phones. Having that sort of access wouldn’t personally help me feel more secure, nor would it have much affect on someone who’s determined to cheat.
In addition, what better cover for a cheater continuing an affair than to let you believe that you have access to all their forms of communication? What better way to keep you occupied, quiet, and distracted from digging further, than keeping you actively checking up on the information you DO have access to, as a result of their transparency?
The Downside of ‘Transparency’
No, this isn’t the ‘poor little snooped-on cheater‘ section. I am perfectly happy for the cheater to feel some form of whiplash from the train-wreck they drove themselves into. Unfortunately, my point here has further-reaching implications for the faithful partner. The downside is this: Having access to this information is a DISCOVERY function, not a PREVENTATIVE one.
If you’re engaged in discovery activity, you’re not really reconciling but are instead in the muddy waters of concern that your former cheater is actually a current cheater.
- How is YOU responding on your cheater’s Facebook page (to make it clear that they’re married and you’re visible) anything to do with your former cheater’s commitment to your relationship, or your trust in them?
- How does secretly putting a GPS app on your former cheater’s phone demonstrate YOUR open and honest and transparent involvement in the relationship?
I could go on and ask similar questions for all the things on the transparency list, but suffice it to ask this: How can any of these things be called ‘success’ in reconciliation? If this type of transparency is something you consider as valid and/or necessary to your reconciled relationship, perhaps you should ask these questions:
- Should you really be using the term ‘former cheater’? Would it not be more accurate to say, ‘current cheater’?
- Should you really be using the term ‘reconciled’? Would it not be more accurate to say, ‘not yet consciously uncoupled‘?
I’d ask you to consider what successful reconciliation is. To me, reconciliation that is YOU scrambling to keep your cheater with you, YOU changing and doing all the work, and YOU managing the relationship to keep it on track while the cheater continues on, life-uninterrupted, isn’t successful reconciliation. Heck, I’d go so far as to say that it’s not reconciliation at all but (more accurately) a divorce avoidance plan.
Transparency in Reconciliation
It’s completely valid to want some short-term reassurance (however incomplete it might be) that the affair is over and that the cheater is wanting to recommit to you. This type of transparency is a good enough short-term tool to help with that, even with the caveats of its limitations. But the limitations ARE significant.
After a few weeks, this form of transparency starts to have significantly diminishing returns. When do you stop policing them, responding for them, warning others off your spouse, and going through their pockets or examining their underwear? A month? 6 months? A year? 6 years? When does this form of reconciliation ever become actually ‘reconciled’ and moved on?
Transparency is limited by the cheater’s openness (and being transparent by giving a Gmail password, doesn’t mean that they don’t have an aol email account squirreled away). A former cheater who IS committed to the relationship, and who is doing the work they need to do in the post-affair relationship, will probably be entirely open and honest and transparent as part of their proactive intent to resolve the issues.
Trust your gut - if you don’t need to check up on them that’s all the answer you need. If it’s wrong, don’t blame yourself - but there is a reason why you should always now have a Plan B for the event that your relationship ends for some reason. If you do feel the need to check up, maybe it’s time to truly evaluate if this is caused by your own insecurities and issues or if it’s actually because your cheater isn’t ‘former’ enough in their thinking or behavior.
Reconciliation is the harmonious, open, honest, and authentic commitment to the post-affair relationship, by both of you. If there isn’t a shared and equal commitment to working towards a newly negotiated, secure and mutually fulfilling relationship, is that reconciliation by any reasonable definition?
If the information you have on hand is a cheater who isn’t working equally with you, or if it is your enduring and significant doubts about their fidelity, it’s incumbent on you to make the best decision you can.
That decision might be to stay because it meets your own goals, but it’s honest and authentic to name it as such. Dressing it up any other way does you, and others, a disservice.