How to Tell the Difference and Why It’s Important to Know the Difference.
Some men never stop looking for the affair – they are serial cheaters whose affairs have nothing to do with relatedness to another, intimacy, sharing, pain or silence–They connect as conquest to bolster a well hidden but fragile ego. Over 60% of men who have an extramarital affair, however, say they never seriously imagined themselves doing it until it actually happened.” — Dr. Suzanne Phillips, PsyD. (1)
The old adage goes: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. But when it comes to infidelity, it is never that simple. Infidelity can make the ultimate fool out of a loyal and trusting wife (or husband).
And you know the feeling – – perhaps you have already invested 20, 30 or even as much as 50 years in your marriage and suddenly you find out that your husband had an affair. Are you going to throw everything away because of a momentary, er, prolonged lapse of reason on his part?
You are trying to rebuild because it’s just not worth it to throw it all away. But there is a daily nagging feeling that your husband might do it again. Maybe he might do it again with the same woman or with different women.
You have a terrible feeling that your husband is not telling you the whole truth. He might tell you daily that he gave up his mistress and that he really felt nothing for her; but a feeling inside of you tells you that he still could be seeing her for lunch in secret.
You want this time to be the last. You want to ensure that he has given up the other woman, that he will not return to her, and that he won’t make such a stupid and life-shattering decision again.
The pain with D-Day was so great that you cannot imagine going through it again and again. You know how important his continued fidelity is because it not only reflects the recovery process, but also the long-term health of you and your marriage.
I would like to tell you that I have a crystal ball where I can look into the future and give you 100% surety that he will not do it again. But, I can’t do that because even he cannot guarantee himself that he will never do it again, even if he swears to himself he won’t cheat again.
Past Behaviors Can Predict Future Behaviors
But there is good news because future behaviors are all about probabilities. Stephen Covey, in his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” remarks that people’s future behaviors can be predicted by their past behaviors. So, whether you can rebuild for the long term depends on the type of cheater that you are with.
It is imperative to be able to tell the difference between a man who cheated and probably never will again and a serial cheater. This is important so that you can make an informed decision.
If you are with a cheater who can be reformed, you can go on with your life with him and rebuild your marriage. But, if you are with a serial cheater, there is a pretty high chance your marriage will be one of continued drama and trauma.
But here is the kicker…
Until your husband is completely out of the affair fog, you will not be able to tell what kind of cheater you are with.
Both types of cheaters are going to display the same exact kind of behaviors when they are in the affair fog. If they are still in the affair fog, they will act erratically, they change their minds almost hourly about both you and the mistress, they will seem like a Jekyll and Hyde type, and they will have a lot of narcissistic traits. They also may indulge in drinking or other substances more than usual. But the worst part is, when they are in the affair fog, you usually no longer recognize them as your husband. Where did your prince charming go?
I categorize cheating husbands into two main categories based on whether or not they are a good bet for your future. I call one group the Reverse Prince Charmings and the other group of cheaters the Fallen Prince Charmings.
These descriptive names pretty much say it all: Reverse Prince Charming (RPC) is basically the guy who puts his car in reverse and drives off to meet the needs of any woman but his wife. Fallen Prince Charming (FPC) is the average good guy who falls off his white horse, but who is poised to get back up and head home to make things work at the castle.
That’s all well and good, but the issue is that sometimes it is very difficult to tell the difference. After all, both Reverse Prince Charming and Fallen Prince Charming usually say the exact same things, whether they are in or out of the affair fog.
While both types are in the affair fog, they say nasty things, they lie, and they act distant and sometimes even behave as if they could leave at any moment. When they are out of the affair fog, they both show remorse, plead for you to stay, and sometimes make you feel like you are the only woman on earth.
Fallen Prince Charming is sincere in his protestations of love and remorse while Reverse Prince Charming has a selfish agenda and says the right things as a manipulation tactic. Fallen Prince Charming wants to genuinely patch things up; Reverse Prince Charming puts on a show because of a number of self-serving motives. Fallen Prince Charming wants his marriage to work, while Reverse Prince Charming just wants to have his cake and eat it too.
Reverse Prince Charming’s motive is to provide the illusion of making his marriage work. The biggest problem with Reverse Prince Charming is that he doesn’t want to lose his wife, but he doesn’t want to lose his mistress either. So, he tells each woman what each of them want to hear and does everything to make his wife believe that he has turned over a new leaf.
Reverse Prince Charming is very scary indeed and if you are married to one, it is best to cut him loose. Reverse Prince Charming is the ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing and (perish the thought) sometimes he appears to be a better sheep than the actual sheep themselves.
I have put together a list of behaviors for both men that you can use as a comparison for the future. Of course, this list is valid only after the affair fog has melted away.
