It’s difficult to admit that you’ve cheated on someone, and even more difficult to admit that you’ve been cheated on.
For me, being cheated on means that I’ve been betrayed. If the person who’s supposed to care most for me went to great lengths to hide inappropriate behavior, then I can never think of them the same way after that. It’s a breach in loyalty like no other, and no matter how the damage seeks to be repaired, it’s over for me no matter how long I beat the dead horse and try to keep the relationship going.
When I was 17, I found myself in my first serious relationship. James* had admitted to cheating on his ex-fiance, but I truly believed that he’d never do the same to me. When I found naked pictures from dozens of different girls in his phone when we were eight months into our relationship, I confronted him to no avail — he insisted that I was the disloyal one for disregarding privacy and going into his phone, and therefore it forfeited my right to ask any questions. If I demanded to speak about it more and facilitate an interrogation, he would threaten to end things.
Being young and impressionable, I let myself get conned into thinking that I was in the wrong. Wasn’t it horrible that I went through his phone? Surely we were both in the wrong. I maintained to put the infidelity out of my mind and move forward because I believed that I did something bad, too — something James said was just as bad.
My discovery of my boyfriend’s cheating was the beginning of the end of any normalcy we’d had before. Before I found the pictures, everything was pretty average. But after this event, months of verbal and emotional gaslighting and sometimes even outright abuse were triggered. I became spiteful, and it wasn’t long before I myself began cheating.
I know how terrible that sounds, but I believe my excuse to be valid.
In a world where I was a child and my 30-something adult boyfriend decided to stop having sex with me when he found out that I’d been abused as a child, cheating was an easy escape from reality. It was difficult to be young and in a sexless relationship where I was berated regularly, but I also believed that I loved that person too much to let them go. Now that I am older and have experienced this roller coaster of lying and being lied to, I know that I should have left the moment I found out that he was cheating. But before I knew that, I believed wholeheartedly that no one else would ever love me.
For the next three years, I’d go on dates as though I didn’t have a boyfriend. I was a willing participant in casual sexual internet interactions and slept around pretty recklessly. It was my all-time low. Eventually, I told James about the cheating with the hope that he’d break up with me and that I’d be forced to answer for my crimes, but he swore up and down that he wanted to stay together. Once the abuse from him became excused by my cheating, I knew it was time to leave.
From that point on, I became obsessively devout and outspoken on the idea that cheating is an inhuman disregard of a person’s feelings and that I would never live a life of lying or being lied to ever again. I was a changed woman. After some time passed, I met Jacob* and each of us connected through the fact that we’d both been severely disregarded with gaslighting and physical, verbal, and emotional abuse in our last relationships. We even admitted our previous infidelities to each other and vowed that whether or not we were going to be together, living changed lives was a top priority for both of us. We came together on the decision that almost everything in a relationship could be worked on, but that neither of us would tolerate abuse or cheating ever again. We’d sooner leave and say our goodbyes.
Jacob is truly the love of my life and we have the most beautiful relationship that I’ve ever known, either in real life or in fairytales like The Princess Bride. In this relationship, loyalty is paramount and love is the leading feeling that drives our happiness. We immediately set our boundaries and it’s made the feeling of trust possible for me again.
I’ve often heard the phrase once a cheater, always a cheater. Because of how sacred and protected my relationship is to me and because it’s now ingrained in me to leave before I’d ever so much as dare to even look at someone else, this phrase hurts. I’ve put in countless months of self-reflection and have carefully crafted my words, thoughts, and actions to be the product of a new credo just to hear this phrase come out of so many mouths. It makes me wonder if I’m crazy for actually believing that I’ve changed. Am I through with looking at other people as a temporary moment of happiness in my life, or because I am actually a changed person?
When I openly admitted to my friends about my checkered past of cheating, they assured me that they believed I changed because of what they’d seen in my new relationship. And yet I still heard that phrase I hate so much when they were talking about men they hated. When I thought about my ex, I was pretty sure that he couldn’t change either.
My ultimate conclusion on this matter is that all of this runs on a case-by-case basis. If we keep finding ourselves in relationships with the same kinds of people, then every relationship is just going to be a sick parody of the last. Have you ever noticed that victimization works in the same way, too? When you think of yourself and many of your friends, you might notice that the same people find themselves being cheated on in every relationship no matter what. This is not and will never be the victim’s fault — but it will keep happening until they break free of the cycle of dating the same type of person over and over again.
No one should be judged by a single action when larger problems like abuse are at play.
I can personally attest to the fact that I would never cheat again, and that I’d even take back the past if I could. I know with utter conviction that I am not forever a cheater. I’m sure that hearing that once a cheater, always a cheater is not true may be deeply inconvenient from some people and that it may even illicit anger. I can only speak for myself, though, and I want everyone to believe that no one should be judged by a single action when larger problems like abuse are at play — and to keep in mind that we often don’t know the whole story when we hear about someone cheating. I encourage both myself and everyone I know to challenge this mindset.
No matter what take you have on this issue, I hope that you know that you always have the power to break the cycle of bad relationships. Instead of cheating, we should always strive to move on. Breaking up is hard to do, but living a lie is harder.