What goes through someone’s mind after they cheat? A million different things.
The following letter is a fictitious note written by a regretful partner trying to save a relationship after infidelity. The letter may be made up but the feelings and worries it describes and my response (that’s part two of this post!) are very real.
I didn't mean to cheat.
I didn’t mean to hurt you.
I didn't mean to cause us harm.
Please know this. Please know that I want to make US work.
Truth is, I don't know how to show or express how I feel. I don’t know how to tell you how much our relationship means to me. Sometimes, it’s hard for me to even wrap my head around how much I love and need you.
I feel funny being honest. I've always kept secrets. I’ve struggled with this my whole life. I don't like being "needy" because that shows my weaknesses. I hate advice like “just be yourself.”
You’ve told me I hide from you like when I’m on the phone or working extra hours. I think that cheating on you was another way to hide.
I know this doesn’t excuse any of it but when I met that person at my work event they didn’t ask anything of my heart or the “real me.” It was possible just to be in the moment.
At home with you, there’s so much more on the line. You want so much more from me. And I know that you’re supposed to, that it’s part of being in a relationship, but I just feel like I don’t know how to do it right.
I’m sorry. I want to make this right. Can you stick by me as I try to fix this?
-- A Regretful Cheater?
The therapist’s response (because it’s possible the partner who has been cheated on isn’t going to know what to say to a letter like this
Dear - “A Regretful Cheater?”
Infidelity comes in many forms and for many reasons.
From your letter I can see you are suffering and self-sabotaging yourself and within your relationship. You are now expecting your partner to forgive and to see YOU.
Now that you have “physically” acted outside of the relationship and exposed yourself, you are wondering: how can this be fixed?
That’s what I think this evening of infidelity was: a case of “acting out.” And it has something to do with a lifelong habit of “acting” in order to get by. Would it surprise you to think that you’ve been “acting” during other phases of your life and all this acting out is the root of your issue?
What does it means to “act out” your life instead of live your life?
Would it surprise you to know that MANY of us are taught, from a very young age, to retreat from who we really are, from our authentic selves?
As children, we observe our adult caretakers and how they model how we should behave and what we should believe. These messages become our roadmaps to adulthood. Often, these messages teach you that you’re “not good enough.”
You begin a cycle that causes you to look outside yourself for the validation that will make you feel loved, valued, or important. You also feel like you need to pretend to be someone other than who you really are to be accepted. Over time, this affects your self-esteem and it sets you up to act your way rather than authentically live your way through life.
So you seek attention, keep secrets, get stuck self-loathing, and put on a mask to protect yourself.
This is what wearing a mask can do to you and to your relationship.
With this “mask” securely in place, you may feel protected, but you also reduce the opportunities and avenues you might have to express your true self. It’s essentially impossible to maintain an intimate relationship with a partner when you’re acting rather than being yourself. And that causes all sorts of tension at home and makes you want to find an “easy” way to feel good about yourself.
In this case, you turned to someone who could accept your mask and not ask too much from you.
Does this describe what you were looking for that night you cheated?
No accountability, no strings, no need for a future?
These cycles will continue to repeat, unless you and your partner choose to REPAIR. I believe your repair started in your confession and in this letter...
You’re in pain right now.
Do you feel as if you have ALONE caused all this relationship pain, past and present?
Most clients in my office are in pain in some way.
As a couples counselor, I sit with two people trying to work through their shared pain. The three of us muck through these feelings to discover new ways to relate, repair, and re-story your coupleship.
I know you might feel as if you’re the cause of all the trouble in your relationship.
As a couples therapist, I know that you both are doing the best you can and there’s no such thing as a one way street in a relationship.
You and your partner have created a unique “attachment system” together and you’re constantly influencing one another.
From my experience, something like infidelity tends to enter a relationship due to crack in the attachment you two have to one another.
Good thing about cracks, they can be repaired.
I know you reached out for help because you wanted to fix things after infidelity, but what I see as your LARGER issue is the way you are managing your one-person system rather than a two-person system with your partner.
You’re stuck in those old habits of acting and wearing a mask rather than fully living your life as part of a “WE.”
What would happen if you devoted yourself to building a WE that is safe, secure and accepting and supportive? If you don’t feel like you’ve done this even though you’ve been in your relationship for a long time, don’t fear.
Once again you two are not alone in this.
Many couples struggle with this concept.
There are no quick fixes in this space of infidelity, but I do know this:
People do better when they are in an environment that is accepting, supportive, safe, and secure.
Couples Work can provide this.
And you two can transfer the skills you learn in therapy to transform your partnership for you both and generations to come.
Together we ask whether your relationship feels nurturing, accepting, safe, supportive, and secure. If not, the good news is it can be.
As a couple, you can repair this. Using an approach called PACT therapy*, I can help you two to move toward greater collective safety and security in your relationship, which in turn can foster mutual resilience, growth, forgiveness, and healing in your relationship.
You wrote to me because you wanted to believe that it was possible to recover from infidelity. Does this sound like a start for you two?
Susan Stork, LCPC, NCC is a Relationship Therapist and founder Space Between Counseling Services in Baltimore City, Maryland. Susan works with Type A’s ---> Creatives as they balance schedules, stress, and the modern challenges of coupleship. Specializing in counseling for individuals and couples using Stan Tatkin’s PACT approach, Susan helps you move through the muck of life and into a life of purpose and connection.