couples

'I've been the other woman and the betrayed wife. Neither side is pretty.'

Anytime I write about my affair with a married man that resulted in my daughter’s conception, someone is bound to mention how I wouldn’t talk about an affair so nonchalantly if it was my husband stepping out on me.

I can’t help but chuckle a little because I used to think along those same lines. Back when my husband did cheat on me.

Before I was ever “the other woman,” I was the betrayed wife. Honestly, I don’t relish either role, nor do I wish them upon my greatest enemy.

Watch: Emotional v.s. Physical affairs. Post continues below. 

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In most cases, it sucks to be the side chick and it sucks to be the wife of a cheating spouse. None of it is pretty. There’s always some sort of fallout (though the extent varies case by case).

Yet it’s important to write about the realities of affairs. Infidelity isn’t a fun topic. It’s uncomfortable. The knee jerk response to women who open up about affairs tends to be blame, shame, and projection.

Nobody wants to believe that they could ever be a cheater. And they don’t want to believe that their partner could ever cheat on them either.

It’s a helluva lot easier for folks to hide their heads in the sand and pretend that cheating only happens among very bad people.

You might think that the other woman is always morally bankrupt. You don’t want to hear about how she could have been manipulated herself.

You might assume she should have known better.

Perhaps, like a lot of other people, you prefer to see neat little boxes when we talk about romantic relationships. Like bad people cheat and good ones don’t. It probably makes you feel much more secure believing that a.) you could never become a cheater because you’re not a bad person, and b.) you’d never be so stupid as to fall for a bad person yourself.

I get why such thinking feels good, but it’s not helpful. It’s not rooted in reality. Besides, as I’ve learned from being on both sides, everybody suffers and nobody really wins in any affair.

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Cheating is a fantasy.

Even when we’re talking about the couples who’ve “made it” through their affair(s), the truth is that they still have to deal with the fantasy and emotional immaturity that allowed for an affair to happen in the first place.

Many people fall for the fantasy of cheating because they believe “the grass is greener on the other side.” Or, that another person holds the keys to their happiness (like a new flame) … or misery (like their current partner).

It’s easy to feel resentment or disappointment in a spouse. Easy to use it as an excuse to cheat. But let’s be honest. Secrets and lies don’t make our relationships better. Ultimately, they only add layers of trauma and pain.

Although cheating could become a character flaw, it might just be a moment in time.

Whenever I write about dating my daughter’s dad back when he was still married, and then as he was going through his divorce, I try to be honest about what happened. And, of course, I try to be honest about where I am today.

But there’s a lot to unpack in any toxic relationship, and each piece I write about the affair is just one small snapshot of the bigger picture. As a rule, I try not to bring up the fact that I was a wife whose husband left her for another woman long before I was ever a mistress.

Details about my husband cheating on me typically wind up in their own stories about that particular time in my life. Details about my relationship with my daughter’s dad go into another pile.

I believe that more people occupy both spaces than we know simply because there’s so much stigma for women touched by affairs. Even a betrayed wife can become a punching bag as people assume that she “drove” her spouse to cheat. So, plenty of women don’t talk about it.

The main thing I’ve learned about occupying both spaces, however, is that cheating is only a character flaw when a person makes it a habit.

More commonly, cheating is a moment in time when a person’s reserves were low and they lied to themselves about finding happiness in somebody else. Or in other words, when they fell for a fantasy because a certain connection felt so unusual and intense.

No two relationships are exactly the same.

This seems to be a big, divisive problem whenever we talk about dealbreaker issues like cheating or abuse. We look at our relationship with another person and say they can’t possibly have done the terrible things that somebody else claims.

But some pairings are definitely more toxic than others. Maybe it’s timing or specific personalities. Perhaps one party is more to blame than the other, or maybe they’re equally guilty.

It’s naive to think that otherwise good people can’t do bad things, or that some relationships don’t bring the worst out of us.

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If we want to enjoy healthier relationships, we need to be honest with ourselves and each other. No two relationships are going to be the same.

Sometimes, the chronic cheater does clean up their act. Often, they don’t.

