He Cheated, But What About Breaking Her Vows?

breaking vows

He cheated, but when she thinks about leaving him she feels guilty for breaking her vows. How does she get unstuck from this limbo?


Dear Chump Lady,

I’m on the fence about divorcing my cheating husband. But this is where I get stuck — I made a vow to him.  In good times and in bad. Okay, this is BAD times. Really bad, as in — I frequently fantasize that a tractor rolls over on him and crushes him flat or he dies in a fiery auto wreck. Of course, I immediately feel guilty for such thoughts… but I keep having them.

We’ve had good times too. It’s not always drama. But even when he quits cheating or raging about something, he still can be a real asshole to be around. He’ll try… be loving for awhile, I relax, then the drama flairs up, then dies down. Then it’s normal… then more drama… I don’t want to be a quitter. I think there is a good person in there somewhere. If I abandon him, won’t I make his issues worse? I’m wondering if he is bipolar or something. Then I think, well… if he’s sick, vowed in sickness and in health.

I’ve tried a lot to get him help, but I’m feeling stuck and guilty. I know I should honor my vows, but some days I really don’t want to.


Trying Hard


Dear Trying Hard,

You’re a good person and you sound like you’re stuck in the cycle of abuse (google it). The cycle goes like this — There’s the honeymoon period, then tension builds, then there is a catalyst (like cheating or he rages), then the resulting fall out drama, then he’s super good winning you back with the honeymoon stuff… then tension builds…. then boom! Repeat.

The highs are high and the lows are loooooow. And you can get hooked on the drama. It feels like passion. But it’s really anything but. It’s abuse. Cheating and raging are abuse.

But… that’s not what you wrote me about. You wrote to me about how your concern about breaking your vows is keeping you stuck with a guy you fervently wish dead.

Okay, let’s attack this problem from several angles. First on the religion front — A just and loving God does not want you stuck with an abuser. (Hey, if those wacky right-wing evangelicals can speak for God, I can too.) Adultery, even in the most conservative of religious circles, is a big King’s X when it comes to divorce. You get a pass. Divorce is only serving him papers. A much lighter sentence than stoning him in a public square.

Second, legally when you married you entered a contract. Contracts are only valid when the other side holds up their end of the bargain. You’re not obliged to pay the grifter who says he is going to repave your driveway and then doesn’t, right? Your husband broke his commitment to you, the contract is null. He broke it by cheating and  if he is truly bipolar, he breaks it again by not addressing his considerable issues and seeking help himself. You shouldn’t feel bound to a contract that he doesn’t respect or follow himself.

Third, you worry that “abandoning” him would make his issues worse. On the contrary, leaving him may send him the wake up call that he really needs to get help. Only through consequences do hard headed (and hard hearted) people learn. As my great-grandmother used to say, “If you don’t listen, then you must feel.”

Fourth, you matter. Your life is not one of service to his needs. It’s not your job to get him help. (Folks call that codependency). You can’t control him, and by doing the dance of forgiving him, and making your needs microscopic, and tiptoeing around his volatility, you aren’t going to succeed in improving him. You’re just giving him a green light to continue his crap. It’s OKAY to LAY THIS BURDEN DOWN. Cheating or not treating a mental illness can be a deal breaker. It’s healthy to have deal breakers.

You keep giving him the gift that is your love and attention, that is reconciliation. What is he doing with that gift, Trying? He’s shitting on it. When people shit on your gifts, that’s a clue to stop giving those gifts.

You deserve better. I can tell you that, but only you can believe it. Please dump him and don’t feel one bit guilty.

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11 years ago

I love this post and the cartoon!
Joining the group of “vow-breakers” was painful, but not nearly as painful as it was staying in a marriage like you described above. My life is SO much better on the other side. The sting of failure and the guilt for leaving has been replaced over the years with joy, an awesome partner/husband, and perhaps most importantly, self-respect. Kudos to you Chump Lady for supporting others to expect at least as much as they give!

