If you’ve been betrayed—especially more than once—chances are you’ve asked this exact question. I’ve heard it so many times I wonder why I haven’t written about it on the blog before now.
It makes perfect sense that in the middle of pain, heartache, and disappointment a betrayed partner would think,
If he loved me, he wouldn’t have cheated.
But the truth is that love, cheating, and chronic infidelity (or addiction) defy logic.
Having worked with betrayed partners and their cheating spouses for more than a decade, I believe that cheaters and sex addicts CAN and DO love their partners.
And yes, the very same partners the unfaithful spouse deceives, lies to, and cheats on.
To accept that it’s possible for an unfaithful spouse to love his partner at the same time he’s cheating, it’s important to understand two concepts:
The first is that if your unfaithful spouse is struggling with compulsive sexual behavior or sex addiction, you can’t underestimate the powerful, cunning, and baffling nature of addiction. Sex addiction is often referred to as an intimacy disorder, and a person dealing with any form of addiction is intimacy impaired.
The second factor, and one that cannot be over-emphasized is that every person—unfaithful or not—is 100% responsible for their choices and behaviors.
So let’s start with addiction. If the person who cheated on you struggles with compulsive sexual behavior or identifies as a sex addict, there are a number of ways to think about how it’s possible that the person loved you, yet still cheated.
Most people agree that when an alcoholic drinks, it doesn’t mean he/she doesn’t love their spouse simply because they chose to drink, or that a gambling addict doesn’t love his wife because he gambled away all their savings from a joint retirement account.
What is different about chronic sexual betrayal or addiction is that sexual betrayal feels intensely more personal than when a spouse drinks, gambles, or uses.
However, it doesn’t change the fact that addicts act out because they are out of control. What once was a bad habit has now become unmanageable and chronic, but the way they get there has nothing to do with whether or how much they love their partner.
When a person chronically cheats, they accumulate many layers of secrecy and deceit to cover their behavior. Because of the “wall of deception” they build, they’re often perceived by important people in their life as increasingly absent, cold, or even hostile. For the betrayed partner, this lack of warmth may feel very much like lack of love.
In addition to the wall of deception, there are layers of shame that increase with every episode of cheating or acting out. The cheater must maintain their defense against the devastating emotion of shame, and this drives them further behind a wall—a wall that is understandably interpreted by their partner as uncaring, unfeeling, and love-less.
Underneath the question of “How could he love me and act out?” is often a belief that if the betrayed partner was different, prettier, or nicer the cheater would have loved her enough not to stray. This is a thought distortion and simply a lie.
If love was the missing key ingredient to prevent infidelity, do you believe the “fault” lies with him or with you? In other words, should he have tried to love you more so that he wouldn’t have cheated, or do you believe that in another relationship he could have loved that person enough to prevent his cheating?
Cheaters cheat for many reasons, but none of those reasons are the betrayed partner’s responsibility or reflect on whether or not she is lovable.
Every person is 100% responsible for their actions. Cheating is one among 1000s of choices that a person can make if they are unhappy in their relationship, and is the worst solution to marital problems.
No matter how much a cheater may love or care for their spouse, their ability to live within their value system is impaired. At the root of chronic infidelity—in monogamous relationships—is a problem of character, integrity, sometimes coupled with addiction.
Love—as an emotion—is subject to ups and downs, highs and lows, and is far more unreliable than integrity and character. To blame cheating on lack of love diminishes the role of integrity and personal responsibility, and places too heavy a burden on emotion, which is often fragile and fleeting.
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© Vicki Tidwell Palmer, LCSW (2018)
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