Most people say that they would leave a cheating spouse or partner when they have a clear head. Before it has ever happened to them.
That is the right kind of thinking. The way we think of cheating before it has happened to us is the thinking of a rational, logical brain. It is the thinking of someone who is clear-headed, unbiased, and can see the reality of a situation.
You know how it’s always easier to give someone advice than it is to take it yourself? That’s because when you’re giving advice you can step back and see the big picture. You can weigh the facts and the likelihood of every scenario, and make a calculated, educated decision. You can really see the truth of a situation as it stands.
Recently a blogging buddy (and real-life friend), Samantha Baker of Repairing Shattered Pieces, brought my attention to an article, 10 Reasons Not to Take Back a Cheating Husband. I found myself nodding along emphatically the entire time I was reading.
I then went back to her blog and read her counterpoints to that article about why someone SHOULD stay with a cheating spouse, Reasons to Take Back a Cheating Husband. I love my dear friend, and she made some valid points and arguments from her perspective and in her situation. However, I have to strongly disagree.
I’m going to address things as I see them, using my own experiences as a guide. Does that mean this will be biased? Absolutely! I’m now past the point where I can take an unemotional look at this topic, as is anyone who has been embroiled in any side of cheating. It would be impossible for me not to infuse my history with a cheating, lying husband into this narrative. So I won’t insult your intelligence as readers by pretending otherwise.
So what is it about the original article that resonated so much with me? It’s hard to pinpoint just one thing, so I’ll take you on the journey that I went on. I was always the strong, independent, and rather opinionated woman who stood firm in the belief that if someone cheated on me, lied to me, disrespected me, and took advantage of me, I would leave them. Period. Just that simple, just that easy. I didn’t deserve it, and I wouldn’t accept it.
Then it happened to me. My live-in boyfriend, who I had been with for over a year, cheated on me.
My world stopped.
I should have kicked him out. I should have moved on. I should have pictured the rest of my life unfolding with this untrustworthy person and run for the hills.
Instead, I felt sorry for him. My empathy kicked in. I saw him cry, snot coming out of his nose, seemingly remorseful and saying he hated himself so much that he wanted to drive his car into a telephone pole. I listened to him beg for another chance and promise to treat me right. I heard all of his excuses and watched him put himself down. And I felt compassion for him. Love and tenderness even, after everything.
I felt something else, too. Fear. I was afraid to let go. I knew that it probably wasn’t the best thing for me to stay with him. But I couldn’t bring myself to move forward. Instead, I just stayed where I was.
Gradually, the searing pain went away. Things got swept under the rug. I was comfortable enough that I didn’t want to rock my world or risk not finding someone else. I did a lot of justifying and rationalizing. And I stayed.
It was expected that we would get married, so we did. More “red flag” behavior popped up about a month or two before our wedding. I almost called it off. Again, I chickened out, caved, and did what I was “supposed to do.”
Then we went through a year and a half of therapy. The counseling was completely worthless for our marriage because he was lying the entire time. It helped me to start getting stronger, little by little, though. There were hundreds of times during those 18 months when I should have been done. Finished. Gone. But I wasn’t.
I had lots of great reasons to leave him, and really no reason to stay. Oh, I had things that I thought were reasons, but they were just excuses. The things that kept me, personally, hanging on were:
- I was codependent and wanted to “save” him.
- I had a fantasy in my head that he would “get better,” live up to his “potential,” and be a good partner.
- I had low self-esteem and didn’t think I deserved any more or better.
- It felt good to feel needed. I was the provider, the responsible one, the victim, and the selfless partner who sacrificed it all for someone who was so cruel to me. I played the part well, and I was comfortable there. I am a giver by nature, but mostly I didn’t think I deserved better.
- I was ashamed of what I’d been through, and I didn’t want to be a divorcé. The stigma still felt huge (even though it turned out not to be).
- I didn’t want to give up. I HATE being thought of as a quitter. In fact, my marriage was the first thing I didn’t follow through to completion.
- Promises meant something to me then, and they still do now. I made vows that were a promise to him, yes, but also to me and my entire family and all of my friends. I felt like I owed it to THEM to try my hardest. I didn’t trust him, but I felt like just because he broke his promise didn’t mean I had to.
- I bought into the “sunk cost fallacy” that I would be “wasting” all of the time and effort I put into the relationship if I ended it, and that if I just held on a little longer my “investment” would “pay off.”
