Infidelity: How to Forgive Without Compromising Integrity
When your partner cheats and lies but the relationship must go on.
What is it about infidelity that makes it so compelling and irresistible for the instigators, and maddening for the partners who feel victimized by it? I’ve seen countless clients, men and women, who admit to being “cheaters” by nature AND who seem to have no issue with hiding their indiscretions from their partner, even when they are sure that the revelation could end the relationship. I, too, can identify with those folks. Are we just selfish? Don’t we care about other people’s feelings? What would it take to prevent us from falling prey to the desires and arousals that keep us landing in the arms of someone other than our primary partner when we’ve consensually committed to staying faithful? Is the promise of monogamy ever a real promise? In my experience, a moment of wanton lust can feel more powerful than any drug, than deep and nurturing love, than the fear of getting caught, and the consequences that will surely derail your life as you know it. In those moments, any number or combination of driving forces are at play: feeling the heightened physical sensations of being alive, the thrill of breaking the rules, the excitement of newness and curiosity, the temporary eradication of boredom, anxiety, self-consciousness or self-worth, the power of a conquest, or getting needs met that one’s primary partner isn’t willing to fulfill.
And what of the partner who is the victim of the broken agreement? What consolation, explanation, assurance of accountability, or retribution, do they deserve in order to move on, out of the relationship altogether or into a new phase of the same arrangement? Is the victimized partner completely free of blame? Sometimes. Often, they have their own set of accountabilities to which to fess up. The roads to both decoupling and forgiveness can be daunting tasks. How long should the injured party remain angry or actively venting their feelings? How many apologies or explanations are enough? Can we ever sufficiently empathize with our partner’s actions when getting their needs met means neglecting ours? Can we ease the pain of the upcoming infidelity if we tell our partner that we’re going to do it before it happens? Why does the opportunity for honesty become the worst-case scenario? Must we have our cake and then go out for ice cream too?
I have both cheated and been cheated on. Before becoming “open,” I knew that fidelity was unrealistic for me, but I never said so in light of a new relationship commitment. Even within the non-monogamous lifestyle that my current partner and I have cultivated, we have both crossed boundaries that we set together and with mutually beneficial intentions. So now what do we do? Back to the drawing board to figure out what it is that we really value? Do I love my partner enough to forgive him, to empathize with what he was feeling when he broke our agreement, and to remember that I’ve been in his shoes before? What kind of consequences can I set to keep myself from feeling that my autonomy and needs are being infringed upon?
I decided that I do want to stay together. I saw that the reason he cheated had little to do with me and more to do with his relationship with himself and his sexuality. I allowed myself to be as mad as I needed for as long as felt right. He could hold space for it or choose not to. We used the therapeutic practices of non-violent communication and conflict repair to share how we felt and speak to our various needs. I felt heard and cared for. We reviewed our individual values around honesty, freedom, autonomy, safety, and care for each other’s feelings. We agreed that if we should desire to cross some boundary in the future, we would do our best to find the courage to confront the other person before going through with the action – we would give each other the chance to share feelings and needs, state concerns, propose consequences, or ask for a compromise. Autonomy to make choices for ourselves before the action is executed, we decided, is the best way to navigate mismatched desires or needs.