When people think of a cheater, they think of a bad person. Images of someone who’s greedy, selfish, and carless arise, and maybe I was some of those things, but I was also a deeply broken individual who ended up using cheating as a coping mechanism. Here’s what I learned from years of being a serial cheater:
Cheating isn’t an inevitable part of a relationship. I come from a family where there was a ton of cheating. I saw it left and right growing up. My grandfather even used to tell me that every man cheated in a relationship. He told me it was inevitable. I think I was eight years old when I got this message, so of course I believed that cheating was just part of the deal. It took many years to see that there are plenty of couples who don’t cheat. I had to witness some healthy relationships to believe this, though!
I thought that healthy relationships didn’t exist. If I believed cheating was inevitable, I also had to believe that healthy relationships didn’t exist. I thought everyone was unhappy, so it was pretty much a free-for-all. Again, it took me witnessing some truly happy couples in order to believe that I could be a healthy half myself.
I held a deep belief that I wasn’t lovable or worthy enough for stability. Even when I did start seeing partners who were kind to me, I would self-sabotage because I thought that I didn’t deserve to be happy. I thought that stability was for people who deserved love and I certainly wasn’t worthy of that. Gosh, if I could go back in time and give my old self a giant loving hug, I would. I’d tell her that she is so worthy of love and she’s the only one standing in her way.
Poor impulse control isn’t part of my DNA — it’s possible to get better at it. I used to tell myself that I couldn’t help it, I was just destined to be a cheater. I honestly believed this because patterns had proved me right time and time again. In some ways, there was a grain of truth to this. I struggle with mental health issues, bipolar in particular, where two clinical side effects are hyper-sexuality and cheating on romantic partners. Still, once I was able to get treatment, I had more room to make new patterns in my life and control my impulses. I’m not doomed.
Alcohol was poisonous for me and my relationships. Beyond mental health issues, I also abused alcohol. I binge drank and used booze to lower my inhibitions. Alcohol was a fair-weathered friend, though. It promised fun, relief, and excitement, but what I really got was destruction and pain. Drinking was definitely poisonous to my relationships, since many of the times I cheated, I was drunk.
The urge hasn’t really gone away, I’ve just learned to live with it. This is embarrassing to admit because I’d love to tell you that I’m totally cured and perfect now, that cheating is never on my mind. On the contrary, these patterns run deep. It’s only been three years that I haven’t acted on cheating urges whereas I spent almost a decade being a serial cheater. Have you ever heard of “50 miles into the woods, 50 miles out?” I’ve still got a long way to go, but now I know how to quell the urge without acting on it and ruining everything.
“Keeping score” and “one-upping” never turn out well. There were a few relationships where I was cheated on or I didn’t like what my partner had done. I kept score in my mind of every time I was wronged and I used that anger to lash out myself (usually through cheating). This is no way to be in a relationship with another person. Playing games like this is the opposite of love. It’s hard to swallow my pride and to sit on my hands when a partner does something stupid or mean, but it ends up being worth it in the long-run.
It’s just as harmful to be the “other woman” as it is to hurt my own partner. Even if I was single, I still lived the serial cheater life. I slept with men who had partners and I didn’t care. I told myself that it was their girlfriend’s problem for being stupid enough to date a jerk. I really had a twisted sense of reality! This thinking crept into my mind somewhat recently as I found myself having feelings for a married man. What helped me to move away was cutting off contact entirely and thinking about how his wife would feel. I felt awful and I ran the other direction before anything happened.
Cheating didn’t make me bad or broken. My cheating brought much pain and confusion to my partners. I didn’t treat them with the respect they deserved. Some of them hated me after what happened. I can’t change any of that, but I can change the way that I think about myself. I beat myself up more than they ever could. I thought I was the worst person in the world. In reality, I just needed love. I needed to be told that I was good enough, no matter what sh*t I pulled. I needed to be told I was lovable and worthy. Kind words and showing of love were the only thing that could heal me.
Even cheaters deserve compassion as they’re deeply suffering themselves. I’ll put this out there about cheaters, despite how unpopular it will likely be: they are humans worthy of love and compassion just like everyone else. I know that forgiveness seems like a cop-out, like you’re letting their behavior slide. I can promise you, though, that the only path to healing everyone’s suffering is with love. This doesn’t mean get back with your ex after they’ve hurt you, but it does mean practice having some compassion for them. Otherwise, I think of Gandhi’s saying: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
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