Ms. Jay
Ms. Jay
11 years ago

Chump Lady you’re “spot on” as usual. I have no regrets about divorcing my “serial cheater” of an ex-husband. After he tried deceiving me for a 2nd time, I knew without a doubt, that he had to get the hell out of my life before he ruined my physical health, mental health and financial security. My ex-husband actually begged me for a reconciliation, but I was having “none of it”. I reminded him that he made a “vow” to me, but more importantly, he made a “covenant” with God. Therefore, I was morally and legally justified in “kicking him to the curb”. Now he walks around looking like a zombie; he’s aged about 15 years since we divorced 2 years ago. He misses all of the “services” that I provided to him for over 20 years (homecooked meals, a clean house and laundry, acting as the family’s social secretary, etc.) plus I worked a full-time job outside of the home. I cherish my freedom and I enjoy spending “quality time” with our teenage daugther (who’s college-bound). I’m also having fun just “hanging out” with my Mom and 3 sister; they’re my best pals. The mere thought of reconciling with my ex-husband gives me the “hives”.

11 years ago

Wish I had read this when I was trying to dump the cheater in my life! It takes some time to let go of the romantic ideals engrained in us and make decisions based in the far less shiny realm of reality.

As a girl that has a codepenant streak that tends to rear its ugly head like frizzy hair on a rainy day, everytime an NPD is in a 10 yard radius, I would definitely suggest that the submitter look into some counseling. It could definitely help keep her recognize patterns of behavior that should be avoided.

11 years ago

My Ex wanted to be a married guy with a girlfriend. He was angry at me for filing for divorce. Of course he blamed me for breaking up the family.

As I told our son: “for better or worse” does *not* include abuse, neglect, abandonment or adultery. The vow does not constitute a blank check for your spouse to treat you badly and you have to take it. At least that’s not what I promised when I got married. The vow is that you will stand shoulder to shoulder when life flings monkey poo at you. You’re not supposed to dig deep and fling poo at each other.

8 years ago

Everyone can tell you that you should leave, but you’re the one who needs to make that decision for yourself. Ask yourself “To what depth does this f-tard have to sink before I break?” If you plan on sticking around, be prepared for answers you can’t even imagine. Abdoned while pregnant. STD’s. Debt. Public humiliation. These people stop at nothing. They’re like crack-headed goldfish… 3 seconds of memory and even less of a conscious. I’m not saying they can’t change. Some can, most probably can’t, but NONE of them are going to do it for you or for your relationship. That shit doesn’t matter to them. If it did, you wouldn’t be here in the first place.
Obviously, you take marriage seriously, like any good hearted person would. You think your Narc doesn’t know that about you? You think that this deceitful abuser hasn’t studied you and all of your triggers so that he can manipulate you? That’s WHAT THEY DO.
It’s a lot to process. You don’t have to make any perma-decisions right now. But please take some no-contact time out, get a good therapist with experience dealing with NP (this is vital, the NP will fuck with your head), and examine your decision. You’re not walking away from your marriage. If you’re like most of the people on this forum, you’re walking away from the executioner of your marriage. You have a right call this one.
Best of luck and stay strong!

Happily Free
Happily Free
4 years ago

I’m a Christian and a faithful church member.
So many people think they have to stay in their marriages because “God hates divorce.”
This is a misunderstanding of God’s heart.
God cares more about people than contracts.
God hates abuse more than divorce.
God hates divorce because of the trauma and abuse that goes along with it.
But in these cases, it is more harmful to stay than to go.
That’s why divorce was first allowed due to hardness of heart; then it was required when men cast wives out for “any cause” so women could move on with their lives.
After reading some material by Debi Pryde, I came to understand that my x’s issues were not my fault, nor my responsibility to fix.
He broke the vows. I was not obligated to keep them.

I believe when Jesus said “except for cases of adultery,” He was giving an example, not being specific. Any kind of persistent abuse is contrary to the wedding vows. He said this when the Pharisees were asking him if they could divorce their wives for any reason they wanted.

My pastor’s wife told me flat out (while I was trying to reconcile) “We’re not going to support you returning to an abusive situation.”