I’ll admit it—I was a novice at dating, but I tried my hardest to love the man who showered me with gifts. He provided me with European vacations, cars and an offer of lifetime commitment, but I couldn’t fully settle into our relationship. I was too wide-eyed and curious. I wanted to know what it would feel like to sleep with other people and date other personality types. I was desperately searching for the dream man I had made up in my head.
Without being fully conscious of it, I lived under the assumption that the perfect man was out there waiting for me. Even though my boyfriend of the time was enamored with me and my personality, his love was no match for my wild and unrestrained curiosity.
I was caught in perpetual ambivalence: I wanted him so desperately, but I couldn’t commit. I loved him, but I didn’t know with certainty if I would be happy. I was ready to set down roots but leary that I might regret a permanent decision. I’m sad to say I was too uncertain in my value and my lovability.
The poor chap. He made every attempt to convince me of his love, and yet, he could feel the energy of my rowdy desires and unsettled determination. It was in this emotionally chaotic and uncertain spell that he was deployed for 18 months as an Army reservist. He left feeling lonely, unimportant, valueless, and invisible.
One and one-half years later, he walked in our apartment, returned from Iraq. I knew we had hit an all-time low. He was cold, seemingly irritated by my presence. Within 24 hours, he asked me to move out. He needed the room so that his new boyfriend could move in.
Needless to say, I spent months reeling with the facts. He had cheated on me. I spent several months walking in a haze of confusion, pangs of floor-dropping anxiety and gut wrenching grief.
In the aftermath, I felt as though I was sitting in a crater where our home once stood. It was one of the darkest seasons of my life. The debilitating sorrow, however, forced me to reckon with the truth.
I realized that we had lived in a relationally dry climate for too long, and we alone were responsible for letting it get there. Our vulnerability was too low, our passion had diminished, and we had begun living separate lives. His healthy emotional desires had gone unseen, unacknowledged and unmet for too long. He had been emotionally starving with no sustenance in sight. I was a major contributor to our relational dynamic, often neglecting it, but he chose to respond to our bad situation in a very bad way.
Sadly, this type of emotional hunger is all-too common for and often catalyzes those who cheat.
The alarms of emotional hunger may not come all at once. But when important desires—belonging, love, thrill, satisfaction, joy, and romance—go unmet for long, partners find emotional resources elsewhere. Some reach for healthy options like close relatives, best friends or co-workers.
Other partners may begin to scan for another lover who might be able to meet their emotional needs ‘perfectly.’ In the starvation phase, they often fantasize about the ideal partner and project that fantasy outside of their relationship. At the end of the day, they’re simply looking for someone who can fill up their emotional buckets.
Feeling silenced by the repeated rejection that leads to shame of their emotional or sexual yearnings, partners like my ex may be afraid to voice their true desires and needs. As a result of this lacking safety, they often meet their needs in secret—thus, cheating. In other words, discussing unmet needs with a neglectful or shaming partner is often much more difficult than seeking to meet their needs outside the relationship.
A new sexual partner—for a person in a dry emotional environment—is like an IV drip for a drastically dehydrated person. Sex is a major source of emotional connectedness and exciting vulnerability. Because emotional connectedness and sex oftne go hand in hand, it is no wonder an emtionally starved partner might reach for deeply sattisfying and thrilling sexual encounters. Playing out our emotional fantasies with a new sexual partner will reap short-term benefits because we feel immediately worthy, desired, and special, especially when someone is excited to sleep with us. If, for an emotionally hungry person, fantasizing is a medication, having sex is the buffet table. Again, cheating is a bad way to respond to a bad situation.
Obviously, cheating as a type of emotional replenishing causes major damage to relational stability and trust.
If you are currently seeking to repair damage caused from cheating, here are things to consider:
1. Create a safe environment for one hell of an apology.
Your partner will need to understand that your apology is sincere and not just an empty gesture to return things to normal. To set the mood and create a healthy repair, emotional responsibility and empathy should always be part of the formula. Here are the thought prompts to my 5-Step Apology:
- This what I did that hurt you. (Describe the boundary violations so that they know you mean what you say and that your grief and regret have merit.)
- This is how it affected you. (Describe how your actions affected your partner and what they might be feeling, emotions like unsafe, stupid, angry, hurt, untrusting, etc.)
- This is how I got to the point of hurting you. (Don’t make excuses! Own your shit, take responsibility, and tell your partner(s) about how you ended up making your decisions. Be honest and authentic.)
- This is what I am willing to do to protect you, myself and us from this happening again. (Tell your partner about the precautions and boundaries you will put in place, as well as the work you will do to repair your own emotional environment. You may need to be vulnerable. Ask your partner to work on their fair share to repair any stale emotional environment, but save requests for a later time.)
- Apologize with sincerity.
Although an apology is only a beginning step, it is a major way to bring resolution. You may have to run through the 5-Step Apology over and over again because your partner may need to hear it several times as they process your betrayal and learn to trust you again.
2. Practice Trusting
Trusting a partner who has cheated can be scary and utterly challenging. The practice of trusting your partner involves setting proper and stable boundaries, accepting the 5-Step Apology and allowing time to pass so that you can heal. Trust must be earned, but if your partner has earned it, practice recognizing it and leaning into it. This is possibly the most challenging step in the recovery process because we must grieve and work through very big anger before we are ready to trust again. I always recommend allowing the grief and anger to surface so that the emotionally environment is primed for trusting again.
3. Practice Vulnerability and Create Safety
Like my ex, I often hear cheaters, in couples’ sessions, defend their long-standing history of being vulnerable, asking for their needs to be met, and eventually feeling shamed by all the judgment they encountered.
Without vulnerability and safety relationships will be dry. They will not be able to reach the satisfaction and passion they once had. Although one person may have cheated, all involved are responsible for creating a safe and trustworthy space where any partner can share what they need and be comfortable doing so. Contrastingly, judgment and criticism will shut down vulnerability over time. Vulnerability is a practice of showing up with even the most disdained parts of yourself and trusting your partner to see and care for them. When romantic partners grow for one another, they reestablish their safety, connection and passion. In such a relational context, emotional satisfaction can abound.
Even if you wonder, “How can I move on after cheating?” you can reestablish a healthy, thriving relationship. Counseling professionals have walked through this process with other couples and can support you on your journey toward healing. Don’t hesitate to get the help you need. It will take work, but oftentimes our closest relationships are worth the fight.
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