So what is a girl to do?
In deciding what to do, probabilities are everything. As I mentioned earlier, Stephen Covey says that past behavior is indicative of future behavior. If your husband has done something many times in the past, there is a high probability that he will do it in the future.
For example, if he has spent many Sundays for the past 10 years playing golf, there is a high probability that in the coming years he will spend many more Sundays playing golf. He has made playing golf on Sundays a habit and so golf will be a hard habit to break.
It turns out habits are hard-wired because as we repeat an action, neural pathways in our brains get made to reinforce the action. This is why trying to change a habit with sheer willpower can be hard. Habits must be replaced with concrete, repeatable actions in order to replace them. Old neural pathways need to be trimmed back and new ones formed.
You can use habits and behaviors as a clue to your husband’s future. You need to figure out if physical affairs are the norm for your husband.
Here are some cases or personality issues where affairs could be or at least become a norm for your husband:
- closet sex addiction
- pathological narcissism or psychopathology
- substance addiction
- early life trauma
- coming from a family where the father had known affairs
Here I would like to separate out physical affairs and emotional affairs. I believe emotional affairs are far more common than any of us might believe because they can masquerade as friendship. I also believe that many men (and women) can easily fall into emotional affairs.
Everyone experiences unmet needs and how a person reacts to that experience can predict whether or not they can easily fall into an emotional affair. We all have needs for validation from others. Most people look to their spouses for validation, as they should. A spouse should be our number one champion and in our corner at all times. But, what happens when a person’s need for validation is so great that it exceeds what a spouse can give? A person can use it as a growing opportunity and learn to meet his or her emotional needs in healthy ways. Or, a spouse can intentionally put himself in situations where he can be adored by other women and receive validation from them.
But, to clarify, I think everyone more or less experiences validation from others as a positive experience. The difference is that people with a healthy sense of self do not actively seek it out and do not engage in relationships just for the sake of validation.
People with a healthy sense of self do not need constant validation from those other than their spouse. In fact, people with a healthy sense of self won’t feel abandoned when their spouse is not able to provide constant validation. But, for those who need constant adoration and validation, they will seek it out. Otherwise, they might feel like an empty shell or even feel abandoned.
A Personal Example
I learned that hard lesson from my ex-fiancé. He was very out-going and loved to flirt. He loved having female friends and constant attention. I was in my 20’s and thought this was just immaturity or a phase. He had been the guy in high school who couldn’t get a date with even the ugliest girl and was probably making up for lost time.
By the time I had met him, his braces had come off, his acne had been long gone, had a thick head of dark hair, his glasses were replaced with contacts, he had gotten an MBA and lived in Paris, and he had been working out so he was 6’2’ with a long, lean swimmer’s body. He was obviously making up for lost time.
I remember going to his 10-year high school reunion with him. There was a woman there who had been the blond that every boy idolized during high school. She was still extremely attractive and sassy. She did not recognize my (now ex) fiancé and she flirted shamelessly with him.
There was one funny thing…The blond believed that I was the high school homecoming queen (and her main rival) from her graduating class. Since the real one was not there and I did not have a nametag, my fiancé ran with it and so did his friends. I just sat there and kept quiet because I didn’t even understand at first that she thought I was her former rival. But, then something interesting happened. When the blond thought I was her high school rival, this made her flirt with my fiancé even more.
The fact that the (alleged) homecoming queen had pre-selected him made him all the more valuable in her eyes. Some women really like men who other women have selected. This is why some men get more attention while wearing a wedding ring. Another woman has given her stamp of approval and the more attractive the wife, the higher status the man is in another woman’s eyes. For insecure women, they get quite a kick out of stealing a man with an attractive wife.*
So, the blond really laid her admiration for my fiancé on thick. The most important part was that he got absolutely high off the ego boost she gave him. Here was the one unattainable woman from high school who, at the time, didn’t even know he was alive. Now, she was approaching him and flirting with him and even upping the ante once she thought her former rival was attached to him.
At the time, I was very supportive of him getting an ego boost from the flirtation. I too was the girl in high school who, still in her awkward, ugly-duckling phase, couldn’t get a date either. So, I was happy that he was receiving validation from someone who never knew he existed prior to that moment. At the time, I felt like it was a victory for all of us high school ugly ducklings and late bloomers.
Looking back now, I see that my ex-fiancé let all of the newfound attention go to his head. In fact, he had started getting a lot of notice well before he met me. At the time, I figured that it was a phase that he would outgrow. I believed that since he had professed his moral values, he would never cheat.
If I had been looking for the signs at the time, I would have realized that his need for constant, external validation had become a habit and even borderline addiction for him. At the time, I did not realize that this kind of thing easily leads to emotional affairs and where there is an emotional affair, a physical affair might not be too far off.
But, no, at the time, I was a self-professed feminist and not a petty, jealous girlfriend. I could handle his flirtation because I was a ‘big girl’ and I was ‘above all of that’. I reasoned that I should feel proud of him and glad for him since he was now getting positive attention from others.
Well, he too easily ran with it and broke up with me for someone who wanted to move into our mutually owned home. (That’s another long story). On the other hand, as men get older, I do believe that they can temper their need for attention with maturity. (Although, I don’t know if he was ever able to temper it.) Considering he did marry the other woman, I am guessing she got what she deserved in him.
Reverse Prince Charming
Now, I want to show you an example of what I think is certainly a Reverse Prince Charming. I scoured the internet and chat boards to find comments from men who have cheated. Here is what one anonymous RPC says about himself:
I’m that guy…the married one. I’m the one who is in the affair with a beautiful woman who has been trying to get out of this relationship. She’s in love and we have been seeing each other for four years. I have done this many times with other women, but I have no intention of leaving my wife. My wife knows about the two affairs that I have admitted to. I tell the other woman that she is being used for everything I am not getting at home. These other women are my fantasy, my sexual fantasy, my ego booster when I go out. They may be smart, have a great job, but there is something about them that just doesn’t meet up to the standards of my wife. Most men do not upgrade great sex to wife…. How long can two dishonest people maintain a healthy relationship? The other woman wants more time and I give them just enough to keep them there. I say what they want to hear just to keep them close.” – Anon
It’s easy to see why I put this fellow in the Reverse Prince Charming category. He has a long history of infidelity, he has no intention of leaving his wife and also no intention of leaving his mistress, and he knows exactly what he is doing, yet he feels no remorse.
Unfortunately, would a fellow like this tell his wife everything? Absolutely not. So, the wife’s best defense would be to get as much information about him to see what he is up to in whatever way she can.
I would also venture to guess that this fellow is not trustworthy in other aspects of his life. He would probably make a bad business partner or even friend to other men since through his behavior he has established that people are there for his use.
On the other hand, for people who have a history of affairs, I like to believe that it’s not completely about sex even if it appears to be.
The affair becomes a mechanism for acting out just as drinking too much becomes a mechanism for acting out some kind of inner pain, struggle, stress, emptiness, or even anger. A workaholic could use work as the mechanism for acting out, but there is a much deeper issue within that individual.
Just as some women wouldn’t feel a deep betrayal if there has been had another drink, this type of affair doesn’t have to instill the same sense of betrayal in you. In all affairs a mistress is an object for use, but in this type of affair the mistress is no better than a toothbrush or other grooming object. Does that mean you should stay? NO. But, it does put the almost impersonal nature of the affair into perspective.
Finally, there are some Reverse Prince Charming’s who fall into the category of being pathological narcissists or psychopaths. These folks are in the minority and yet they do so much harm to society. Most importantly, there is no working it through with personality-disordered men. So, if you find out you have one, it might be best to leave.
Fallen Prince Charming
In the prior section, we saw that the two factors that stood out for a Reverse Prince Charming was that he had a history of infidelity and he had no desire to stop having affairs. His behavior is marked by abject selfishness and he would make for a poor partner even without affairs.
In contrast, let’s see what a Fallen Prince Charming has to say:
As I talk [about it] my heart sinks deeper into the shame and dishonor that permeates my very skin. I feel like such a piece of garbage. No amount of physical pleasure or mental stimulation will compensate for the ridiculousness of my behavior. I mean, I was gallivanting around like a 17-year-old with a perpetual [desire], thinking others couldn’t see what I was doing, and how I was acting. I’m just an idiot.” (2)
I believe that this fellow fits into the category of a Fallen Prince Charming for several reasons. The first is that he does not mention having several affairs—his focus is obviously on one large affair. He also feels tremendous remorse for what he has done. He also feels the requisite shame of such an encounter. Finally, he has insight into the idea that no matter how fun at was at the time, it obviously did not excuse his behavior.
The Most Pathetic Part of All
I think in every affair lays the potential for tremendous tragedy. I am talking about the kind of tragedy that we see in epic, ancient Greek dramas—the kind where families are ruined and this ruin extends for generations to come. The protagonist in such a drama is always left with the painful insight and the understanding all that has occurred at his own hand, yet, for many reasons is powerless to change anything. The deeds have been done and the consequences meated out—nothing can be undone no matter how many tears of anguish are shed and no matter how much regret weighs heavily on the heart.
I think the most wretched type of affair is when a man wakes up to his actions too late. This type of man may have long since left his wife, married his mistress, and then in the future comes to realize exactly what he has lost and what he has done. He has left a legacy of innocent victims in his wake, his children are estranged, his ex-wife has long since forgotten him and possibly remarried.