At the end of the day, we have to live with both our good and bad choices. We have to deal with the relationship we have, not just the one we want or wish we had.

People cheat for different reasons.

Seriously, folks. Sure, I’d say there’s always some element of fantasy involved, but it’s silly to think we thoroughly understand the motivations behind every spouse who cheats and every person who willingly dates someone who’s already married.

Some people cheat out of boredom. Some cheat because they truly think they’ve met the love of their life. Other people cheat to escape their problems, while some do it in an effort to blow up their relationship.

I’m not going to list all of the reasons people cheat because there are so many different answers. And maybe that’s why so many people fool themselves into thinking they’ve got a good reason.

It feels so individual and unique to them.

Furthermore, while cheating is typically traumatic for all parties involved, there’s often preexisting trauma there too. Childhood wounds, previous toxic relationships, and wounds within the existing partnership often help pave the way for someone to be unfaithful.

Anyone can get caught up in infidelity – even otherwise “good” people.

This is the sort of belief that practically everyone holds until they themselves are tempted to cheat, or someone they love ends up cheating.

Most people get caught up in moral dualism. Actions are “good” or “bad,” along with the people who make those choices. We have a hard time acknowledging that someone can be a good parent but bad spouse, or vice versa.

It’s even harder to admit that people can change if they do the work that it takes. Or, that some folks make really poor decisions when they’re struggling and suffering.

When more people open up about their experiences with cheating, particularly when they confess to having been unfaithful themselves, it sheds an important light upon the pain and issues that are often so tightly wound up in the choice to stray.

Most people’s reactions to an affair are rooted in their own experiences.

Every time I write about cheating, somebody responds with a snarky comment about my lack of scruples. Sometimes, the comments get really mean.

When you read further, the commenter usually reveals how they themselves have been touched by infidelity, and then their comments make perfect sense.

A person’s explosive response to a hot button topic is rarely about the writer and that particular story. It’s almost always about that reader’s baggage.

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I’ve seen this in myself. When my husband cheated on me, it was years before I could even enjoy a movie that dealt with an affair. It felt like certain stories were openly mocking my pain.

As I gained more life experience, my perspective shifted. I realised that every story about infidelity wasn’t my story about infidelity. Accepting that made everything hurt much less.

Some folks think that you should “pay” for an affair for the rest of your life.

My daughter and I moved from our hometown to be closer to her dad in 2016. At that point, our daughter was two-and-a-half, my ex had a new fiancee, and his ex-wife was remarried and expecting a new baby.

My ex’s mother and I had also fostered a better relationship by then, largely because she saw me rise to the challenge of parenting while her son continued to get involved in various other affairs.

Still, I was naive enough to think that everybody had “moved on,” but shortly after relocating to Tennessee, I began to get hate mail. It started out online, with strangers leaving snide comments about how they wished the worst for me.

Back then, I was incredibly isolated and lonely. My mental health suffered immensely as I adjusted to motherhood and I can’t fully verbalise the pain I felt by white-knuckling my way through severe postpartum depression.

So, when strangers began writing to me on Facebook that they hoped I would be alone and miserable forever because I was a “homewrecker,” I realised that some folks will always want me to suffer for being the other woman.

Ironically, they won’t say boo to the man who had more than a dozen affairs during his ten-year marriage with three kids. It’s easier to blame one woman who got involved with him.

For a while, there was physical hate mail too. And then when I tried selling a few things on my local Facebook Marketplace, I had to deal with folks backing out and claiming it was because of my “low character.” Fun times.

Over the years, I had to develop a tough exterior about the whole thing, just so I could move on. I learned how to focus on the positive, on my daughter, and making healthier choices for our future.

Listen: Are Buck’s parties just an excuse to cheat on your partner? Post continues below.

I discovered that it doesn’t matter that some people think you should be punished forever. They’re wrong. Punishing a person forever after an affair only extends the pain and results in more poor choices.

You’re allowed to drop the guilt and shame. You are allowed to move on.

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Moving forward requires honesty–whether you’ve been betrayed or not.

