Note: I am aware that people of all genders cheat and get cheated on. Since I am a heterosexual female, I am writing from my own perspective.
Ever been cheated on? The betrayal hurts right in your gut. It feels like you want to scream and cry and hit something. It doesn’t make sense, but the betrayal is so visceral that you feel like questioning everything while simultaneously screaming, “Why did you do this to us!?!” It makes you wonder if your partner ever loved you, or if anything they said was ever true.
No one ever knows how they’ll react to being cheated on before it happens. We may believe that we’d leave straight away, but that remains to be seen until it actually happens. We may have suspected infidelity for months. We may be on the verge of breakdown, wondering if we’re crazy and if all of those late nights at the office meant something more. Once the truth appears and our worst fears are realized, it’s hard to tell how we’ll actually act.
We might think we’ll leave him with no trace, but that is often easier said than done. Will we go over to the other woman’s house and set her lawn on fire? We might certainly feel like it. Will we forgive? Does he even want forgiveness? Was it a one-time drunken mistake or a years-long romantic affair? Did he lie a lot? There are so many potential situations and reasons why men have affairs.
After the initial gut-punch of shock, it’s easy to start thinking about the other participant in the action — the other woman. Who is she? Did she know about me? Why would anyone tear up my family? Does he love her?
If he promises he doesn’t love her and it was “just a fling,” we might feel hope, as though his affections haven’t been transferred once and for all, away from us.
Then, with enough consideration and mental gymnastics, sometimes we transfer fault over to her. The other woman isn’t always in front of us, and unless we caught them together, she’s often a construct, an idea. Sometimes she is so very real to us — our best friend, or our sister. Sometimes she's a random woman from a bar. Sometimes we feel compelled to seek her out and tell her who we are and see what her reaction is. Is she prettier, smarter, better off than us? Why was he interested in her? Does she have something I don’t? There are so many questions.
Whoever she was, often we take the responsibility off our spouse’s shoulders and spread it around like fertilizer. Some of it even lands on us and we think, “maybe I didn’t give him enough sex,” or “I’ve been distant lately, maybe this is my fault.” It’s so easy to internalize cheating and make it somehow our fault. If we’re particularly lacking in a healthy support system, our so-called friends may actually say “well, it’s your fault — you’ve gotten frumpy.” Ouch. No matter what anyone says, the truth is likely not as vicious as the thoughts that race through our own heads about ourselves.
If our spouse wants to reconcile, we may want so desperately to believe that his pleas for forgiveness are genuine and that he would never do it again. We would love to believe that he really was temporarily insane and this other nasty siren was the reason why. We want to think that it can’t happen again — and that the other woman was an isolated case. So we pack up the blame neatly and send it over to her, telling ourselves that she must be the real culprit. After all, how could anyone parachute into another woman’s family like that?
The problem with blaming the other woman for our spouse’s infidelity is that it keeps us stuck. Since we’ve subtly shifted the blame away from the person who was supposed to care about us, who promised to be faithful and never cheat, we remove his ability to show us who he is. Good or bad, angel or demon, we take his responsibility away. If we delude ourselves into believing that he was helpless in the face of a seductress, he can neither take full responsibility and repair the relationship, nor can he own it and ride off into the sunset. We’ve given his power away without his consent. After all, he was the adult who made the decision to stray.
An argument exists that if no one got involved in long term relationships that it would “solve infidelity” and no one would be able to cheat. This is a silly notion, since it leaves out the possibility that the other person involved could have been lied to entirely — he could have never told her he was married, or told her that you were a demon. The other woman, after all, is just a woman. It’s easy to believe that a man’s marriage is “nearly over” and his wife “starves him for attention.” It is also relatively uncommon for a man to announce to his mistress that he’s perfectly happy with his wife and he really just wants to get his rocks off with different people under the veil of secrecy.
That’s why placing blame on the other woman misses the point. If we keep blaming her, someone outside the marriage, the hard work of change is just that much harder. If he could be seduced by this magical creature, couldn’t he be seduced by any magical creature that comes along at any time? If he asks for forgiveness, we can’t give it to him unless he takes full responsibility. Your spouse was the one who went outside the boundaries of marriage. The blame lies squarely with him. Admitting this opens up the possibility to move forward — whether that means forgiveness or separation. A proper delegation of responsibility means that clarity is within reach.