I believe that this type of hell is probably worse than any kind of fire and brimstone of which the Old Testament speaks. For this is a very personal type of hell and one knows exactly what one has done and has to live with the consequences.
My wish is that all men who have affairs could be given a crystal ball so they could see that kind of future where all of the embers of romance have long since burned out and there is even no cold comfort for him. For, he has missed out on his children’s lives, he has broken both a material and spiritual bond with the woman he promised to stand by, and he is no longer a young man able to look forward to a future. All he is left with is what he has done and how he has lived his life.
I think in the end, a man’s ultimate betrayal is to himself. In the end, when a man has an affair, he must live with what he did for the rest of his life. There are no do-overs for past mistakes, there is only forgiveness. But even forgiveness does not undo the act itself.
Can You Make It Work for the Long Term?
Well, it all depends on what you are willing to live with. Whether or not you choose to stay, you need to reach a point where you engage in radical acceptance.
Radical acceptance actually helps you come to peace with the situation. The fact is, we cannot change another, no matter how hard we try. In fact, when we expect something of someone that he is not capable of, this causes us pain each time he fails.
For example, most husbands will participate in exhausting mental acrobatics to downplay the affair. Other times, they will lie. But, liars are usually caught and each time they are caught in a lie, they cause pain and disappointment to another. But, it does not have to be that way. Karyn Hall, PhD says:
Accepting reality is difficult when life is painful. No one wants to experience pain, disappointment, sadness or loss. But those experiences are a part of life. When you attempt to avoid or resist those emotions, you add suffering to your pain. You may build the emotion bigger with your thoughts or create more misery by attempting to avoid the painful emotions. You can stop suffering by practicing acceptance. Acceptance means you can begin to heal. Resisting reality delays healing and adds suffering to your pain. When you practice acceptance everyday, you may be more prepared when the most difficult experiences in life occur.” (3)
Acceptance gives an alternative even when living in a situation that will not change. There is no rule that says you need to divorce a cheating husband and also no rule that says you need to stay.** It is all up to you and what your gut tells you is best. You must ultimately be true to yourself.
However, if you choose to stay, accepting that you will be lied to and refusing to expect more than your husband is capable of brings a sense of equilibrium. That is, acceptance allows you to remain balanced each time you catch your husband in a lie or otherwise.
So, no matter what you choose, acceptance of your husband’s continued flaws is the key. You can stay or you can go, but accept what your husband is able to give and accept what he is not able to give.
This will help you tremendously whether you are living with Reverse Prince Charming or Fallen Prince Charming. Finally, remember that past behavior is indicative of future behavior, so that is the best bet you have in terms of a crystal ball.
*Let me define what it means to be attractive. Beauty is ageless, beauty does not belong to one race or type of woman, beauty is not the sole domain of thin women. It does not matter if a woman is 25 years old or 85 years old– an attractive woman is well-groomed and holds herself with dignity. She has a beauty that is found within and shows through her eyes and smile. But, I like this definition of beauty that has been attributed to the late and great Audrey Hepburn:
Recipe For Beauty
“For attractive lips, speak words of kindness.
For lovely eyes, seek out the good in people.
For a slim figure, share your food with the hungry.
For beautiful hair, let a child run his/her fingers through it once a day.
For poise, walk with the knowledge that you never walk alone.
People, even more than things, have to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed and redeemed: never throw anyone out. As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands; one for helping yourself and the other for helping others.”
**There is a caveat to the idea that there is no rule that you should stay in a marriage or leave a marriage. The caveat here is physical abuse. When a man is severely physically abusive, even if he does it occasionally, this is a situation where a woman must leave. This becomes doubly true if children are involved.
I remember working with a woman in my former profession whom, when she was 6 months pregnant, had her husband push her down the stairs. She went flying and it is a miracle she did not lose the baby. Like all abusers, there was nothing she did to provoke him and she was caught completely off guard. She was no stranger to the occasional unprovoked slap or punch in the face. This is what I am referring to when I talk about physical abuse.
She did not leave because when the man was in the honeymoon (romance) phase of the cycle of abuse, he was full of love, promises to change, gifts, compliments, passion for her, etc. When a man participates in repeated cycles of physical abuse like this, there is no end to the cycle until a woman leaves. It is really a tragic situation for all involved, especially since it is so difficult for a woman to get out for good.
- Suzanne Phillips. From http://blogs.psychcentral.com/healing-together/2013/09/an-unrecognized-reason-that-married-men-have-affairs/
- Charles Orlando. From http://magazine.foxnews.com/love/confessions-cheating-husbands
- Karyn Hall, PhD. From https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/pieces-mind/201207/radical-acceptance