Not least in that little bundle of important items are the cheater’s rationalizations for their affair. These rationalizations come in different colors (though they all seem to have a similar hue) and so are often ‘enhanced’ with different patterns of excuses and/or justifications.
Something that rarely seems to make it into these gaily colored bundles on sticks, however, is a direct and honest response to the question of why.
Why cheat? Why that? Why put me through that?
It’s the question that frustrates, angers, and devastates the faithful partner who can’t understand why the cheater made the choice to cheat.
Many cheaters paint their choices as the only option that they felt was available to them. They often present rationalizations like the ones below as the foundational explanation for their affair, but are they?
1. The Affair Rationalizations
a) I love You But I’m Not in Love With You
I have love for you, but I am not in love with you any more. I didn’t want to hurt you, but I deserve happiness and love in my life. I thought I could just coast on by living with you while feeling like this, but I couldn’t because I wanted the fairytale love that I believe is out there for me. I care for you, I want the best for you, but I want the best for me too … and the best for us both is to find other people to give us another chance at that passionate, all-consuming love.
Who stopped you from coming to me and saying that?
Why were you willing to hurt me dishonorably by your affair, but not honorably by saying that your feelings for me weren’t what you wanted them to be? Who stopped you from having that discussion and maybe hearing that I felt the same way about you?
Who stopped you from being honest with me, and working out an honorable and respectful separation so that you could freely and ethically pursue another relationship? How did I communicate to you that I would prefer that you cheated on me instead of having an open conversation about our relationship with me (that might have resulted in MY choice to leave)? Who stopped you from having that discussion with me?
b) I Was Losing Myself and My Dreams
Before marriage and the kids and the bills, I had ambitions for my life. I wanted to pursue a career that I would have loved but that didn’t pay well enough to support a family. I wanted to travel, do voluntary work, be a street performer, breed horses, flip houses. I wanted to nurse the sick, learn 15 languages, jump off China’s cliffs in a Wingsuit, start a jazz band. I had plans for my life’s grand adventure but instead of following them, I had to take the kids to school and sit in a cubicle for 8 hours. The most exciting part my day was trying Taco Bell’s new seasonal special for lunch. That wasn’t my dream for my life.
I wanted to make my mark on the world. I had an image of who I would be in my future, and it wasn’t who I’ve become. I wanted to do so much more and BE so much more, and instead I realized I was living a life that bore no resemblance to my aspirations for myself. My affair made me feel that my dreams were still in reach.
Who stopped you from pursuing them?
Who stopped you from achieving those dreams? Me? When did you come to me and say, “I wanted to live a life that allowed me to reach for the things I dreamed for myself and how we live is making that difficult. What changes can we make that keep our lives intact but stop this empty feeling of dying a little inside with every unfulfilled dream?” Did you come to me and say that, and did I say, “No, this is how life with me must be“?
You are not alone in having unfulfilled dreams and disappointments in life. There are things that I gave up, and I too am saddened and regretful about some of the things I shall never get to do. But perhaps between us we could have found ways to get us both closer to some of the more important dreams for ourselves … who stopped you from doing that with me?
c) I Felt Neglected and/or Angry
In the beginning we were a team - we worked hard, played hard, and loved hard … together. Our careers and obligations were always secondary to us as a couple, and we could have moved mountains together. Things changed - the kids came along, you got busier at work, you discovered a passion for golf, mime conventions, and hang gliding. I felt as if I never saw you, and when we were together I felt as if you never really saw me anyway. I felt as if I’d become little more than a pay check, a baby-sitter, a chauffeur, a home-running/home-fixing employee.
You weren’t meeting my needs and I felt that I was missing out. Everyday I see fantastic relationships in the media and our friends where the focus is on each other’s needs, and I am angry that you didn’t put me first and give me what others had. I wanted more sex, more romance, more nurturing, more dates, more attention, and more focus on me and not on the minutia of life. The socks being on the floor, my not refilling the car with gas, your career - these things are more important to you than I am. I felt unimportant and abused/taken advantage of/taken for granted.
I wanted the excitement of love and passion to last forever and things changed - you changed. I was unhappy, miserable even, and I deserved to be happy. The affair gave me that slice of happiness with someone who appreciates me … and if you found out about it and it made you unhappy? Well, then we’re even.
Who stopped you from talking to me?
Who stopped you from expressing this to me, and working together to see if there was anything we could do to get us back on track? Had you taken a step back you might have seen that I felt overloaded and stressed, and primarily responsible for keeping our lifestyle together.
Did you come to me to talk about this and hear me say that I wasn’t interested in how you felt, that I didn’t care, that you were unimportant, or that your views didn’t matter to me? Who stopped you from seeing that I too felt overlooked and under-valued?
Who stopped you from approaching me about how badly you view our relationship, and asking us both to make changes? Who stopped you from suggesting date nights, counseling, a vacation, or even just time set aside every day for us to talk? Who stopped you from releasing the steam valve of anger and frustration together with me, instead of fueling the fire against me?
d) I Wanted the Ego Boost
I have been feeling badly about myself for a while. My self-esteem took a nose-dive and I began to feel unattractive, old, and undesirable. Sometimes I felt that you were only with me out of habit or convenience, and that if we had our time over, you wouldn’t choose me. I used to attract lots of attention and compliments, and now I don’t. I am fearful that I have become that gray-person who isn’t special, who isn’t seen as fun-loving, alluring, intelligent, and thrilling by anyone.
