Why is it so hard to remember that they suck? What makes hapless chumps so prone to pity and compassion, even after our spouse has attempted every position in the Kama Sutra with our best friend from college?
We are all at varying stages in the process — suffering the first pangs of horror and panic attacks after learning of the ultimate betrayal, followed by the slow, but still sharp pain of realization of how badly we were deceived by the one person we trusted most with our hearts. And the RAGE that seems as if it might consume us from within, but which finally propels us to take the steps necessary to disengage from our marriage or union and look ever so slightly into the future at what life will be like post-divorce. A sigh of relief — the divorce is final, settlement is settled, no-contact is in place (as well as it can be if we are co-parenting with the cheater), the anger subsides, and then….we start to miss them, to edit the past and remember the good times with the person we thought they were.
What’s up with that? Month after month, our cheaters got carpal-tunnel system from texting their APs, sneaked away from family events to bang the babysitter or the next door neighbor or a graduate student or a co-worker, bought the APs fancy dinners or gifts that we never saw the likes of. And we MISS them? Get nostalgic for the happy times? Huh?!
It’s normal. In fact, we’re programmed to do so. Just like the hand evolved slowly but surely from flippers over millennia, the mind evolved to cope with thoughts and decision-making in an efficient way. Not necessarily an accurate way. Our minds are pre-ordained to remember some things better than others, to lose those pesky details in favor of sweeping generalizations, to let our emotions seep into memories and decisions. During our marriages, we were subject to the confirmation bias — combing the evidence for any event to channel Sally Fields and believe, as we gaze upon our sex-addled spouse, “You love me! You really love me!!” Evidence that our beloved is having group sex with the entire Chippendale troupe or Dallas Cowboys Cheerleading squad is ignored because he/she passed.us.the.salt.at.dinner. “You love me, you really love me!”
The confirmation bias gets a heavy dose of enabling from cognitive schemata. Schemata (or schema in the singular) are cognitive frameworks or scaffolding we use to organize information, to help fill in missing pieces, to infer what might happen next. For example, in a classic study*, people read passages about commonplace events, like going to the doctor’s office. People remembered more details about events consistent with a schema (e.g., nurse taking one’s blood pressure) than events that were inconsistent, and mentally filled in missing details (e.g., they misremembered that the passage had mentioned having one’s temperature taken). How does this apply to chumps? Most of us have a schema that people are generally good. We filter our attention to recall times where our cheater actually showed some compassion (he drove me to have my wisdom teeth out!) or generosity (she bought me golf balls for Christmas!!). And we conveniently forget the acts inconsistent with our schema for “goodness” — he criticized me for the dinner I made while still drugged up after wisdom tooth extraction; she sold my golf clubs at the garage sale to pay for her Brazilian.
After cheaterpants is out of the picture, retrospective memory exacerbates this tendency. The loser is no longer there to remind us of the quotidian rudenesses we suffered under her or him; we gaze at family vacation photos and are taken back to the wonderful day on the beach, with cheater building sandcastles with the children. Her taking a topless selfie to sext to the AP on that same vacation, or him sending pix of his junk encased in seaweed, is confined to the dustbin of verboten memories.
We also use reasoning biases when we make category decisions, or inferences about what another person is likely to do. One of these is the representativeness heuristic — a tendency to assume an item is in a category by comparing it to a prototype event. For example, imagine you see a small animal out in your yard and try to feed it a nut—the animal is light brown and stands on its back legs; looks like a squirrel, eh? But upon closer examination, someone has taken a skunk, died its fur and taught it to stand upright to resemble a squirrel. Who can blame you for thinking it eats nuts? Not your fault if you get sprayed and have to bathe in tomato juice. Take the faux remorse of our betrayers after D-day. In the movies, among 7-year olds caught eating cookies before dinner and threatened with punishment, weeping and wailing and saying “I’m sorry” correlates with true remorse. In romantic comedies, after an argument and breakup, one partner begs forgiveness and promises undying love, and….happily ever after. SURELY, someone who weeps and wails, who eats pillows, and threatens to not live another day unless we forgive, is truly, wuly sorry! We take the behavioral evidence of cheaters seeking wreckonciliation—actions & words that are representative of shame and regret—and see that as ACTUAL penitence. But painting a skunk brown and teaching it to stand on its back legs, does not make it a squirrel (yup, cheater metaphor). Don’t be tricked into the “happily ever after.” Cheaters are great at the trompe l’oeil; but when you try to walk into that inviting scene of a Tuscany countryside, what you actually run into is cold, hard plaster.
Can we overcome these memory and reasoning biases? Yes, with pencils. Those evil emails, the lascivious texts between cheater and AP, the ILYBINILWY pronouncements, the “I cheated because you turned me down for sex when I was feeling vulnerable” blame-shifting—write it all down. Print out the texts, the emails, the pornographic selfies taken in the bathroom mirror. Keep them in a handy file to read, and re-read, until you accomplish a schema shift. It’s sad, but we need to realize that all people are not good, that even those we trusted with our hearts will trample them if it gets in the way of their next orgasm. We will need reminders, sometimes even after meh, that things were not as they seemed. That while faux remorse resembles real remorse, it is missing essential characteristics, and those features make it analogous to viewing a two-dimensional cartoon character as a live human. After infidelity, what we all need is a cognitive revolution.
What did you do to help remember the awfulness of your cheater, and help propel you to the finish line?