I came to another realization today about the mindset of cheating spouses. I just had a long conversation with my brother and feel that he is beginning to look at his life and relationship more realistically.

By Linda

One thing he said that I would like to pass on is his affair and the decisions he made had less to do with the affair partner but more with what was going on and what was missing in his own life.

She was just a diversion and he enjoyed her company and had a great time with her.  But she was not the real reason he left his marriage and had his marital affair. He had been missing things both personally and within his marriage and she was just someone who temporary filled that space.

Now I know that three months ago while he was in his “infatuation” stage he never would have come to that conclusion. The newness has worn off now and they are both seeing traits in each other that they have not experienced before.  My brother has realized this is not a person he wants to spend his life with. What a shocker! (Heavy sarcasm)

I guess what my brother said confirms everything I constantly resist.  To cheating spouses, it is not about the affair partner. Sure they may be fun and offer things that their spouse cannot.  This is due primarily to the situation.  But when it comes down to it, the affair (experience) acts as an escape from the reality of their lives.

Why Did I Cheat? – An Interview with Author & Marital Therapist, Andrew G. Marshall

In order to move on, the betrayer needs to figure out why they needed to escape in the first place.  They need to figure out what was missing and what they are going to do to find it.

My brother said maybe he needs time alone to figure that out. I agree with that.  He also said that perhaps together with his wife they can fill the void. There are many possibilities for the future, but he can’t fully see any of them until he removes himself from the AP – completely.

I believe that if our spouses had come to that conclusion and were completely honest about their affair, we would have been more open to allowing them to figure out their lives. It takes a long time for them to understand that the OP wasn’t what was missing in their lives, and that she/he won’t be able to fill that void forever.  They need to take a hard look at themselves and do the work needed.

The affair allows cheating spouses to postpone the required deep thinking. They continue to blame the marriage and their spouses for their emptiness, instead of looking within. The good news is that my brother is willing to do that.  I told him that it will not be easy, but hopefully he will come to a place where he is at peace with himself and the people who love him.

For more on how the cheating spouse can help their partner heal, please check out our program, The Unfaithful Person’s Guide to Helping Your Spouse Heal From Your Affair.


    18 replies to "Cheating Spouses Must Look Within"

    • Jeffrey Murrah


      It sounds like your brother is coming to the realization that the lover (OW) amounts to an externalization of his own internal needs. In everyday lingo, she is ‘the projected image’ of his own needs. That took a lot of work to recognize that.

      With that realization, it poses a question. “What or who is the real problem?” Will removing the OW from the picture fix anything? In his case, the changes need to be made inside him, rather than in the external world.

      It would be interesting to find out if this OW shared commonalities with earlier girlfriends of his wife when they married. I suspect that the OW he chose is likely an amalgam of those early women in his life.

      Not all cheaters are like your brother though. In some cases, there is a very real problems with the OW.

      What is applicable to many affairs is that there is both external and internal work to be done in cleaning up the mess.

      • Linda

        Jeffrey, I am trying to understand what you are saying but I think I am confused. I read that often times the betrayer will choose someone who reminds them of their past, or have qualities that they are attracted to but ultimately are not good for them. I wonder (more for myself) if they wish their spouses had those qualities, if not being with a certain kind of person causes a void. Until Doug’s affair I thought I was what he always wanted and needed, now I find myself questioning that on a daily basis. I wish I could be more like Tanya, but that is not my personality and it really bothers me, I wonder if he will ever be happy. I flip flop back and forth, was it about the OP or about Doug. A note about my brother, the OP reminded us of his wife in her younger years. Linda

    • Jeffrey Murrah


      I will make it clearer. First, what I am about to explain applies to the question you ask, NOT to all cheaters. Trying to mix apples and oranges confuses things.

      Here is the question as I understand it: Do cheaters wish their spouse had the same qualities of “the fantasy woman”? (The fantasy woman being defined as the OW+fantasies of women from their past. Cheaters often ‘project’ their fantasies onto some targeted woman believing she will meet his needs.)

      The answer is yes and no. Since cheaters often are not thinking straight, they may wish their spouses had those qualities. Keep in mind, THEY ARE NOT THINKING STRAIGHT. They are operating on an assumption that fantasies are more important that the ‘real thing’.

      If they are thinking straight, then NO, they do not wish their wife has those qualities. They recognize a fantasy is a fantasy and the real woman that they are married to is a real woman who they need to love and accept for who they are.

