Here in the real world, people come with baggage. And in the world of dating and relationships, that baggage can get especially heavy with each subsequent ended union. While you may have your list of non-negotiable traits you seek in a partner (maybe it has to do with religion or thoughts on children or pets or something else entirely), an open mind is also a smart tool to always keep sharpened. Because relationships get complicated and end for a number of reasons, so holding onto a checklist may shield you from meeting your soul mate. That said, there are also a number of complicated caveats to consider: Like, what if you find out that your partner cheated in a past relationship? Can you still trust them? Should you run for the hills?
According to one expert who literally wrote the book on cheating, not necessarily. In When You’re the One Who Cheats, sex and relationship therapist Tammy Nelson, PhD, explores adultery from the cheater’s perspective to gain insight about what motivates the behavior and also what to do about it. (“There are no books out there for the cheaters, just the cheated on,” she says, pointing out this is a huge gap in understanding interpersonal relationships holistically.)
The biggest misunderstanding about cheaters, she says, is the notion of “once a cheater, always a cheater.” “Although there may be some truth to it for some; there are a few indicators to look out for when someone is a serial cheater,” Dr. Nelson says. Below, she outlines four signs that a transgression in your partner’s past may actually be part of a pattern, and thus, it may be worth taking an audit of your trust. (And if all else fails, you could just binge-watch Keeping Up With the Kardashians.)
1. Has issues with self-esteem
For some, pursuing affairs might be a means to momentarily raise low self-esteem—and doing it perpetually can be a subconscious exercise to prove something to oneself.
“Sometimes people cheat to prove their worth, to show that they are good enough, or worthy enough, or desirable, and cheating can be a way to fill a gap in their self-esteem.” —Tammy Nelson, PhD
“Sometimes people cheat to prove their worth, to show that they are good enough, or worthy enough, or desirable, and this can be a way to fill a gap in their self-esteem,” Dr. Nelson says. “For those whose self-esteem is low enough, the repetitive nature of their chronic affairs can have a pressured quality, where one affair isn’t enough, where they have to continue to prove themselves over and over. Because the reality is, being with another person will never prove that they are truly good enough to themselves.”
2. Blames exes for the demise of past relationships
Across the board, it’s a problem if your partner refuses to accept any responsibility for a failed relationship. And it’s especially troubling if this is the stance for numerous relationships. It takes two to tango, we’re all adults here, and all those cliches apply. When you place all the blame on an ex, there’s not much room for personal growth or healthy self-reflection. Often, serial cheaters won’t accept responsibility for their own indiscretions and choices, Dr. Nelson says, even if they contend they did it for good reason.
“Cheaters should stop blaming their partner for their affair,” she says. “No matter how unhappy or angry they are with their spouse, they should stop using the excuse that their partner ‘deserves’ the affair.'”
3. Has commitment issues
While finding monogamous companionship can sometimes feel as hopeful as searching for water in the Sahara thanks to dating apps and social media and the universe, the commitment issues at play here rise after all that baseline stuff is supposedly settled. What we’re talking about is different: playing the field long after a ring is on a finger or, at the very least, Tinder is deleted from the phones of everyone involved.
But, there are so many avenues to now to explore…umm, opportunities. Dr. Nelson points to widespread use of the dating website for those seeking affairs Ashley Madison, which she says has 60 million users, with 15,000 signing up every day. “This perpetual vetting could mean that both men and women are struggling to feel happy in long-term marriages,” she says. After all, if the grass is always greener, it doesn’t help anyone’s fidelity to look at a bunch of lawns.
4. Is highly compulsive
This can lend itself to sexual, emotional, and general obsessive behaviors—because the goal isn’t gratification anymore, it’s seeking that becomes the whole pursuit. And that points to forming a pattern. “When a cheater repeats the same behavior over and over (here, having sexual and/or emotional affairs repetitively), then it becomes compulsive, and the need for an affair is no longer about seeking excitement or love, or passion, it is the act of seeking.” Dr. Nelson says.
If you’re having trouble dealing with news that your partner has a cheating transgression in their past, or you suspect something sinister could be going on in your relationship now, these signs can provide helpful insight for you to think on. But, people are complex, and if your partner is, say, having a self-esteem issue, it isn’t automatic cause for romantic concern. Basically, don’t take any of these tips in isolation, and when in doubt, communicate with your partner. And if you have problems with chronic cheating, Dr. Nelson advises that you seek the help of a therapist who focuses on cheating.
“Infidelity is anything but simple,” Dr. Nelson says. “As much as we want to think cheaters are bad people, most want to be honest. They want to tell the truth.”
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