Given how many of us are affected by infidelity ― twenty-one percent of married men and around 15 percent of married women have cheated on their spouses, according to the General Social Survey at the University of Chicago― it’s worth exploring our beliefs about cheaters and their capacity for change. Does “once a cheater, always a cheater” always ring true?
Below, psychologists and therapists who work with couples share their thoughts on whether or not an unfaithful spouse can change their ways.
“Once a cheater, always a cheaters” sells people short.
When we assume “once a cheater, always a cheater,” we deeply underestimate people’s ability to change, said Tammy Nelson, a couples therapist and the author of The New Monogamy: Redefining Your Relationship After Infidelity.
“People who say a cheater can’t change have never felt the awful guilt that comes when you realize you’ve made a terrible mistake by having a one-night stand or an affair,” she said. “They’ve never gone to bed at night staring at the ceiling, wishing there was anything you could do to take back the hurt you’ve inflicted on your partner. If they had, they would perhaps not be so self-righteous in their judgment.”
Before a cheater can change, they have to work through the issues that drove them to stray.
Los Angeles-based therapist Carin Goldstein has seen many people who’ve exited their marriage via an affair ― and she’s seen just as many people stay and try to work through their relationship issues. Goldstein told The Huffington Post that there’s a relatively simple way to know if the person will cheat again, whether it’s in their current relationship or any future ones.
“If the betrayer can take responsibility for what happened, usually after a lot of individual and couples therapy, they tend to stay faithful,” she said. “More than that, they need to acknowledge what caused the breakdown within their relationship and understand what factors pushed them to cheat.”
If the person doesn’t want to do that introspection, it doesn’t bode well for their future as a faithful spouse, Goldstein said.
That said, an unfaithful spouse who blames their partner for driving them to cheat isn’t likely to change.
It’s easy to blame a partner and outside temptations for infidelity ― “he wasn’t giving me enough attention at home so I was vulnerable to having an affair” or “I didn’t plan to get into an emotional affair with my co-worker; it just happened.”
Until a cheater has taken full ownership of their behavior, without blaming others, the behavior isn’t likely to stop, said Sheri Meyers, a marriage and family therapist and the author of Chatting or Cheating: How to Detect Infidelity, Rebuild Love and Affair-Proof Your Relationship.
“If they blame their partner or lack insight into their actions, chances are, they’ll do it again,” she said.
A cheater who feels little remorse for their actions isn’t likely to change, either.
Most people who come into Pennsylvania marriage therapist Christine Wilke’s office after an affair are painstakingly working to rebuild the trust in their marriages.There are certainly exceptions, though.
“It’s a bad sign if the cheating partner is in a hurry for their partner to ‘get over it already,” she said. “Sometimes they will even blame their partner for the affair because they weren’t getting the attention they felt they deserved. When I hear that, it’s a tell-tale sign that serial cheating might be in play.”
The pain infidelity causes the betrayed spouse can be a great motivator for change.
A one-time cheater is a bit like an otherwise law-abiding person who gets a DUI. Shocked by the experience, the guilty party usually changes their ways, said Caroline Madden, a marriage therapist and the author of a number of books on affair recovery.
“A drunk driver knows on an intellectual level that drinking and driving is potentially fatal to themselves or others on the road but until they spend the night in jail, lose their license and pay fines they don’t recognize the extent of the consequences,” she said.
The majority of the unfaithful spouses Madden sees in her office react similarly when faced with the fallout: “They usually don’t realize how devastated their husband or wife would be ― they figured their spouse would just be angry,” she said. “Once they see the damage they’ve inflicted on their loved one, they don’t want to cheat again.”
A cheater can change his or her ways ― but their partner has to be open-minded about it.
“The dismissive mantra of ‘once a cheater, always a cheater’ distorts a person’s ability to see their partner as imperfect, forgivable, and human,” she explained. “These assumptions make it very hard for a couple to rebuild trust and for the individual on the receiving end of the betrayal to trust again.”
If both partners approach the problem with an open mind, it’s possible for a couple to heal and move past infidelity, Higgins said.
“I’ve seen it firsthand with couples I’ve had in my office: Through revitalized commitment and effort you can move on and experience a stronger relationship than ever before,” she said.