      I see a more important question as “Does the wife want to change herself or something about herself into the OW?” Ideally, you want your husband to love you for who you are. Yes, there are some things that you can change and improve (dress nicer, wear make-up, etc.). When wives make major changes aimed more at being like the other woman rather than improving themselves, problems will result. At that point they are feeding the fantasy, rather than getting their spouse to love them for who they are.

      Fantasies are a key part of cheating. Overcoming the cheating will not be completed until the fantasies are dealt with. Both fantasies the cheater has about themselves, the OW and the way they wish their wives would be.

      • Linda

        Jeffrey, thank you for clarifying your comment. I believe the most difficult part of recovering from an affair is removing the illusion and fantasy. The cheater has their illusions and as the spouse I was pulled right into their fantasy world. I believed everything Doug told me about Tanya, their relationship and in addition I also began to rewrite the history of our marriage. I failed to remember Doug’s faults and I began to view him as Tanya did, perfect. The fantasy contributes to the spouse’s low self esteem and ownership of all that was wrong in the marriage. In a weeks time, I went from a confident wife who knew my husband wasn’t perfect to a needy women who took the blame for the destruction of our marriage.

        I appreciate your comment about the wife wanting to be like the other woman. I believe all of us thought we needed to change so our husbands would love us again. I remember Doug telling me “just be you”, I was too insecure to do that. I am finally coming to the place where I feel confident to be me.

        I know this is a lengthy, detailed process, but someday I would like to discuss how we deal with the fantasies. Linda

    • michael's next chance!!

      It has and Always will be about the person who is cheating. Whether its a character flaw or something missing inside. We all do things to satisfy something inside.
      My wifes affair was with a boy from her childhood. A trip back to a place she was happy. And a place she had so many wonderful memories of. It was a trip back home to fill emptiness she felt inside.
      I have found out that emptiness has been there for a long time. I have found emails from her ex husband (a bad time in her life). And emails to a boy in witch she told him of her long ago crush on him. That one was as far back as 5 years ago. Before we actually said our vows. But when our daughter was 7. So she has been gone for a long time.
      She spoke then about her missing where she lived when she was in high school.
      I’m sure she didn’t set out to fall in love with him again but he started to give her what she never expressed to me she needed.
      And in a week and a half she was in his arms. And maybe a month in bed with him.
      Even with me showing her how little he felt for her. How destructive to multiple marriages and families he has been. And how devastating this was to us and our family. She still (and I don’t know if or when she stopped) continued to talk to him. And she still won’t tell me why.

    • michael's next chance!!

      Had a talk about this just yesterday with my best friend!
      If you don’t recall from my earlier posts, this is my friend who cheated on his wife.
      The vicious cycle of him not getting what he wanted and finding it. His wife retaliating and him doing it over again. With the catastrophic ending of his last affair he finally sought help for himself.
      This has helped him tremendously. To look at what and why he did what he did. What he was missing and how he isn’t going to get part of it from his wife. But he isn’t going to find it in another woman either. He was escaping what he didn’t like in his life.
      He has explored everything that he has been escaping and has worked on taking responsibility for his unhappiness.
      My wife isn’t there yet. I’m doing everything I can to make sure I don’t do anything to retaliate or, as her mom put it, punish her for what happened. But its not easy.
      But it is my opinion that if we can’t work through this together, why are we still together. I have set in my mind that I will give her the time and space she asked for but not forever. I need a wife and not a roommate with benefits.
      I don’t want to think about what she did anymore. Its not the problem. Its a product of the deeper problems.
      I am the only person who let’s out what’s on my mind. And in my head I’m the only one who is stronger now and has shown the most strength.
      I’ve said it before I have accepted it. I have accepted what I have learned and what I still don’t know for sure. I haven’t forgiven her for it because she won’t forgive herself for it. She won’t look inside to find out what’s wrong. She want to put it off like she has for so many years.

    • Eve DeVinney

      One thing people must remember is that often we don’t use even common courtesy with our mate. We wouldn’t talk to strangers that way. I’ve known screamers who have driven away members (yes even their kids) with the shrieking and selfish demands. A mate is NOT a possession and will look for warmth and understanding some where. Had his wife, my lover’s, confronted me or him…I would have tried to tell her many things that might be missing in their relationship.
      She knew about us, yet never approached either of us…perhaps she knew all too well and just didn’t want to make an effort. All situations are different of course but try to talk them through. He and I didn’t marry because he had a young boy at home and in those days might have not been able to get even visitation!

