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Can a cheater change? Depends on whether they’re relationally self-aware

Jenna Birch

Jenna BirchDecember 18, 2019

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Statistics show that about one in five people report having cheated on a partner, and that number seems to rise in older generations. (There’s some research pointing to this partially being due to a person’s genetics.) All of this being true gives some credence to that old saying of “once a cheater, always a cheater,” and leaves an ominous cloud over the question of can a cheater change? So, ummm, can they? And, for the sake of everyone involved being able to sleep at night, how can partners of reformed cheaters build trust?

If your partner has cheated before, either in your relationship or a past one, trusting that it won’t happen again may be a struggle. In this case, it’s important to understand that you are the one controlling your own narrative. But, says clinical counselor Karla Ivankovich, PhD, this narrative is “only as true as you want it to be,” and insecurities could lead to conflict and potentially even the end of the relationship. In this case, don’t panic, and also don’t jump to conclusions, she says.

Instead, says licensed clinical psychologist Alexandra Solomon, PhD, focus on answers to questions that may help you feel better about the state of your relationship and its future: “How much remorse do they feel? Do they take responsibility for their actions? Have they forgiven themselves? What have they learned about themselves as a result of the cheating? How do they define fidelity? How committed are they to practicing fidelity? What are the things they do now to ensure they stay in their integrity?”

“Relational self-awareness is an ongoing curious and compassionate relationship you have with yourself that creates the foundation for a happy and healthy intimate relationship.” —psychologist Alexandra Solomon, PhD

Make sure to go about this process with love, not anger or fear at the forefront. “Your fear is understandable, but being accusatory is likely to put your partner on the defensive and keep you from getting the reassurance you need,” Dr. Solomon says. As you listen to the answers, she says to look for signs about how relationally self-aware your partner is. “Relational self-awareness is defined as an ongoing curious and compassionate relationship you have with yourself that creates the foundation for a happy and healthy intimate relationship.”

Relational self-awareness is key to deciphering the answer to can a cheater change, because, Dr. Solomon says, relationally self-aware people take responsibility for their actions and learn lessons from mistakes. A story of infidelity from someone who is relationally self-aware might then look something like this: “I cheated in my last relationship. When the infidelity came to light, I was deeply ashamed and confused about my behavior, so I started therapy and began to understand why I was vulnerable to betraying my partner’s trust. I recognize now that I was acting out an old dynamic. I am committed to living differently now.”

On the other hand, people who lack relational self-awareness may fail to mention infidelity until it comes to light in another way, or they might place blame elsewhere or demonstrate they’ve learned nothing as a result, Dr. Solomon adds. That story may look something like this: “I cheated in my last relationship. My ex was crazy. I was miserable. There’s nothing to say about it beyond that. I’m fine. We’ll be fine. Don’t worry about it.”

If your partner seems to lack relational self-awareness or come across as dismissive, Dr. Ivankovich says to heed caution. “There is a greater likelihood that a cheater will not cheat again if they do the work to find out why they cheated, recognize the gravity of their actions, and then take the responsibility and time to heal that part of themselves,” she says. “If the person still blames the ex or failed to evaluate the reason they thought another person was a better answer than their partner, there is a strong possibility they will cheat again.”

And if you know your partner has a history of infidelity but you have no reason to believe any act of cheating has occurred during your relationship? “You might be able to seek solace in your lived experience of your partner’s fidelity,” says Dr. Solomon. And if or when you do feel bothered or triggered by a certain action—like if your partner’s been getting home super late or if they’ve been unresponsive to texts and calls during certain windows of time—be open about how these acts make you feel. “Work with your partner to create a vision for how the two of you will practice healthy boundaries.” Maybe that means they call if they will be late; whatever it is, decide together.

But if all is going well, and you’re both deeply committed to each other’s well-being, past infidelity does not need to end a relationship. Because “once a cheater, always a cheater,” is just a phrase, and if you and your partner are dedicated to nurturing your healthy relationship, it doesn’t need to be your reality.

Still not sure on the answer to can a cheater change? If they’re a serial dater, the answer’s probably no. Here are signs to look for. And, maybe you need some time to decide whether or not you can be with a partner who’s cheated in the past. Here’s an expert’s take on whether or not it’s ever a good idea to take a break.

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