It doesn’t matter if you’re the spouse who’s been cheated on, if you’re the third party, or you’re the cheater. If you want to move forward, it’s vital that you are honest with yourself about what has happened.

I don’t believe in the narrative that another person can “make” you cheat. But I do understand that plenty of folks are guilty of ignoring problems within their relationship. Those problems inevitably grow, and infidelity becomes more of a risk.

Being honest with yourself might mean that you admit it’s not your fault your spouse cheated, yet you still own up to the areas in your relationship where you could have done better. Hell, maybe you need to be honest with yourself about all of the red flags you ignored.

If you were the cheater or third party in an affair, you’ll need to be honest about how you even got there. What wrong beliefs about love were you holding onto? What wounds led you to find your worth in another relationship despite the fallout?

You won’t successfully move forward and trust yourself to make healthy decisions again until you can be honest about what really happened and the part you played in the whole thing.

You will never make everybody happy when a relationship ends.

A lot of people who find themselves caught up in affairs make excuses for their behaviour simply because ending their relationship will disappoint so many people. Maybe it’s their kids, their spouse, their parents, or community.

In their minds, it’s better to sneak around in an affair than to go through the pain and hardship of a divorce. But it’s not better. It’s selfish. When we make the choice to lie to a partner but claim it’s for their own good, we are most often lying to ourselves.

If we are going to have ethical relationships, we need to be ethical about them. Sometimes, that’s hard. There’s a great deal of pressure from all sides to make a relationship work against all odds.

We’ve got to understand that ending a relationship is the right thing to do if we refuse to be genuine with our partner. It’s only fair to let them move on. But ending a relationship, even if it’s a toxic one, is bound to hurt or disappoint someone. Possibly a lot of someones. We need to grow up and deal with that.

The fallout from ending a relationship honestly is so much better than anything that happens when we deceive those who love us.

It’s easy to live your entire relationship like a fantasy.

I’ve met a lot of people who exist in the relationship they wish they had instead of dealing with the one they’ve actually got. This is a huge problem.

We can’t make wise choices when we’re living in a fantasy.

But what really seems to surprise people is that practically everyone is prone to living in a romantic fantasy. It’s human nature. It’s not something that’s limited to naive spouses, selfish lovers, or gold-digging partners.

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None of us are immune to fantasies or affairs. So? None of us have the sole ownership of pain and trauma. It’s easy to overlook whatever reality that somebody else faces when we’re caught up in our own pain.

When I say that infidelity hurts all parties, I mean that it hurts all parties.

You can’t underestimate the value of self-work here.

Regardless of your role in an affair, and whether or not it happened to you or if it was your own doing, you’re going to need to invest in some self-work.

When a partner cheats on you, if you cheat on them, or if you have an affair with someone who’s already in a supposedly monogamous relationship, it’s natural to doubt your own judgment. It’s natural to internalise the pain and shame of an affair and think that’s who you are. But it’s not healthy.

The good news is that when you work on yourself, you can adopt a healthier perception about any affair in your past. You can also avoid repeat heartbreaks, but perhaps most importantly, you’ll be able to handle any future heartbreak better.

You’ll be able to trust yourself to love again.

When I was the one who was betrayed by a cheater, I demonised them and the other person.

It took time for me to understand that I’m just as capable of making the same sort of poor choices. We all are.

As easy as it was to look down on the cheating parties, it wasn’t honest. And it was completely naive to the fact that many dysfunctional relationships which start out as affairs happen when two people form a trauma bond.

Trauma bonding is, in my opinion, much more common than most people realise when it comes to infidelity.

We experience a flood of hormones and emotions in unhealthy relationships which often lead us to confuse trauma and abuse for love. That makes it incredibly difficult to walk away.

Once we understand that we are all susceptible to forming unhealthy connections, however, it becomes easier to learn how to disengage, and even how to avoid them.

Bottom line, there’s a lot to be learned in any life experience, even within our worst choices. It behoves us all to learn from our decisions and never assume that we’re better, smarter, or morally superior to anyone else.

You might be surprised to find yourself in both roles when you least expect it.

This post originally appeared on Medium and has been republished with full permission. For more from Shannon Ashley, you can find her here.

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