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Five Things That Keep You Stuck With a Cheater

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Are you on the fence about leaving a cheater? Is this not their first rodeo? Here are some common traps that keep you stuck with a cheater and prevent you from moving on.

1. Hope. Codependency has been described as the addiction to the potential of things. Are you hooked on a cheater's potential? Wow, she could be a great partner... if only? Or -- I want the guy I thought I married back? Do you grasp at the smallest indication that this person gives a flip about you? You've got hope sickness.

It's hard to be down on hope. It's hard to fault people who have hope. It seems virtuous. But in cases of serial infidelity, it can keep you stuck. Listen to me chumps -- hope is not your friend. You need to bludgeon hope with a fencepost and begin to operate with total lucidity.

Because hope is so strong, cheaters know exactly what a powerful manipulation tool this is. The goal of a cheater is usually cake -- the affair and the marriage. Your goal is to get them to come to their senses and be that sparkly person you fell in love with and commit to you. So they will use hope to keep you on the hook. They will feign remorse, cry, say they miss you. They may go to counseling. Admit, hey, they aren't perfect or Mistakes Were Made. They may crack open a book (usually something like "When Splendid People Cheat.") And you, desperate to save this mess -- take it as a Sign.

The only antidote to hope sickness is self knowledge. Know what you will and will not tolerate. What your values are. Where your boundaries are. Be unswerving in your loyalty to own well-being, and what sort of relationship you want. Hold out for that. Cheaters lie and they lie artfully. So it is essential to watch what your cheater does and pay zero attention to what they say.

This is very hard to do. Hope is like that siren song in Ulysses. You're going to have to tie yourself to the mast and stuff cotton in your ears. But stay strong, because crazy hope that this person is going to fix this and stop hurting you -- in the face of evidence to the contrary -- is a powerful reason why people stay stuck with cheaters.

2. Fear. It's scary to leave someone. We humans are programmed to bond. There's that famous Harlow study about baby monkeys. Some baby monkeys are put in a cage with real monkey mommies and some in a cage with barbed wire mommies, wrapped in a thin veneer of terry cloth. A pale mommy monkey substitute. But the babies with the barbed wire mommies try to bond with that thing. Even though they get pricked and are bleeding and the entire experience sucks. Inside their little baby monkey brains, they must be thinking... something better than this exists. But they haven't experienced it. So they cling hard to the barbed wire monkey. Of course, the babies with the real mommies are thriving.

Moral of the story? Step out of the cage and go find some real monkeys to bond with. It's scary to leave the barbed wire monkey -- but if you find the courage to do it, you'll experience true monkeys. You don't know what you've been missing.

3. Denial. As coping mechanisms go, denial is pretty effective. When hope fails, there is denial. Just be oblivious about your situation and your feelings about it. Poof! It never happened! We spackle over our life messes, because we're invested. It's hard to walk away from an investment, even a bad one. In economics, they call this "sunk costs" -- the more you invest, the harder it is to walk away, even when you know you're losing! So, naturally you just pretend the investment isn't really that bad. (See "Hope" above). If you want to get unstuck, you have to take a hard, unvarnished look at your reality.

4. Pride. It's hard to admit to yourself and the world that you screwed up something as important as choosing a life partner. Being cheated on is humiliating. It's natural to want to control the outcome, and put lipstick on that pig and reconcile. Either you don't tell anyone (and suffer alone or on online forums or in your therapists office), or you tell people and spend the rest of your marriage either avoiding everyone who hates your cheating spouse or convincing them that your Marriage Is Stronger For It.

Remember -- infidelity is not your failure to own. Do not borrow shame. It takes a lot of strength and character to navigate this crap. If you loved a lousy partner, okay, so what? You're human. You picked from the barbed wire monkey pile. Explore that, fix it, and choose better next time.

5. Inertia. Infidelity is exhausting. Did you know the universe is conspiring to keep you stuck? Inertia is a basic law of physics --  "the resistance of any physical object to a change in its state of motion or rest, or the tendency of an object to resist any change in its motion." Change is hard. But staying stuck is painful. When the pain gets too great, you'll make a plan and get unstuck. The problem is, a lot of us are endurance athletes when it comes to pain. We think it's our lot, what we deserve. Expect better for yourself -- and move toward it. Better is out there.