DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I have been a loyal reader of your column for a long time now and always think you give great advice and really get to the heart of things. My question isn’t really asking for advice so much as asking what your thoughts are on something I’ve noticed a lot in comment sections and online discussions, both on this site and lots of other places (and in offline life too)!
Backstory: Ten years ago, I cheated on my husband, which resulted in us getting a divorce. I had lots of reasons for cheating (my husband was emotionally distant, the thrill of something new, the fact that the other person was moving away and there was a heightened sense of “now or never” to it), but the bottom line is that I cheated, and it was a horrible dick move, and although I’m happier now that I’m out of that marriage, that was definitely not the right way to go about self-destructing it. I was entirely in the wrong and I feel bad about it, but at this point there’s nothing I can do to change what happened.
My question is that there’s this culture of unforgiveness when it comes to cheaters, and it bothers me. I know what I did back then was wrong, but so many people act like cheaters are irredeemable assholes who should never be trusted in a relationship again no matter what. Even outside of the dating world, infidelity is talked about like it’s something that is just a permanent moral failure that can’t ever be forgiven. I’ve had friends who pretty much dumped me when they found out why my marriage failed. I’ve had co-workers make snide remarks about me being untrustworthy. I haven’t really gone back out into the dating world (I’ve been happy to be single), but if/when I do decide to get back out there, I’m afraid I’ll be outright rejected because of it. I try not to really advertise what happened, but I live in a small community, so people tend to find out even if I don’t say anything.
Again, I take responsibility for what I did. I would never claim that it was a good thing or that it was justified, and if I could go back in time and change things, I definitely would. So I’m not asking you or your readers to say that cheating is A-OK and I didn’t do anything wrong, because it’s not and I did. It’s just kind of discouraging to think that I’m always going to be seen as untrustworthy and unforgivable for something that happened one time a decade ago that I realize was a mistake.
Is there any forgiveness in society for a cheater? Should there be? How can I address this when people find out about my past?
Thanks in advance for your thoughts. You rock.
Once a Cheater
DEAR ONCE A CHEATER: There’re a few things going on here, OaC.
The first is that we, as a culture, treat infidelity as a universal and inevitable wrong, the worst thing that you could do to somebody. Some of this stems from old cultural fears of hidden parentage and the anxiety around the idea of being “tricked” into raising somebody else’s child instead of your own. Some of it comes from a sense of possessiveness – the anger that comes from “somebody touched my stuff!” Another portion comes from the betrayal of trust, or fears of the loss of affection or the potential exposure to sexually-transmitted infections. And still more comes from the way that we equate monogamy with romantic love and the idea that if you love someone you only want them. So when somebody cheats on their partner, they’re in effect committing a crime against love itself.
The next is that many people have a fear of being cheated on. Call it insecurity, call it free-floating anxiety, call it low self-esteem, but lots of people live in near-mortal fear that their partner is going to step out on them and what does this say about them? For many people, the idea that their partner may – or has – cheated on them becomes a referendum on their worth as a person. Maybe they weren’t good enough. Maybe their partner was unsatisfied and decided to go looking for sex somewhere else. Worse: maybe they were being used, a patsy or stepping stone for their partner’s desire to move up the value ladder, as it were. In these cases, cheating isn’t so much about their partner having cheated but the existential threat it represents to their very identity.
Then there are studies that suggest — not prove, suggest — that if someone has cheated in the past, they’re more likely to cheat again in the future. Now to be sure, correlation isn’t causation, but people will take studies like this as iron-clad confirmation regardless of what the data actually says.
Of course, there’re also many people who have had experience with having been cheated on – either directly by having been the betrayed partner, or indirectly, by seeing the pain and heartache it’s caused. Folks who’ve been through this particular experience are more likely to have a lot of negative impressions on someone who’s cheated, regardless of circumstance. Why would they want to be around someone who caused pain like they experienced, either first or second-hand?
And then there’s a psychological blindspot that hits all of us known as The Just World fallacy. The short version of The Just World fallacy is that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. This manifests itself in dating in a multitude of ways, but especially around the concept of cheating. Since being cheated on is a bad thing to go through, it stands to reason that the person who experienced it deserved it to some degree. You can see this in some of the common reactions that people have to finding out that somebody’s partner cheated: he or she must’ve driven their partner to it somehow. Maybe they were frigid or let themselves go or couldn’t satisfy their partner and so the cheater had to look elsewhere.
