Until the day I actually cheated on my boyfriend, I never thought I was someone who could become a cheater. When I was younger and imagined my adult existence, I fantasized about a dramatic, "complicated" love life, sure — one where I had frequent, passionate, and torturous love affairs (watching Moulin Rouge once a week will do that to you). But the fantasies never involved a dude on the side.
The stereotype about people who cheat is that they're all sleazy, amoral nightmares who think that their right to sexual novelty trumps their partner's trust and feelings. And while surely some cheaters fit this bill, not all of them do. I certainly didn't seem like a prime candidate for infidelity. As a love-obsessed (some might say love-starved) person who cared far more about nailing down a serious relationship than school or work, I seemed much more like someone who would be cheated on than someone who would cheat. And when I did cheat, it wasn't because I was uncontrollably horny for strange penis. It was because I was messed-up and immature, and didn't know how to deal with my problems in a grown-up way.
Of course, I didn't understand any of this at the time. I couldn't figure out why I had cheated, or what it meant about me and my relationship. It goes without saying that in an ideal world, everyone would be too mature, caring, and kind to cheat. But in our world, sometimes good people do screw up and cheat. (Notice that I didn't say "slip up." I don't think cheating is ever a momentary mistake with no greater significance regarding your life or your relationship.) If you are one of those people, and you're currently trying to understand how you could have possibly done such a terrible thing, read on. I'm not a counselor or any other kind of licensed professional. I'm just a woman who made a mistake, and has tried very hard to grow from it.
1. You Can't Just Forget About It
When I agreed to get a drink with a guy who wasn't my boyfriend, I kind of knew what I was getting into. I had had plenty of male friends, and could tell that this dude's vibes were far from platonic. However, once we actually hooked up, my first reaction was to panic in the manner of so many cheaters before me. "How do I make this go away??"
The first thing to know about cheating is that "just forgetting about it" is not on the table. It's not even in the same room as the table. Even if you go on some kind of mission to destroy all the "evidence," you still have your memory of what you did, and how it has changed your perception of yourself. You have the option of acting like nothing happened, certainly. But the odds that you'll actually be able to "forget" and go on with your life as usual are pretty much nil. And I think that's a good thing (more on that later).
2. You May Not Get "Caught"
There's some accepted wisdom out there that all cheaters are eventually outed. I think this applies a bit more to serial cheaters or people who carry on affairs (a phenomenon that I don't feel qualified to comment on). But plenty of folks who cheat once don't get caught. I didn't. And while I was afraid of dealing with my boyfriend's sadness and anger if he found out, I realized over time that I was more afraid of not being busted. I had subconsciously decided to cheat because I wanted out of our relationship, but was too immature and needy to end it on my own.
So even if you don't get busted, you're still stuck in the same (unsatisfying) relationship you were in before all this happened. This will likely change the way you feel about yourself, and probably change the way you interact with your partner. In my case, it exacerbated my relationship problems (duh), leading me to both overreact to everything my boyfriend did and fall over myself to apologize for any tiny thing I ever did wrong, because I felt so guilty. Things are going to be different in your relationship from now on, no matter what your partner knows or believes happened.
3. There's A Reason You Did This
And you need to figure out what it is ASAP. Don't tell yourself that your cheating was something that "just happened" or blame it on booze — last I checked, plenty of people manage to hit up a happy hour without getting a stranger's tongue lodged in their face.
As eHarmony's advice experts put it, "Typically, cheating is not an isolated incident. It’s a reflection of your state of mind and, in some cases, a reaction to what’s missing in your current relationship or life in general." Maybe you want to break up with your partner, but aren't sure how. Maybe you don't want to be in a serious relationship, but think that that is just what people your age are "supposed" to do at this point in life. Maybe you have issues with communication or honesty that tie back to how your parents treated each other, and you've always been too scared to really examine them. For me, cheating was an emotional crisis which showed me that the things about my approach to life and relationships that were unhealthy. So you can't just brush it under the rug; the fact that you cheated is larger than the sum of its parts. And I do believe that a failure to acknowledge and deal with whatever the problem is which motivated you to cheat in the first place puts you at risk for cheating again.
My cheating showed me that I had a boatload of issues regarding maturity and how I handled relationships. It was one of the things that motivated me to enter therapy, which has been one of the most rewarding decisions I've made in my life.