Along came this person and they were really into me. They hung on my every word, they wanted me sexually, they made me feel charismatic, powerful, memorable. I needed to feel that way, because I felt myself disappearing in the drudgery of an average life.
Who stopped you from telling me how you felt?
Who stopped you taking me somewhere quiet and sharing that with me? Had you shown me this is how you felt I might have empathized. You might even have discovered that I often feel the same way and that you weren’t alone in feeling tired, worn out, and depleted of all the fun things that make me who I am when I’m not feeling strangled by the stresses of life.
Who stopped you from coming to me and compassionately suggesting that we found ways to show our desire and appreciation for each other? We could have understood each other better and made being demonstrative to each other a higher priority - we might even have had some fun doing it.
2. The Cheater’s Response: Who Stopped Me? You Did.
a) You’re the Problem
Many cheaters assert that the reason they didn’t come to you first was due to a problem with YOU. You don’t listen. You don’t care enough. You don’t understand. You don’t get them. You don’t ‘see’ them. You don’t respond the way they want you to. You don’t let them express themselves. You don’t give them the opportunity.
This is often nothing more than a convenient exaggeration of some traits and facets of your relationship with them. If they had come to you and said, “I am unhappy and considering an affair - can we talk?” it’s unlikely that your response would have been a dismissive wave of the hand and a request to take the trash out.
b) You’re Fragile
They may explain that they didn’t come to you because they didn’t want to leave you, they didn’t want to hurt you, they thought that if they could get it out of their system things would get better without you suffering at all. Often these cheaters throw themselves on their own sword and declare that the problem was ‘them’ and not you (all while keeping their real views to themselves, that this problem was caused by failings in you and the relationship).
This personal flimflam exercise tries to mitigate what their affair says about who they are, by allowing them to feel as if they are being honorable and noble in their protection of you.
3. The Real Response: Who Stopped Me? I Did!
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.
An affair is a choice. A choice is when you are faced with different scenarios and you select an option from one of them - you make a decision between various possibilities.
There are options available to a person when their relationship is failing to meet their expectations. It’s an option to talk to your partner about your frustrations and dissatisfactions. It’s an option to have a trial separation. It’s an option to say that you’re done and file for divorce. It’s an option to try to renegotiate the terms of the marriage and maybe agree an open marriage. It’s an option to go to couples’ therapy. It’s an option to do nothing, say nothing, and just put up with the relationship you have as it is. It’s an option to work on the issues single-handed. It’s an option to make like Lord Lucan and disappear without a trace. It’s an option to examine your own failings instead of blaming your partner. Heck, it could even be an option to just run away and join the circus.
Let’s be clear: Cheaters have choices and there were other choices available to them.
Let’s be clear: Cheaters make the choice that suits them best.
The only person who stops a cheater from making the choice NOT to cheat and to choose a different path, is the cheater.
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. They don’t have affairs because they are out of options. They don’t have affairs because they believe in perfect relationships or because they never climbed K2. They have affairs because they want to have an affair and it in some way satisfies the internal narrative they’ve constructed.
Many cheaters will assert that this view is entirely too simplistic, but is it?
4. The Simplest Explanations
A cheater may well have genuine dissatisfactions with you, their life, their unmet expectations - that’s entirely valid. What isn’t valid is the notion that these dissatisfactions in some way compelled or drove them to an affair, as if it was an inescapable outcome.
It’s unlikely, in a relationship where a cheater is so fundamentally dissatisfied, that the faithful partner is somehow experiencing a blissful and perfect happiness and satisfaction with that same relationship. Dissatisfactions are part of relationships for both partners. If an affair was solely the result of relationship dissatisfactions, it would follow that BOTH partners would therefore be unavoidably propelled into an affair.
An affair is NOT the result of relationship dissatisfactions - it is a result of one’s choices and responses in light of them.
a) A cheater chooses to cheat because they want the benefit of the primary relationship while conducting their affair.
b) They choose to cheat because it allows them to try on the new relationship before abandoning the old one - it’s a loss prevention strategy. They only ‘lose’ what they’re prepared to lose, when they feel securely set up in their new, completely satisfying (ahem) relationship.
c) An affair is a way to keep you securely in place while they explore their options, without consulting you and allowing you the courtesy of the same exploration of your own options.
d) A cheater chooses to cheat because they’ve constructed a personal narrative and world view that entitles them to pursue their quest for their own form of relationship nirvana, discarding any ethical responsibility towards others.
At the time of choosing it, the potential a cheater imagines in their affair (and the promise of possibilities for their life which it represents) is worth more to them than the reality they perceive in their relationship with you.
5. Who Stopped You From Choosing Differently?
Who stopped your cheater from choosing a different option to resolve their grievances? Nobody stopped them; you didn’t stop them, nor did their dissatisfaction, their life, or their confusion. None of this stopped them from making an alternative choice to having an affair.
The truth is that they found appeal in the affair. They actively chose it because it suited them to choose it. They got something out of it - they enjoyed it from the outset and that’s why they chose to pursue it further.
In the space between yes and no, there’s a lifetime. It’s the difference between the path you walk and the one you leave behind; it’s the gap between who you thought you could be and who you really are; its the legroom for the lies you’ll tell yourself in the future.
~ Jodi Picoult
The truth is that making any of those alternative choices would have deprived them of their affair … and that wasn’t a choice they were willing to make.