Once A Cheater Always A Cheater?

By M. Gary Neuman

Cheating on a spouse is a terrible betrayal. Yes, sadly, it is quite common but that never reduces the devastation and pain it causes. No safety in numbers here. The discovery of cheating almost always comes on the heels of extreme lying. The big question always is, how can the one cheated on ever trust again? It is logical and practical to think that once a spouse has cheated, there is no reason to assume it wouldn’t occur time and again.

It’s worth being very concerned about. In my study of cheating men, 46% had cheated with multiple women. Although the rest only cheated with one woman, some did return to the mistress after promising not to.

After helping thousands of couples heal after cheating, here are the sure signs of whether or not your spouse will cheat again:

Remorse. If your spouse is cavalier about cheating and is less than profusely apologetic, you’re in trouble. While genuine remorse in and of itself does not protect you from future cheating, it is an absolute prerequisite for the possibility of future fidelity. If phrases like, “everyone cheats” and “how long is this going to bother you” are bandied about, that is a sign that the cheater is not doing the work necessary to protect the marriage.

Daily behavioral changes. The cheater must now show you that there is serious change that will greatly reduce the odds of it ever happening again. This would include distancing from friends who encouraged or in any way played a part in thecheating. For example, in my research, 77% of cheating men had best friends who cheated as compared to less than half of faithful men. There’s likely a need to be changes in the manner in which the cheater deals with the opposite sex as well.

Transparency. The cheater must allow accessibility to all areas of life, all passwords to emails, phones and computers. In essence, the cheater has to be ok with living on a short leash for some time. This is never comfortable because it is a constant reminder of tragic mistakes but it is a necessary component for the victim of cheating. Everyone knows that if someone wants to cheat, no surveillance will be enough. But it is the cheater’s willingness to be open and responsive to any concerns that helps the hurt spouse begin to move forward.  I have gone to such lengths as to send certain cheaters for lie detector tests at the start of and a year into therapy as a way to prove honesty in the future. This is an example of how much the cheater must be willing to help the spouse gain trust again.

Complete honesty about the past. The spouse who was cheated on needs some clear answers once and for all. Things like, are you still involved in any capacity with any others, what were the circumstances of how the cheating happened, how often and when, are all important questions that need answers. However, I caution you not to ask graphic questions that are only going to help you form an image. This will cause greater struggle for you when you try to return to a healthy sex life in the future. Sure, the one who was cheated on deserves any answer but not all will lead to a healthy future. It’s a good sign when the cheater is willing to give answers. This shows that the cheater recognizes how painful this has been to the spouse. However, if the cheater still seems more sensitive to the other person than to his/her spouse, that’s a recipe for future cheating.

Changes in your marriage. You,the one cheated on, may not like to hear it, but most cheaters (88% in my study of male cheaters) were experiencing great distress in their marriages in advance to the cheating. This doesn’t mean it was in any way your fault. But it does mean that both spouses have to seriously figure out what their marital needs are and how to start to fulfill them.

Counseling. There must be some form of counseling. It cannot be brief and if the cheater is unwilling to attend or continue, bad news. In my study, only 17% of couples went to counseling and only 1% went for more than 10 sessions. Counseling gives the couple an open forum to discuss matters that are difficult to resolve when discussed alone. There also needs to be an agreement that if you ever want to reenter marital therapy in the future, the cheater will go without any struggle. Counseling should include many individual sessions for the cheater in order for him/her to discover deeper issues that have led to such behavior.

Cheating will likely not repeat when a couple feels that there has been such substantive change that they both feel they now have a better marriage than ever before. Ultimately, trust is built over time in the form of emotional closeness between a couple and the efforts to protect that connection.


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M Gary Neuman is a New York Times best-selling author, and creator of Neuman Method Programs. He was on the Oprah show 11 times as well as having made multiple appearances on Today, Dateline, the View, NPR and others.  Oprah referred to Gary as “One of the best psychotherapists in the world.”