Oh, and just a heads up: No matter what you decide, don't expect your S.O. to forgive you. There's no way to "earn" that forgiveness. If they decide to forgive you, that's their decision, but you are absolutely not entitled to it, no matter how sorry you are, how good a reason/explanation you have for why you did what you did, how many gifts you buy them, or how often you now let them check your phone for texts.
4. You Need To Make A Definitive Decision
So you've figured out that there's a reason you did this. And since there's a reason, you need to decide what you're going to do with this knowledge. Just as you can't bank on forgetting about it, you also can't bank on whatever led you to behave like this just going away on its own. You need to decide what specific course of action you're going to take now. Will you break things off with your partner? Tell your partner and deal with the consequences, whatever they are? Not tell your partner? Enter therapy? Some experts say that telling the truth is always the best option. Others advise keeping a one-time infidelity to yourself — though if your cheating involved actual sex (especially unsafe sex), you owe it your partner to be honest so that they can look after their health.
I'm not telling you what to do, or what I think is the best option. But I do think you need to decide on a plan of action. You have cheated, and there will be consequences, whether from your partner or in your own head. So decide how you're going to deal with them. I personally decided to commit to breaking up with my boyfriend, which I knew was terrifying but necessary.
5. You Will Feel Worse Than You Dreamed Possible
Or at least, I did. Before I cheated, my relationship was falling apart and my S.O. and I could barely stand each other, so I didn't expect to feel particularly bad afterward ... but I did. I fell into a deep period of sadness and confusion. If I was capable of this, I thought, who knew what other dark sh*t I was capable of?
I had wrongly assumed that cheating might provide a self-esteem boost. By this point in time, my BF wasn't making much of a secret of that fact that he found me exhausting, and I thought being around a guy who seemed to think I was smart and cool would make me feel better about myself. But it didn't work like that. I didn't feel liberated, or even particularly sexy. I felt like a cruel loser who probably deserved an even crappier life than the one I already had.
To be clear, the problem here isn't how badly you feel; it's that you did something sh*tty and disrespectful which has the potential to truly hurt a person who trusted you. The fact that it probably won't even make you feel good is the icing on the cake.
6. You Won't Necessarily Cheat Again
I have a lot of beef with the phrase "Once a cheater, always a cheater." Not only because it generalizes in a thoroughly unhelpful way, but also because it shoves honest discussion of how and why we cheat away from the daylight. If anyone who admits that they have ever cheated is going to get a scarlet "A" painted on their chest, no one is ever going to admit it publicly, and we're never going to be able to have a larger discussion about why cheating happens, and the feelings we're really expressing when we do it.
So no, there is absolutely no guarantee that you will cheat again. And remember that just because you did it once doesn't mean you're now morally bankrupt and are destined to keep acting out this pattern in every future relationship.
7. You Don't Have To Think Of Yourself As A "Cheater" Now
Even though cheating once in no way means that you'll eventually cheat again, it will likely change your sense of who you are. Even after I broke up with the guy I cheated on, I still thought of myself as a "cheater" — a bad, untrustworthy person who would destroy any worthwhile relationship that I found myself in. This thinking quickly landed me in other relationships that were just as bad as the one I'd left.
I was so terrified that I'd cheat again that I subconsciously sought out guys who didn't seem terribly invested in me. I didn't end up cheating on them, but many of them ended up cheating on me. When we wear an identity that we're ashamed of, even if we don't ever tell anyone else about it, we can allow it to shape decisions for us. I spent a lot time feeling that I needed to be "punished" by dating people who didn't value me and convincing myself that they'd value me even less if they knew the truth.
When I met the man who is now my husband, I decided I was going to do everything differently. One thing I did was tell him the truth about my past. I thought he deserved to know he was falling in love with a cheater (which was still how I thought of myself, even though I never cheated again). I was afraid that being honest about it would make him keep his distance from me, or decide to not trust me. But instead, we talked about why it happened. He told me that though he had never cheated, he understood how it could happen. He didn't think I was a monster; he thought I was a person who had made a mistake, and had tried to learn from it. And slowly, I began to think of myself in the same way.
Images: Gabrielle Moss; Giphy