Many years ago, I discovered that my then live-in boyfriend (a psychologist and beloved couple’s therapist) was cheating on me with a colleague he knew from work. The affair had begun while my mother was dying, and I accidentally found out about it a month after she passed away. My initial reactions were disbelief and shock, followed by excruciating pain, then morphing into a seething rage from which I didn’t emerge for the next three years.
There’s no question that the pain of infidelity cuts deep. There is the shock of our partner having been intimate with another, and the devastating violation of our trust. But there is also an important aspect of infidelity that many people overlook: it takes two people to make a good relationship, and it takes two people to make a bad one.
In cases of exposed infidelity, one partner is typically seen as the “villain” (the one who cheats), while the other is perceived as the “victim” (the innocent one). Because the cheater’s injurious behavior is blatant, it’s easy to peg him or her as the bad one—the one to blame for the relationship’s downfall. But it’s never that simple. The victim always has a part in whatever caused the relationship to deteriorate, although the dysfunctional patterns they bring to the relationship are often less obvious (and thus harder to recognize) than those of the villain.
Common relationship patterns of people in the victim role that contribute to the erosion of a relationship include emotional distancing, using parental responsibilities or work to avoid connecting with their partner; withholding physical affection or sex (often a passive-aggressive expression of anger); constant complaining or blaming their partner for things that are wrong; using “humorous” or cutting sarcasm to express resentment, or denying or ignoring what’s not working in the relationship.
Patterns that “villains” may play out in relationship include being controlling, stubborn, self-righteous, or self-centered; overt expressions of anger such as yelling or throwing things; subtle or overt threats of abandonment, or entitlement (feeling like they’re the exception to the rules others have to live by). In response to their partner’s withdrawal, they often feel justified in seeking affection or meeting their sexual needs elsewhere.
Many partners leave their spouse after an infidelity, putting all the blame on the one who cheated. This can be a missed opportunity, especially when the relationship has a long and full history, or there are children involved. The truth is, we all are co-creators of every relationship we have. The interpersonal dynamics that two people share are created by the issues, values, beliefs, behaviors, and intentions that both people bring to the relationship.
Infidelity is an extremely injurious blow to any relationship. It requires a lot of personal growth work done individually and as a couple to stay together and use the infidelity as a catalyst for transforming the relationship. But the couples with whom I’ve worked that have accomplished this have emerged with a partnership or marriage that was stronger, more authentic, and far healthier and satisfying than it ever was before.
And what happened with my former boyfriend? I left him as soon as I discovered he was cheating. Because the relationship had a relatively short duration, we had no children together, and I didn’t feel there was enough of a history or foundation on which to build a better relationship, I chose to end things with him. But there proved to be some important learning for me. After holding on to my anger for three years, I finally took accountability for my part in the erosion of our relationship. I saw how I had emotionally distanced myself, and had been consumed and distracted by the family drama related to my mother’s illness and death.
Seeking closure three years after parting, I sent my ex-boyfriend a card letting him know that I forgave him, and that I took responsibility for my part in the demise of our relationship. Although it took me a while, I’m grateful that I was able to forgive him and move on. Not only did it allow me to let go of my anger, but it also helped me to better understand and change my own relationship patterns and behaviors going forward.
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© 2016 Lauren Mackler - Lauren Mackler is a world-renowned coach and author of the international bestseller Solemate: Master the Art of Aloneness & Transform Your Life. Sign up for her free Live Boldly e-newsletter at www.laurenmackler.com.