When Love Is a Lie

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After three decades treating people with sex and intimacy issues, I can tell you that almost every cheater I’ve ever worked with has lied to their spouse about the infidelity—and then, in therapy, lied to me about it. They come into my office and insist that they didn’t cheat. And even if they did, it wasn’t their fault.

Eventually, of course, they come clean. But in the beginning, they truly believe that their actions are OK within the context of their relationship.

So let me get this out of the way, right here, right now. This is my clinical definition of infidelity:

Infidelity (cheating) is the breaking of trust that occurs when you keep intimate, meaningful secrets from your primary romantic partner.[i]

Note: This definition does not talk about specific sexual or romantic acts. There is no mention of affairs, porn, strip clubs, hookup apps, webcams, or any other specific behavior because that is not what hurts betrayed partners the most. Cheaters often think, What my partner doesn’t know can’t hurt. But that is not the case. In fact, it is withholding and covering up the truth and the resulting loss of trust that harm betrayed partners the most.

Typically after discovery, partners are less focused on specific acts of betrayal (though they do want to know about them) and more focused on the fact that they can no longer trust a single thing the cheater says or does.

This suggests that for a relationship affected by betrayal to survive and eventually thrive, the cheating partner will have to find a way to re-earn relationship trust.

For that, cheaters must come clean about what they’ve done, accept responsibility for their actions, and become rigorously honest with their words and their behaviors both in the moment and moving forward. Even with that, rebuilding relationship trust can take a year or more.

The process is hindered, of course, when cheaters refuse to own up to their behavior.

Sadly, ongoing rationalization, justification, minimization, and blame happen relatively often after the discovery of infidelity. For some cheaters, it seems, the immediate and best solution to a loss of relationship trust is to continue lying and keeping secrets—only now a bit more effectively.

Those who continue to lie (only better) and get away with it tend to think, “Great, problem solved.” Unfortunately, intimacy issues are most definitely not solved by getting away with anything. When betrayal continues, the betrayer inevitably gets caught again, and then the relationship deteriorates even further. Any hope of renewed relationship trust is, at best, delayed.

Sadly, some cheaters simply refuse to see or admit to the reality of their situation. They blame, justify, minimize, get defensive, and see themselves as victims. They do this even as their relationship disintegrates, and sometimes even beyond that. They simply cannot or will not view themselves as active participants in the relational mess they’ve created. They say things like:

  • “If I was getting enough sex at home, I wouldn’t need to hire prostitutes.”
  • “All I’m doing is looking at porn. It’s not like I’m out there having an affair.”
  • “Everyone masturbates. Who cares if I do it on a webcam instead of in private?

When working with individuals who utter such statements, I typically ask, “OK, if you think that your behavior doesn’t (or shouldn’t) count as cheating, then why did you keep it secret from your partner?”

Nevertheless, the denial sometimes continues. Occasionally, it rises to the level of gaslighting—a form of psychological abuse that involves the insistence that false information as true. With gaslighting, betrayed partners are blamed for misunderstanding a situation, causing a situation, or just being crazy. Basically, the script is flipped and the betrayed partner is made to be at fault: The betrayed partner’s thinking and behavior are turned into the problem, not the fact that the cheater is cheating and denying it. In this way, betrayed partners are made to question their perception of reality.

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Typical gaslighting statements include:

  • “Why do you keep asking me if something is going on? You’re completely paranoid, and it’s destroying our relationship.”
  • “I would never cheat on you. I don’t even look at other people.”
  • “You’re just being crazy, and it really upsets me that you don’t trust me.”

One of the most disturbing facts about gaslighting is that even incredibly smart, emotionally well-adjusted people can fall for it. In part, this is because our natural tendency as human beings is to believe what the people we love tell us. We defend, excuse, and overlook our concerns about their behavior, especially when they seem sincere.

If you are a betrayed partner and your gut tells you that your cheating partner is continuing to lie and keep secrets about infidelity (or aspects of the infidelity), i suggest that you trust your gut. And while you are waiting for your partner to become fully honest with you in an effort to restore relationship trust, it is wise to seek support for yourself.


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