Let’s establish one thing right away: I’m biased. I don’t think that cheaters deserve a second chance. I have had a spouse cheat on me. I have never cheated on a spouse and I have never cheated on a girlfriend to whom I had promised exclusivity. I think it is inexcusable.
Cheaters don’t deserve a second chance. Love is not a game like baseball. You don’t get three strikes before you’re out. But, even if they don’t deserve it, should you give a cheater a second chance?
* * *
You’ve been dating for 1½ years and everything was wonderful. You thought that he would probably be proposing soon and you had started contemplating a wedding, buying a house, and eventually getting pregnant. However, a few weeks ago, he went on a three day business trip and he hasn’t been in a very good mood since he got back.
Then, he came home this afternoon and uttered those dreaded words: “We need to talk.”
Over the next hour, he told you that he had become close to a female co-worker and she had also gone on the business trip to Atlanta. While there, they went to dinner, had a few drinks, and ended up having sex. He says he “doesn’t know how it happened,” it only happened one time, and it will never happen again. He was crying like a baby and begged you to forgive him and to give him another chance. Should you?
Let’s look at the reasons why you should give him another chance:
1. You have a history together. You know his quirks, he knows your quirks, and you enjoy being with each other.
2. You have already planned a life together.
3. You are living together and breaking up will drain you of all your psychic energy.
4. He volunteered the information so it seems that he wants to regain your trust.
5. He was crying and so obviously upset that this incident was totally out of character for him.
Now let’s look at the reasons why he doesn’t deserve another chance:
1. He did the one thing that he promised he would never do.
2. Whenever you contemplated your future with him, you always thought of yourselves as a committed and faithful couple. Now you feel like a fool.
3. You feel like he does not deserve to be trusted.
4. When he confessed, he seemed to be focusing on his feelings of guilt rather than showing genuine concern for the hurt that he inflicted on you.
5. You have a mental image of him having sex with his co-worker and you can’t get it out of your thoughts.
* * *
In this hypothetical, the couple is not married and it is the male that cheats. Of course, some women are unfaithful, too. In the context of marriage, the most widely regarded research has been conducted annually since 1972 by University of Chicago researchers. Every year, they have asked a representative national sample about infidelity and the results have been consistent. Every year, 10 percent of spouses admit cheating: 12% of men and 7% of women. Logic and common sense tells you that the rate of cheating among dating couples who are not married must be even higher.
If you have not had this happen to you, you are either lucky . . . or it happened but your partner never confessed. What if it does happen? How do you respond? Many of you know how you would respond and the answer is quite simple: you don’t give a cheater a second chance. However, if you are one of those who don’t know how you would respond, let’s re-examine the reasons to stay together.
1. “You have a history together. You know his quirks, he knows your quirks, and you enjoy being with each other.” Starting over is work, no doubt. You’ve got months or years invested in a relationship. You don’t want to feel that you’ve wasted your time. Will the relationship that possibly lies ahead for you give you the return on your investment that you were expecting? Do you want to invest even more time and effort and get even bigger disappointments in the future?
2. “You have already planned a life together.” The news that he told you is something that changes everything forever. You will never have the life that you had planned because everything will be affected by what he did.
3. “You are living together and breaking up will drain you of all your psychic energy.” The disclosure of his infidelity is a horribly stressful event and breaking up will make it even more stressful. But are you simply delaying the inevitable because you don’t want to be overwhelmed now?
4. “He volunteered the information so it seems that he wants to regain your trust.” No, he volunteered the information because he was feeling overwhelmed with guilt. The fact that he cheated doesn’t mean he has absolutely no conscience and, yes, he felt guilty. He told you because he hoped that doing so would make him feel better. He was focusing on his feelings, not yours.
5. “He was crying and so obviously upset that this incident was totally out of character for him.” What does it mean to say that somebody did something that was out of character for them? Character is what we believe about someone's values and motivations, inferred from all of the things that we see expressed in their behavior. If a person does something that is inconsistent with what we inferred about them, it either means that
a. we were wrong in our assumptions about their character, or
b. they actually did something that is absolutely inconsistent with their values and beliefs.
Which of those is more likely to be true? Of course, it is much more likely that we were wrong in our judgments about their character. However, it is difficult to admit that we have made such a horrible mistake about someone with whom we have been so intimate and it is sometimes easier to give someone a “free pass” that to accept the realization that we have been fooled so horribly.
Now, let’s look at the reasons to not give him another chance.
1. “He did the one thing that he promised he would never do.” This promise was more important and more sacred than any other promise and he violated it. If he doesn’t suffer any consequences for this, why would you think that he won’t do it again? How will he feel about observing all of those other promises?
2. “Whenever you contemplated your future with him, you always thought of yourselves as a committed and faithful couple. Now you feel like a fool.” That feeling may go away eventually, but maybe it won’t. And . . . what if he does it again? There is an expression that, “If the dog bites me once, it’s the dog’s fault; if I let the dog bite me a second time, it’s my fault.” Will you ever forgive yourself if you give him a second chance and he does it again? What if it happens after you are married and have children? How awful will you feel then?
3. “You feel like he does not deserve to be trusted.” Trust is earned and distrust is earned. You are right. He does not deserve to be trusted. How can you have a relationship without trust?
Someone might ask, “Can’t he regain my trust eventually?” There are two types of trust: 100% absolute trust and everything else. Your spouse or mate is supposed to be the person who you can trust when you can’t trust anyone else. Nothing less than 100% absolute trust will suffice. Right now, your trust level may be at 5%. Maybe – five or ten years from now – you will trust him 90%. Is that good enough? Do you deserve better than that?
4. “When he confessed, he seemed to be focusing on his feelings of guilt rather than showing genuine concern for the hurt that he inflicted on you.” When you are in a committed relationship, you are supposed to treat your partner’s needs and desires on the same level as your own needs and desires. A relationship is where you lose your selfishness and “the two become one.” (Sound familiar?) Do you want a partner who is always focused on himself?
5. “You have a mental image of him having sex with his co-worker and you can’t get it out of your thoughts.” You never will. How many times will you think about this when you are having sex with your partner? Will you be wondering whether he is thinking about her instead of you?
Imagine that you are 10 years in the future, looking back at how you handled the decision when you arrived at this crossroad. Did you make a decision that was right for you, even though it was difficult? Did you make the decision that allowed you to be lazy and take the path of least resistance? When you look back 10 years from now, will you be proud of how you handled this crisis?