For some of us, it’s complicated.
Growing up, I thought that cheating was always going to be an instant deal beaker. That’s what I gleaned from the media, anyway. It all seemed very black and white: if somebody cheats on you, they don’t care about you, and you need to get them out of your life.
That’s what I believed.
But then, maybe you can guess what happened. I grew up and began dating. I fell in love more than once. Sometimes, okay, a lot of the time, I mixed up love for other things. Usually some form of dependence.
As it happened, a few of the men I dated (and sometimes even loved), cheated on me.
The first time it happened, the dude broke my heart. I was deeply in love with him, though I’d say it was a young and misguided sort of love. A first love. We were 19 and in a long distance relationship, when he kissed a longtime family friend on the same day that he and I kissed each other goodbye after an in-person visit.
The fact that his friend was underage made the whole thing feel creepy on top of heartbreaking. I actually found out from the girl herself, because she was so excited about their new “relationship,” and thought that he and I were just friends at that point.
It was a deep betrayal, one that haunted me every day for months from the minute I woke up to the moment I finally fell back asleep. The most confusing thing about all of it, however, was that I still loved him and wanted to be together.
Since I had always been ruled by my feelings, I guess that’s how I expected my relationships to work too. Over the years, I adopted the idea that cheating was a deal breaker, but I thought that meant that cheating would change the way I felt about a person.
And it didn’t.
It surprised me when cheating didn’t didn’t evoke some immediately revolted response. Instead, my boyfriend cheating on me just felt… terrible. It hurt me so much that all I wanted to do was fix it.
As if I was to blame.
The second time somebody cheated on me, it was my husband. We were not in what you would call a happy marriage. Although I’d say that none of our issues were insurmountable, we were each young enough to think that they were. We didn’t know how to deal with our problems together in a healthy way.
There were days where I wholly regretted the marriage and longed for an escape. But as a pretty devout and guilt-laden Christian, I also didn’t believe in divorce. Or more accurately, I worried that God would never forgive me if I got divorced. Which meant there was no escape for me. I was stuck in the mindset that my unhappiness never mattered.
And then it became obvious my husband was cheating on me. His old high school sweetheart began calling and texting him in ways that weren’t explicit but… definitely off. He stayed out late and made ridiculous excuses. When he actually did leave me, he still denied having an affair, but it didn’t really matter. I wasn’t stupid. And they got married shortly after our divorce.
What horrified me most about my husband’s cheating, however, was my own response. You might think I would have been happy, because he gave me an out. Our marriage was miserable, and his having an affair was quite possibly the best case scenario for ending it (a relationship that I no longer wanted to be in).
The funny thing is that his affair left me unexpectedly heartbroken. I didn’t just feel betrayed, I suddenly felt like I would do anything to save our marriage.
It was horrible, honestly. I couldn’t understand the dissonance within me. How I could want out of a relationship, yet change my mind as soon as I knew for certain that he’d been cheating on me?
Cheating was supposed to be a deal breaker, yet my knee-jerk reaction was to forgive him and try to stay together.
The last time a partner cheated on me, I was pregnant with his child. The situation was quite different since he had cheated on his first wife to be with me, and he also confessed some of his chronic struggles with cheating that spanned more than a decade.
Whenever people talk about how “the heart wants what the heart wants,” I often think about this relationship. Trusting him never made much sense. It was the epitome of craving a person who is seriously no good for you. And deep down, you know that… but you don’t want to believe it’s true.
When I found out that he was without a doubt cheating on me, I didn’t run because I didn’t see running as an option. His cheating wasn’t a deal breaker to me. If anything, it was an “opportunity” for me to prove my love.
I know. Barf.
Unlike my relationships with the two previous guys who cheated on me, this relationship didn’t actually end with the cheating. It didn’t even end after our breakup. On the contrary, we kept up this bizarre, blurred lines relationship long after the damage of cheating was done.
The whole time, I knew that cheating “should” have been a deal breaker. But it clearly wasn’t one for me. And I couldn’t begin to explain why.
I didn’t understand it myself.
When I first began blogging for a living a couple of years ago, I wanted to write a story about cheating and when it becomes a deal breaker. But the truth is that I didn’t actually know. I wanted to have an answer for my own strange behavior, but I hadn’t yet admitted to myself that it’s strangely complicated.
Earlier this year, I had a call with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and we talked about ending toxic relationships. I mentioned how I once thought that cheating was a deal breaker, and that it surprised me to discover it wasn’t.
Dr. Bobby agreed, saying we seem to think that’s the case, but in so many of these dysfunctional relationships, that’s not what we actually do. She studies the science of our bad relationships and understands that there are real chemical drivers behind our seemingly irrational behavior. Like when we keep going back to a toxic relationship despite knowing that person isn’t good for us.
In talking with Dr. Bobby and in reading some of her work, I was finally able to start coming to terms with my real feelings about cheating, along with my previous struggle to make it a deal breaker in my day to day life.
Because as much as I thought it was an impasse, I also believed that the other person’s cheating was at least partially my fault too. And as long as I felt that I held some of that blame, I didn’t feel comfortable holding any of them accountable for cheating. Not really.