What it really came down to, though, was fear. I was afraid, and I scrambled to find any “reason” to hold on that I could. Even though my reality sucked, the misery I knew seemed somehow easier to bear than the terrifying unknown.
I wanted to believe the fantasies and pipe dreams that people preach. The “happily ever after cheating” stories were few and far between (for a reason), but still I clung to them. Many of the people who had positive stories had seemingly fallen off the face of the planet (blogs that were discontinued, people who left the forums, or one and done articles). Conversely, there were those who had written some book to sell to other desperate people like me so that they could make a few bucks.
I had never believed in that self-help crap before. I used to scoff at that book aisle and feel sorry for anyone who thought that they would find the answers to life or their problems there. Those people said what they needed to say to make money. They polished their turds and pretended they smelled like roses, then sold them in bouquets to gullible readers. Most of them said conflicting things – the solution was different from one to the next, but they all had the magic potion to make the marriage and cheater better. More importantly, they were all designed to play to a person’s fears.
Suddenly, though, I was full of fear. I rejected all of the things that I said and believed before, like “I’m worth more than this.” Instead, I clung to false hope that somehow this person who I fell in love with wasn’t a horrible, selfish, untrustworthy, broken man who had and would stomp on my heart in a second if it got him what he wanted.
I was wrong. He was all of that and then some. I was kidding myself. I was telling myself lies because those lies made me feel better. Safer.
He continued to lie to me, and I helped him do it by betraying my own sense of what I deserve. By accepting a cheater. By allowing him to stay in my life. I put myself through unneeded pain because I was afraid and because I settled. I wanted to believe the delusional drivel of people who justified their decision to stay in marriages with crappy spouses out of codependency and fear. I bought the façade they were selling that something terrible and deceitful and foul could be good (because the hard truth that things were still shaky wouldn’t sell books). I watched other women in support groups bury their problems and concerns and fears under a blanket of denial, and that blanket looked warmer than cold reality.
If you’ve taken this journey with me and you’re still here, I applaud you. I have been known to be wordy. Now I’ll get back to my thoughts on the points in those two articles.
Here’s my (completely jaded) list of why you should leave a cheater:
- The relationship is broken, and it won’t get better. Even if it does, by some miracle, who wants to settle for a relationship that’s slightly better than complete and total shit? You will never have a relationship with true freedom, trust, and respect because at least one partner has already spit all over that (any maybe both, depending on the state of the marriage before the cheating occurred). There’s no going back. There’s no untainting rotten meat. The purity, the sanctity, the sense that the other person will sacrifice for you, put you first, fight to do what’s right, and love, honor, and cherish you are gone. Forever. There’s no unbreaking something that’s broken. A vase that has been smashed can be glued together again. It can even look alright, but it will never be as strong. Those cracks will always be there, weakening the entire structure.
- When you stay with someone who has already cheated on you, you will always wonder if it will happen again. For good reason. Someone who chooses to cheat is much more likely to be someone who takes the easy way out. They’re the kind of person who will look outside of their marriage instead of talking and addressing concerns head-on with their partner. They likely have deep issues that may never be revealed or fully resolved. Generally speaking, they are cowards who would rather run from problems or pretend they don’t exist than face them. Very likely, they have been that way for their entire lives and will continue to be conflict avoidant, withdrawing as a main coping mechanism, for the remainder of your relationship because that is their go-to. Alternatively, they could be aggressive and entitled. Either is a recipe for disaster, and you will likely find yourself in a place where your trust has been betrayed again.
- Children learn by example, and actions mean more than words. Your children will find out that cheating tore apart your relationship. They probably already know more than you think. I have never been on either side of this situation because my parents didn’t cheat on one another and I don’t have children of my own. For that reason, I will refrain from too much commentary on this subject. I will simply said that what a child sees in his or her parents’ relationship becomes the model for future relationships. Is this what you would want for your child?
- You’ll need therapy either way, but you should focus on YOURSELF. Finding a good therapist has been a lifeline for me in this process. Whether you stay or leave, you will want to talk to someone. The sooner you can focus on yourself, and your own needs, fears, desires, and growth, the better off you will be. Finding your inner strength and learning how to be independent, confident, and happy is a lot easier when you don’t have someone dragging you down into their muck. Get rid of the baggage, and your balloon will rise a lot higher, a lot faster.
