Cheating in a relationship is as common as it is unpleasant. I am rapidly headed for my 50th birthday and can’t name a single friend or acquaintance who has never experienced this dynamic in a relationship. Personally, I have experienced cheating in different ways: I have cheated, I have been “the other woman” and I have been victimized by a cheater. My cheating happened when I was still in college and created a chain of events so powerfully bad I never cheated again. I felt horrible about what I’d done and truly horrible about who I had become. It was a long hard climb to get out of that hole.
But when I was on the receiving end of infidelity, I was a mom, almost 40 years old, and the notion of commitment had altogether different meanings and importance to me. It wasn’t about just him and me – we had children who became ensnarled in the web of lies and hurt. It was much uglier and much more destructive than the teenage drama I had unwittingly perpetrated decades earlier.
But was it abuse? In the aftermath of the combustion of my life, after I was done stamping out flames and tossing the debris into the dumpster, I heard others speak with confidence about what he had done, and they used the word “abuse.” Abuse? Really? Yes, cheating sucks, the lies and sneaking and all the associated lies by omission – it all adds up to being treated very badly. But is it abuse? Shouldn’t we reserve the term abuse for something that merits such a dramatic term? Is cheating de facto abusive? Or are there lines in the sand – cross them and you’ve entered abuse territory but stay within the bounds of “just plain cheating” and that’s all it is?
Step One: Determine whether lying is abuse in your eyes. If it is, you don’t need to go any further. For you, cheating is abusive. All cheating is predicated upon the lie, spoken or enacted. Sometimes the lie is deftly skirted around with half-truths, caveats and disclaimers. Sometimes the lies are bald-faced and brazen. But always, by definition, cheating involves lying.
Personally, I don’t think lying is abusive. I think lying is just lying – it’s in a category of its own. Lying isn’t acceptable and I won’t tolerate it, but that doesn’t make it abusive in my book. I reserve the term abuse for something more all-encompassing.
Step Two: Study the dynamics between the two of you. Look for ways that you share, or more importantly don’t share, power and control. How does the person in control take and amass power? For me it had to do with access and communication. He completely controlled my access to him, making sure he was inaccessible for long periods of time. No phone contact, no physical contact, and no ability to make contact. In fact, I could never initiate contact; I could only receive his contact. I became endlessly available, trying to make up for the lack of availability on his part. It was maddening, incredibly stressful, and an important component of an abusive relationship. There are other ways that an abuser will take power and control in a relationship. Examine all aspects of decision-making – did you share power? Was control a fluid and flexible concept, responsive to the situation and circumstances? Or was one of you rigidly and permanently in control? Look past the surface or the words that were spoken to determine this. Often control is handled through emotional manipulation and more subtle “head games” than draconian proclamations.
Step Three: Take a step back and look at your social connections. Do you have friends? Can you maintain social connections outside your relationship? Do you have time to spend with your friends, or is all your time focused on the relationship? What do your friends think of your connection with your beloved – are they raising concerns or enjoying your newfound happiness? Often what happens early on in a relationship is that both people really want to spend a lot of time together – that’s normal. But if your beloved finds ways to separate you from your friends and family, sometimes overtly with declarations and “rules,” but often covertly, with subtle innuendo and a critical comment here and there, consider this another red flag. Becoming isolated and dependent is not healthy, it isn’t “normal” in a relationship, and it is yet another component of an abusive dynamic.
Adding up these components, you get a picture of a relationship in which one partner has all the power and control. Cheating may or may not be a part of the picture. Abusive relationships often cycle through good times and bad – physically or emotionally abusive outbursts are followed by apologies and efforts to reestablish intimacy… only to explode again. Intimacy is another area to take a long hard look at: does your partner control when, how, and to what degree you can enjoy intimacy? In my case, physical intimacy was the only type of intimacy permitted – in every other way he was reserved to the point of being distant and rejecting. It was another way to control me, and control the relationship.
The Final Step: More important than any other question, you must ask yourself if the relationship makes you happy. Don’t ask if you love the other person. Don’t ask if you want to be with the other person. And don’t ask if you wish things could get better between you two. Get down to the fact of the matter: is the relationship making you happy NOW – in its current form and with no explanations or excuses. He may be really stressed from work or unavailable because of his kids, or whatever it is he (or she) told you, but once you stop excusing, explaining, attempting to understand and making allowances, ask yourself if the relationship is meeting your needs. If the answer is no, it no longer matters if we label the cheating as abuse. You still need to end it.