Turns out, it is very easy to say that cheating is always a deal breaker, or that it ought to be a deal breaker. But it’s much more difficult in practice when our emotions run high.
People like myself, who typically want to work things out, might have a tendency to take the blame. If they cheated on us, we might feel it’s somehow a reflection of who we are, or how worthy we aren’t.
Looking back on the men who cheated on me, I always felt a significant amount of shame. As if other people were bound to “find out” just how pitiful I was.
Of course, I’m also the kind of person who used to get most of her self-worth from her relationships. That made me more apologetic and short-sighted in those situations. I was more afraid of losing the person who had broken my heart than I feared losing myself.
Looking back on those years, it occurs to me that the issue isn’t so much about cheating being a deal breaker. What matters more is how we treat ourselves in our relationships.
Whether you choose to forgive a person who cheats on you or break up with them is up to you. There’s no inherently right or wrong choice.
What matters most is how and why you make your decision.
If you choose to forgive a person for cheating on you because you’re so frightened to lose them that you don’t hold them accountable for the way they treat you, that’s a problem. And it’s only going crop up again later in your relationship. The same thing goes if you forgive them but refuse to acknowledge or work on the difficult issues in your relationship.
Whatever you choose, it’s important to be honest with yourself and your partner. It does no good to say you forgive them while you hold a massive grudge. But it’s just as unhelpful to take responsibility for their choices and fool yourself into thinking it will never happen again.
You have to be honest about the damage that’s been done. You also have to continue to cultivate your own sense of self that’s not attached to them.
In my experience, cheating often ought to be a deal breaker. In most cases, we’re taking about a person you trusted going to great lengths to lie to you about your relationship and their relationships with others.
It’s not so much the act of cheating that matters. It’s the deceit and fantasy it takes for them to keep living a lie.
Remember, cheating is not about monogamy. It’s about trust. Cheating happens within polyamorous relationships too.
Often, my daughter’s dad used to complain that getting upset over cheating was just a show of jealousy. Jealousy that was rooted in possessiveness and monogamy. You see, he lived most of his life cheating on everyone who ever loved him, and then after the birth of our daughter (his fourth child) he came out as polyamorous.
Unfortunately, he criticized everyone who had ever felt betrayed by him. As if it was their fault for expecting him to be monogamous. But that’s all anyone could have expected when he never told them that he wanted to see other people.
It was easy for him to declare that the women he hurt were so immature, petty, and tragically monogamous. In reality though, he lied to multiple women about the nature of their relationships and he was never on the same page with one of those hearts he broke.
Regardless of your relationship type, you typically become a cheater as soon as you restrict pertinent information about your intimate relationships with other people, in order to pursue some sort of romantic or sexual relationship with them.
If you enter a monogamous relationship and cheat on your partner, that doesn’t make it monogamy’s fault. It’s your responsibility to be honest with your partner(s) about the type of relationship you can or cannot have, not to mention the relationship(s) you do have.
It isn’t easy, but then again, none of this is easy. Talking about the hard stuff, being honest when it hurts--all of this is tough.
All of it takes work.
If you think that there’s a blanket answer for cheating being a deal breaker (or not), I don’t think you’re being honest about how complicated relationships really are. No relationship exists in a vacuum, and no two relationships are alike.
We have to understand that there are different factors behind various outcomes after an affair. That’s why some relationships grow even stronger, but so many others fall apart.
Couples have to be honest with each other about why or how it happened. And even then, both parties have to want to be there.
It’s not enough to stay together but only do it out of fear or doubt. Too many people try to save their relationships after cheating just because they’re so scared to be alone. That kind of fear doesn’t suddenly give you a healthy relationship. If anything, it usually leads to more toxic behavior.
Sure, there’s nothing wrong with the belief that people can grow or change, make up, and do better. People can change, though that doesn’t mean they will.
It’s a real problem when your faith that they can change prevents you from seeing the truth of who they actually are. It’s problematic when you make one excuse after another about why they’ve lied to you.
Likewise, I think it’s a problem when your cheating partner responds indignantly. As in, “how dare you even think that about me!” It’s even worse when they remain indignant, despite being caught.
Indignant cheaters want to throw you off their trail by pinning some sort of blame upon you. That’s probably the biggest red flag of all.
If you go along with their line of thinking, you basically have to suffer enormous guilt for ever being hurt by them for cheating. And that’s a quick recipe for abuse.
So, while there may be no hard and fast rules about exactly when cheating is a deal breaker, there are some rules about what makes a healthy relationship.
And although it’s not impossible to have a healthy relationship after one party cheats, it is hard. It’s naive to insist that it’s not.
Watch your reactions and your relationship closely. Forgiveness is a beautiful thing in our relationships, but it’s not so great if we only offer it for unhealthy reasons, like codependency. Likewise, cheating maybe should be a deal breaker if you can’t handle that betrayal without internalizing it and believing you made it happen.
Trust may be easily given, but it’s quite quickly broken. Once broken, it takes a long time to repair and rebuild. If we don’t want cheating to be a deal breaker, we also have to trust that we both want to be together and get on the same page.
Finally, we have to be able to trust that person again without becoming a door mat ourselves. Because that’s a real deal breaker.