- You will BE safer. No one wants to think that the person they love has exposed them to a disease. You need a reality check if you’re with a cheater. Likely, they have. Whether it was a one-night stand or a long-term affair (or god forbid a string of affairs, or multiple one-night stands, or even prostitutes), your partner probably wasn’t safe all of the time. Maybe they weren’t safe any of the time. Someone who could risk their own health and yours like that isn’t someone you want to continue putting your trust in. Want to keep gambling with your life? I don’t.
- You will second guess yourself and your worth constantly if you stay, and your self-esteem will continue to be crushed each time you look at this person who didn’t think enough of you to stay faithful. Not to mention the mind movies. They will plague you. Every time your partner touches you, you will think of the other person (or people) that they touched. You will have flashbacks and triggers that will pop up years, maybe even decades later. You will try to control these. You will wish and beg and plead with yourself to get rid of them. But they will invade at the most inopportune times – watching a movie, seeing a commercial, trying to have sex, passing an old photograph, and even attending a family event or birthday or holiday, when you suddenly remember that during a very similar event you were being lied to and betrayed. Even if you have the best self-esteem on the planet before your spouse cheats, you will feel less than when you look in their eyes. Will it all disappear immediately if you leave? No, but some of it will. And the rest can be dealt with so much more efficiently without the cause of all of those triggers and fears waiting for you in bed every night (just the thought makes me shudder).
- Things get better much faster when you cut the cheater loose. This is from personal experience. The last DDay (discovery day, when further betrayals were revealed) with my then husband was in March of 2011. I was in a living hell, in one way or another, until September of 2012 when I kicked him out. Small revelations and untruths were revealed during that time – too many to count. The agony actually started in January of 2009 with the first discovery of cheating. It took three years to get basic truths about his cheating, even just the number of women he cheated with (4, not 1). Those three years were a constant struggle, complete with individual counseling, marriage counseling, group meetings, depression medication, journaling and blogging, a marriage retreat, many sleepless nights, and more lies than I care to remember. He’s now been gone for less than a year and I’ve made more progress personally than in all of those years combined. I also have more peace, happiness, joy (something I could barely fathom during those dark years), and hope for my future than would be possible if I were still with him (without a doubt).
- There is no “easy way.” I do think that there is an “easier” way, and that is to face your fears head on. Things are always scarier when you’re standing in the dark. So turn the light on. Really look at your situation. And I mean, really look. Is this where you want to be? Will staying here make you happy? Is holding onto something broken really your best bet? Or are you just scared? Confused? Are you projecting the compassion and empathy that you wish your spouse would have given you onto them? Are you choosing to believe them because lies are more comfortable than the truth? Are you just making excuses? Is your spouse REALLY going to change? Are they putting forth honest effort and hard work, without you forcing them to? Do they really want to be with you, or are THEY just scared and comfortable and hesitant to strike out on their own? Is this the best you can do? What would you tell your best friend if they were in this situation? How about your Mom, sister, or daughter? Answer honestly, then think about those answers, trust them, and act.
- Be your own partner. Advocate for yourself. Treat yourself with kindness. Demand what you deserve, and don’t settle for any less. Be as understanding of your own needs and emotions as you are of his (or hers). Stop putting yourself last. Stop second-guessing yourself. Stop making excuses for the crappy partner you have, who stomped all over you. Instead of worrying about “fixing” or “saving” or “helping” someone else, do all of that for yourself. If he (or she) wanted to be better, they would be already. They know right from wrong, and they always have. If they don’t, it’s even more of a reason to run like hell. Accept that they knew EXACTLY what they were doing, and still chose to cheat, without concern for you. Become concerned for yourself. Start finding your own fulfilment outside of anyone else.
- You deserve someone who would never intentionally hurt you. Cheating is a deliberate act. Either your spouse didn’t really care for you and love you, or they don’t even know how to. Either way, you deserve more. And there’ more out there. In fact, being with no one is better than being with someone who harms you on purpose. See #9.
So my advice is not really to “leave” a cheater, but rather to kick their ass to the curb with confidence and gusto!
If this article resonated with you, check out the companion piece: 10 Excuses People Use to Stay with a Cheater.
If you want more stories about what can change when you leave a cheater, read Letter from a Reader: Leaving a Cheater
Finally, I’ll leave you with this lesson from a very wise woman: