What would you have wanted a cheating partner to do?
February 16, 2023 8:32 AM   Subscribe

I cheated on my partner with someone else and lied to them both. The affair is over and, while I know I can never really repair the harm I did, I want to try. If you've had a partner who behaved similarly badly, what do you wish they had done afterwards?

I want to try and address the harm I committed to both of them. One would like a public apology; the other (who was my original partner, is still my partner, and does not ) does not want it to become known, which is why this is an anonymous post. The affair took place over a year, in which I told the second that I had broken up with the first, and we met up every few weeks.

I did a horrible thing and I want to do the best for both people, while in particular taking care of my original / current partner.

I know it won't fix what I did, but I am sincerely trying to do the right thing, as much as there is a right thing, from here.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Good on you. I believe your good intent. Now for the long, slow, painful follow-through.

Some of this depends on what these folks want. Your partner, not the internet, should be your guide. But...

1) Go to therapy. Be honest with your therapist.

2) You have to choose a loyalty here in my mind. Unless you are in a less-common set up, you owe the second person a good apology but then, at least if I was the cheated on person, I would want you to cease all contact with that person, so their desire for a public process is trumped by your partner in my mind. Perhaps one final apology in writing NOT in person (if your partner is in agreement), I suggest you end that and literally never speak to them again. You will just have to live with knowing you did something and you can't "make it right". That's part of growing as a person in my mind. It's also part of showing your loyalty to your partner who you committed to.

Right now you are still in denial and think you can somehow make both people - and most important - yourself - happy. You can not.
posted by latkes at 8:41 AM on February 16 [25 favorites]

All I can tell you is what 3 couples close to me have done, which was to cut the third person 100% out of the equation, have the cheating party enter solo therapy to explore their reasons, and attend couple's therapy together.

In two cases there were a rough few years after which they were able to settle down. In the third unfortunately the cheater continued to cheat.

The two couples that survived feel they did the right thing and recommend it to others facing a similar situation.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:44 AM on February 16 [5 favorites]

You have to choose a loyalty here in my mind

This, and this is what both people, in their own way, seem to be asking you to do. I have been in both positions at various times in my life, and the problem is that what they need is mutually exclusive.

When I was cheated on, what I wanted, at my core, was actions showing that I was *emotionally* the most important person, that I was the choice of their heart and that any cheating was not about the other person exactly, but was about their own feelings and needs and insecurities.

When I was the 'affair partner', what I wanted was actions showing me that I was emotionally the most important person, that even if they had reasons that made them stay with the other person, that I was the choice of their heart and that they would move the world to make me okay.

So your current partner wants no public acknowledgement, both to protect them, and also, it's a way of you saying "My current partner is the person in my life, no one else exists or has rights that they can claim against me."

Your affair partner wants a public acknowledgement, so they can say "I mattered, I wasn't just some person you were sleeping with to get your kicks, I wasn't just hot or convenient, you cared about my feelings and what we had was real."

You cannot, absolutely cannot, satisfy both of these people and these needs. Choosing one inherently means betraying the other, just as it did during the relationship.
posted by corb at 9:25 AM on February 16 [99 favorites]

You can't do what both of these people want you to do. You know that. You don't even have to muddle through deciding whose wishes you're going to honor, because apparently you've already chosen your partner over the other person.

So: you're not going to make a public apology, that much seems clear. That is going to hurt the other person more. You're just going to have to live with that. It's the choice you made. Depending on the other person, it could also blow up spectacularly if they decide to go public with what happened and your partner ends up more hurt. That's out of your control, but if you think it might happen based on what you know of the other person, you can and should discuss that possibility with your partner.

Frankly, the fact that you're dithering about this is also almost certainly hurting both of them more than if you just truly committed to the thing you've already committed to. You've made your decision, now move ahead as if you actually meant it, and live with the consequences. (Or take the ones you can't live with to therapy; your pain about this is true and valid but it's not your partner's problem to support you through it at this exact moment.)

When I was in your partner's position, what I wanted was for my partner to end contact with the person and social group that had fostered the cheating, to give me quite a bit of time and space to process, to continue to answer my questions truthfully as I found that I had more of them, and to work with their therapist on the bigger issues that were part of the infidelity. (I thought for a while that I might want us to go to couples therapy, and my partner was willing, but ultimately individual therapy and time did the work that needed to be done.)

The only time I was in the other person's position, I was very young so honestly who the hell knows what I'd want if I were in that position now. But I recall it as mostly just wanting to be chosen. I wanted to be the one who was most important to that guy, and at the end of the day, I just wasn't. There wasn't something he could have said or done to soften the blow, a public apology wouldn't have helped anything, I just...wanted to matter to him more than anyone else, and I didn't. It was what it was. He probably felt badly about it but that didn't help me then and doesn't help me now. The kindest thing he did for me was really and truly getting out of my life and staying out so I could move on.
posted by Stacey at 10:38 AM on February 16 [8 favorites]

Like others have said, they want mutually exclusive things. Your betrayed / current partner sounds like they want privacy and secrecy about your transgression because for reasons that might include desire for privacy, not wanting to feel humiliated, etc. The partner you were unfaithful with wants acknowledgement and would possibly feel dehumanized in the scenario that your main/current partner wants. This is a zero-sum scenario and it sounds like your priority is to meet the needs of the betrayed/current partner, in which case you cannot give the other person what they want -- a public apology.

If you go that route, I think you should consider the fact that in the absence of a satisfying public apology, your affair partner may well make your shared story and your misconduct public which they are absolutely entitled to do, since it's not their job to keep your secrets, but which would be probably upsetting for your current partner. You should be prepared for that.
posted by virve at 10:45 AM on February 16 [4 favorites]

It's strange to me that this isn't clear to you. Or maybe it is and you were hoping there was some magic answer?

Anyway, as you surely know, the one you choose to go forward with is the one whose wishes you need to honor. Even if (actually, ESPECIALLY if) they involve a repudiation of the person you don't choose. In this case that means keeping quiet (i.e. not humiliating your partner in public.)

The affair person may make trouble. Doesn't matter. You can cross that bridge when you come to it, keeping your chosen partner's welfare as your first priority.
posted by fingersandtoes at 11:49 AM on February 16 [5 favorites]

A year is a long time in affair years. You generated a lot of sustained duplicity, romance, intent, interest, and effort to make that year happen. If you are a somewhat average couple, expect your actions to reverberate for years to come in unpredictable ways.

"I want to do the best for both people" is you saying the affair person still matters to you. My guess is that part of the reason your question is anonymous is because you don't want your partner to know you are still trying to take care of your affair partner.

What would I have wanted? I would have wanted my "partner" to be absolutely honest with me, not hiding anything when trying to reconcile, volunteering information in the spirit of my questions rather than answering to the letter of my "literal" questions, and to be honest with himself about his behavior. I would have wanted my "partner" to absolutely and totally end contact with the person regardless of the embarrassment or discomfort it caused him or the other person, and regardless of the disruption to the social web he so counted on for cover. I would have wanted him to enter therapy in good faith. I would have wanted him to take his own emotional needs to therapy and not expect me to handhold and care for him as he dealt with his dilemmas left and right of how to keep being the good guy to all parties. I would have wanted him to ask me what changes and behaviors I wanted to see in order to know he was committed and recommitting to us. And I would have wanted him to ask me that on a regular basis until both he and I were sure what that looked like and keeping tabs on whether it had changed. It may be a moving target, though there are limits to even that.
posted by KneeHiSocks at 11:57 AM on February 16 [6 favorites]

You can’t address the harm you did to both of them. This isn’t 50/50. That’s what you were doing before, during the cheating. Giving 50% to two people instead of 100% to one person.

You have to pick the one you want to be with and take care of that person 100%, while the other gets 0%.
posted by kapers at 1:27 PM on February 16 [6 favorites]

You're going to have to get extremely, dedicatedly, embracingly comfortable with the idea of people being justifiably and probably permanently angry at you, and recognize you do not get to control the outcome here. It was the avoidance of this that got you into this situation in the first place, and I promise you that your partner knows this and is watching to see who it is you most care about being mad at you.

It's time to actually end the relationship with the second man, which you clearly still have not done. He is already hurt and he is going to be more hurt and angry when you do not do what he wants*, and he may well still out you publicly so that your original partner also does not get what he wants and will be angry at you for creating the situation to start with. Those are called consequences, you just have to deal with them as they come.

Until you own everything you've done, fully, no excuses or disclaimers, no additional demands to control the narrative in your favor, your partner has no reason to believe you have enough integrity to participate in repair.

I feel like the first thing you have to answer, though, is whether you truly and for-real want to BE in the original relationship. He's going to know the difference between showing up with wholly-owned accountability to rebuild from the ground up versus just not wanting to be alone/in trouble and preferring him slightly to the other guy. If that's really true, you're going to have to suck up people being mad at you while you rebuild your own life in a transparently accountable way to your partner (in a way he does not really owe you in return yet, and won't for years) under your own initiative and without demanding resources from him to manage the process. And while I think you should obtain general feedback from him about what that looks like, it's actually way more important that you decide to go several miles further than his expectations in ways that illustrate you truly deeply understand the trust you've forfeited.

*I personally do not believe there is ever a cause for "public apologies" over a breakup and I think this demand is crossing a weird line. If one/both of you are public officials of some sort and the relationship violated expectations of public trust I guess that might be necessary, but otherwise? I don't know, maybe that just means he's asking you to go to whatever shared social circle formed while you were "dating" and clarify to them that everything is your fault and he's not a missing stair or some kind of problem they should know about - and in this day and age that may be fair to ask. I think that might be something you can accomplish with some private conversations without making so public a spectacle of it that your original partner would be materially affected, but I guess I'm assuming the social circle he is connected to is absolutely separate from the one you shared with the other person.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:36 PM on February 16 [8 favorites]

I agree with other posters here about the disconnect between the two requests being made of you.

I also agree that you need to put your original partner first if you want to remain with them.

That said, I think any hope for a mutual resolution depends on the second person's definition of "public apology."

If that amounts to just telling the person's close friends what you've done, I think you could find a way to do that without taking out a billboard. But equally, your primary partner is going to be the one to tell you what they are OK with and what degree of "public" is manageable, if any. You should ask.
posted by yellowcandy at 2:31 PM on February 16

Generally, recommitting to your primary relationship means that you cut the affair partner out entirely. You cannot take care of that person any longer. You cannot control what they do, if they heal, how they heal, or what they think of you. You need to just let that go.

I would guess that something your primary partner wants from you is to see you proactively taking responsibility for maintaining your boundaries (see my previous paragraph), and for doing the work of repair and restoring trust. There are very many books about how couples can recover after an affair. Presumably you are capable of googling for these, finding one that seems like it's on the right track, buying it (maybe even two copies) and getting on board with its program. If you had the energy and initiative to go behind their back and cheat, presumably you have the energy and initiative to devote to cleaning up the mess you made. If you don't do that, you're sending your primary partner a really strong message about how much the relationship you share means to you, and it ain't good.
posted by Sublimity at 3:19 PM on February 16 [3 favorites]

Mod note: Just popping in to remind folks to use gender neutral pronouns, (they/them) for example, and to not assume the gender of any of the individuals involved. OP intentionally left those specificities out.
posted by travelingthyme (staff) at 4:11 PM on February 16 [10 favorites]

>If one/both of you are public officials

John Tory, is that you?

The most important thing is that you have to be honest with yourself. In no particular order, asking yourself these questions: do you want to be with your original/current partner? Do you want to do the work to stay with them? Really and truly? Are you able to look at your actions and self and look at them deeply, including going to therapy? Do you really and truly want to make things right, even if it means someone ends up getting hurt (again)? Why did you cheat? What beliefs did you learn about relationships growing up?

Even this is unclear: "the other (who was my original partner, is still my partner, and does not ) does not want it to become known, which is why this is an anonymous post. The affair took place over a year, in which I told the second that I had broken up with the first, and we met up every few weeks."

Referring to your partner as "other" still privileges the affair partner. Referring to them as second and first is unclear - I'm confused who's second and who's first to you. I suppose that's a sequential ranking, as in, you were with partner first and the AP second but it could also be read as order of importance. I e. You consider partner as second importance and AP as first importance.

Maybe I've got this all wrong but I do think your word choice bears some examination.

If you want to stay with partner then you have to do everything to make them feel safe and comfortable, even if it makes YOU uncomfortable. Even then there's no guarantee that partner will stay with you. You can't do the right thing for both of them. You really have to choose and finally be honest with both what you're going to do. One or both of them may hate you forever, but you can't control that. What matters is doing the right thing, however you define right. You'll need help figuring out what that is.
posted by foxjacket at 4:13 PM on February 16 [3 favorites]

You disrespected your partner by cheating, and now you are disrespecting them further by not immediately agreeing to how they want you to handle things? Not cool.

You've already hurt both people. Now you're going to have to pick one to hurt a bit more. If you can't immediately see that you need to be on your partner's side about this, please do everyone involved a favor and end your relationship, apologize profusely for your lack of integrity, and go to therapy.

Actually, go to therapy anyway. It would be a kindness to pay for some of your partner's therapy as well, since they will undoubtedly need it.
posted by ananci at 7:32 PM on February 16 [2 favorites]

There is a lot of relevant, attentive suggestions above (and some... not so helpful stuff, too).

To your specific question, what do you wish they had done afterwards?

A common theme in situations like this is that the person who has been cheated on feels tricked. Duped. Conned. Deceived. There are a lot of words that fit here. Maybe they're not relevant—that depends on what kind of agreement you had with your primary partner—but since you're using the word "cheated" I'm going to go with this notion that you broke a foundational understanding in your primary relationship, whether that agreement was explicit or implied. Part of what I was hoping for was some sort of acknowledgment of this, something active and voluntary.

I didn't want to be made to feel like some sort of clueless enforcer, too naive to pick up on the signs of the affair and now bitterly clamoring for control over another person because of it. It creates an unequal tension, an affair, in that this subtext is going to be there, unavoidably, quietly, no matter how much your partner says it's not there. Ditto the experience of very simply being confronted by what this means—"oh my god, I opened my heart to a relationship with someone who has "cheating" in their toolbnox, what do I do now?" is a common, ruminative thought that you'll hear from people who are dealing with the new knowledge of an affair. It hurts, to be frank. It can hurt a lot, and it's hard to admit that to someone who just took your trust and vulnerability and used it against you.

Now your partner might be stuck between these roles: am I the clueless and bitter enforcer, or am I the hurt and sad partner who is looking for signs that I shouldn't leave before this happens again and again and again? SO you have to step up and address these doubts and pains. You probably have to make difficult choices that will cause you (and your affair partner, maybe other people) distress. Is that acceptable to you? Can you dive deep, on your own time, into the motivation for the affair? Do you know yourself and your motives well enough to make bringing confidence and comfort to your primary partner your priority until they tell you they feel like they can trust your relationship is valid? These are the kind of questions you need to be asking yourself before you take actions to rebuild your primary relationship.

And that's what I'd have hoped for. I wish my partner had simply done that work of self-knowledge before escorting me through a front-row experience of someone repeatedly making, and breaking, commitments. I wish they'd been better at knowing themselves, their needs, their values, than putting on a show of confidence that was paper thin (if hopeful and well-intentioned). Forgive the gender roles in this book, but this was an engaging read for me back when I was married and struggling to put words to why I felt stuck in this post-affair space (my marriage didn't mirror the gender roles of the target audience, but feelings are feelings and this book is good for that). Maybe you can get some value from it, too.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 3:38 AM on February 17 [1 favorite]

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