Hi Chump Lady,
What do you think about someone cheating when they’re younger in life and actually really not being that personality type, like learning the lesson?
After being chumped myself in midlife, and healed enough to not cry during every infidelity conversation, I’ve learned that many more people have infidelity stories than I thought. With full adults, I don’t buy at all the “it just happened” or “I did it once and swore to myself I’d never do it again, and haven’t”. But when someone is talking about their late teens or college years, that whole pre-frontal cortex not developed thing…. It kind of does make sense to hurt someone and realize they didn’t want to hurt people.
I guess also, I did sleep with a married man when I was that age. He’d said he was only married for immigration reasons (his wife was a foreigner) and after briefly meeting her one day I realized that she thought it was a real marriage, and he was just a scumbag liar who’d given me an STI. I never talked to him again and avoided married men in the future (even if they said they really weren’t *all* that married). It just seemed gross to date liars, was my pre-development pre-frontal cortex understanding.
Of course, I plan to warn my kids about all three sides of that entanglement, how being cheater and/or affair partner just suck. And of course how being a chump isn’t the chump’s fault, and liars can be real con-artists. It would be nice to save them some pain.
But do you have hope that youngsters who cheat can figure this out before the big attachments and betrayals come when they’re older?
No, I don’t believe “once a cheater, always a cheater.” Although I’m often tarred with that brush, I go to great lengths to explain my skepticism about reconciliation is based on the perks of entitlement. Cheating is an abusive power dynamic that reaps real rewards — more for me! less for you!
To enjoy cheating, you have to suppress empathy for your partner — and if you’re the Schmoopie, you have to suppress it for the chump.
I think the longer you live with the rewards of entitlement, the more that behavior is reenforced. Consequences matter. And so does the larger societal conversation around cheating as uncool. (But that’s an essay for another day.)
Of course there are people who are wired wrong — character disorder, personality disorder, sociopathy — whatever flavor of effed up you want to call it, the empathy synapses don’t fire. Google “callous unemotional traits” if you want to go down the rabbit hole of the science on this. I don’t hold out hope for these folks as they’re congenitally predatory, IMO.
But not everyone who cheats is mentally ill. Some people are just assholes. Now here’s where it gets tricky:
My partner is just an asshole! I see a unicorn!
Chumps start huffing the hopium.
I argue: maybe being an asshole works for them. See Entitlement.
And this whole argument about cheater potential and can they really be different next time sidesteps the more important argument for chumps of Is This Relationship Acceptable To Me?
But when someone is talking about their late teens or college years, that whole pre-frontal cortex not developed thing…. It kind of does make sense to hurt someone and realize they didn’t want to hurt people.
Yes, learning how to have a relationship is a skillset. And as young people we often fuck it up, or are very naive, or cluelessly arrogant, and that’s how we learn.
Uh, Tracy, I know better than to cheat on someone! I’ve known that since kindergarten!
Okay, excellent. You have a strong moral compass. Most people are wishy-washier, open to persuasion, unsure of themselves. Especially as teenagers and young adults.
People can be shitty and learn from it. Best to work that out in the training wheels stage of life, before the deep sunk costs of a mortgage, children, and a shared life.
It’s one thing to two-time someone when you’re 18, it’s quite another to conduct a double life as an adult. I imagine by the time a cheater is an adult, they’ve been practicing the art of entitlement for awhile. That’s been their relationship skillset.
That’s why I think it’s important to tell your kids about cheating, how to judge someone’s character (actions align with words, over time), how to know your worth and never pick me dance for anyone’s attention — and to immediately DUMP anyone who cheats on them. CN, I’d be curious to know what kind of conversations you’ve had on this front.
To trot out that old Maya Angelou quote:
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”