But at the same time, we also see the cheater as irrevocably bad, because they did a bad thing. Monogamy is one of the few things that we expect people to execute perfectly on the first try; should they slip up, then that’s an indication that they’re an awful person rather than an indicator that monogamy is frequently difficult. Their entire character MUST be in question, because only bad people do bad things. There is often little room for nuance in an infidelity; a one-time moment of weakness and regret is morally equal to a serial adulterer who callously betrays their partners. But part of what infuriates us about cheaters and adulterers is how often they don’t seem to suffer for their actions. This violates the idea of order and justice in the universe – if they’re a bad person, then they should have bad things happen to them, no? Now it’s not just that they’ve transgressed, but they’ve also broken the rules and somehow escaped their punishment. When we believe that morality has a law of cause and effect – for every action, good or bad, there’s an equal consequence – then people who don’t suffer the consequences for their missteps are somehow cheating the system. This outrages us, because we want to see them get their just desserts. And, in it’s own way, this belief gives people the right to be the agent of karma; if the universe won’t punish them, then we will because God forbid that someone not meet a suitably ironic fate for their actions.
Should there be forgiveness for a cheater? I think so, at least for some. Obviously, some people are just a
s… but not everybody is. I’m a believer that not every infidelity is equal, and that there are times when cheating is the least-bad option out of a collection of awful options. I’m also a big believer in people’s ability to grow and change and be better than they were before. When we treat any and all sins as irrevocable, regardless of how someone has changed, then we take away any motivation to seek redemption and to improve. And let’s be real: NONE of us are free from sin or f
k ups or things that we really regret having done.
How do you handle this part of your past, when you dip your toe back into the dating pool? To be quite honest, I’d stuff it down the memory hole; relationships aren’t depositions and we’re not required to air all our secrets and regrets to our partners, especially if it’s no longer relevant. If and when it comes up, then take ownership of it as part of your past. It’s what you did in the past, not who you are now. “I did a stupid thing, back when I was younger and stupider. It was a bad choice that seemed like a good idea at the time and I regret having made it. I wish I could go back and do things differently, but I can’t. All I can do is move forward, now I know better and I wouldn’t make that mistake again.” And then you let it go.
How they react will tell you what you need to know about them. If they’re someone who can’t handle the fact that you’re not a pure and perfect cinnamon roll, but are a flawed and imperfect human like everybody else… well, that’s on them. You now know that the two of you would never have worked and you’re free to find someone who’s right for you.
You did a s
*ty thing, OaC. But that was a long time ago and you’re a different person now. Learn from your mistakes, but don’t let them define you. You’ve lived through your past. Now it’s time for you to create your future, on your own terms.
DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’m a 25 year old male virgin, and I need advice when it comes to reading signs and how to take things to the next step.
I don’t find it particular difficult to talk to people or women but I have 0 experience with women/dating due to suffering with anxiety in my teens. My problem is I have such little experience when it comes to dating that I feel like i have no idea what I’m doing, where to start or what to do if I find myself in the situation.
For example, a few days ago I went out for a few drinks with a girl I work with who I’ve been interested in for a while. On occasion, I get the feeling she feels the same way I do, but I don’t know the signs on how she feels or if I should try to take it further then “work friends”, or how I would progress it from just drinks to maybe more. She seemed open and warm to me, but then cold at times too. I also know she has a lot of stress recently and she’s even said to me she isn’t ready to date somebody so I feel I shouldn’t push it. Even so, there are times where her body language and her outright flirting make me question what I should be doing. I feel so inept with dating or just women in general that if she or somebody else where to give or have given me signs they would go over my head.
I feel like it’s too late for me because when it comes to dating, I feel like a lost little boy.
I Have No Idea What I’m Doing
DEAR I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I’M DOING: Everyone’s gotta start somewhere, IHNIWID, and most of us don’t get an instruction manual when it comes to dating. Now, while I’ve written a book specifically for guys like you to help learn the ins and outs of dating, at the end of the day, what you need to do is just muscle up and take your chance. You can read and study until your eyes bleed and your fingers are worn to the bone, but you’re still going to have to get out there, take your chances and make some mistakes.
None of this is terribly difficult; all you have to say is “hey, I really enjoy the time we spend together and I’d like to see if there’s the potential for more. If you’re interested, I’d love to take you out on a date to do $COOL_THING”. And then you wait. If she says yes, then congratulations, I hope you have an awesome first date. If she says no – or gives you an indirect or “soft no” like “I’m just not ready to date right now” or “I have no time” – then you say “OK, cool, I just wanted to ask.” And then you continue your friendship as though nothing’s changed, because, honestly? Nothing has. She’s still her, you’re still you and it’s only going to get awkward if you make it awkward. If you treat things as if it’s all good, so will she.
But you’re not going to make any progress until you start putting yourself out there, IDKWID. So do some studying to help get ready… but if you want to start getting some experience, you’re gonna have to take a deep breath and dive in.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org)