      • Doug

        Eve, welcome and thanks for the comment. I find it interesting that she new but didn’t even confront her own spouse about the affair. Perhaps she just didn’t care as you suggest.

    • Last2know

      Jeffery, take my H for example, he and OW were busted by her H it was an EA. Since the fantasy was stopped in midstream will he ever know the real her? He is remorseful and doing all the right things. But I often wonder if he skipped that part of withdrawal. In which case I worry because I feel like there is “unfinished business”. He sent the No Contact letter etc. But this discussion makes me wonder about that. It will be 1 yr since DDay labor day weekend.

    • Jeffrey Murrah


      The best way I can address it is with a story. In the recovery (AA) community, participants often talk about the importance of have both sobriety and serenity. They know that someone who is not drinking, but does not have the serenity (e.g. peace of mind, no urge to drink and ok with it) is at a potential risk for drinking. They use the term dry drunk, because the know it is only a matter of time before they relapse.

      Given that human nature is what it is, the story has many applications for cheating. They may not be cheating on the outside, but have they given up the desire, the rationalizing and the fantasizing of it? A pastor once said of adultery, that “it happens in the head before it happens in the bed”. I believe, that the fantasies and desires have to be rooted out and serenity restored between the spouses, and within the cheater before it is truly over. When the fantasy part of their brain still nurses those thoughts, it will eventually find a way to act out on them. The dormant affair could spring up. Spouses need to be committed to each other, behaviorally, emotionally and spiritually.

      • stupidandtrusting

        This is one of the best columns for my needs – I have really struggled with understanding how my brilliant, reliable husband could have made such a poor choice. Our counselor has explained that I was offering him 95% of what he needed and she offered the other 5 – but to him, in his fog, it seemed so much more. At first, he felt she was a lot like me before real life began and ultimately, he is left with no fantasy about her at all. It has been a painful 3.5 months without question and I won’t say I have forgiven him but I can say I am well on my way to acceptance – some may say I have no choice, but in fact, I do. I had the choice to allow him to remain in my life and in my heart. I have seen in these recent months that his pain is real and true – not for her, not for loss, not grief but rather for us, for me. He is so clearly full of regret and shock at himself. We had the complication of his major depressive period made far worse by OW’s arrival – old girlfriend, tracked him down 30 years later, blah blah blah. He now sees her as one very, very sick and manipulative woman and sees himself in an equally negative light during that period. My husband is back now, healthy and strong and free from depression. Yes, there is still sadness but we are now laughing almost as much as crying. The change in my attitude, my ability to accept and begin to move forward may have much to do with my diagnosis of breast cancer but in the short run, it has made his EA far less important and in the long run, I think it will and has helped us to heal more quickly. Yes, we are afraid of the cancer, but I know we are more afraid to lose our marriage, our love, our family as we have known it for 28 years. I figure I have a choice to make now – be bitter or be better – I choose better and it is very hard work to do so but I am happy I have made that choice. I decided to do more than weather the effing storm of his EA and of my breast cancer, I am going to dance in the god damn rain. This terrible disease has shown me yet again why I love my husband and what he is capable of providing me. For all of you who don’t know how to move on, please consider how you would want to live if you had a scary diagnosis and just live it. I couldn’t see that before but I can now and I will live it with him by my side. Last night, we woke at 4 a.m., went up to our rooftop deck, made love under the stars and watched the Perseid meteor shower hand in hand. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. Better,not bitter. I am so sorry if I sound preachy and simplistic and I do know that my situation has definitely changed the course of our healing process. If there is to be a rainbow in my cancer, it is exactly that it has changed the course.

        • Doug

          Stupidandtrusting, Wow! What a very touching post. Thank you very much for sharing. Best of luck to you in your fight against cancer.

      • Linda

        Jeffrey, Obviously you know that I think way too much about things. I was wondering from the cheater’s perspective if it is an advantage to hold onto the fantasy. For one, if the fantasy stays alive the cheater won’t realize how stupid they were so they can continue to justify their actions. They believe they found the perfect person so it was ok. Secondly by portraying how perfect the OP is to their spouse they are gaining power. If Doug would have told me in the beginning that Tanya was jealous, controlling, moody and bitchy I probably would have told him that he can have her, you deserve each other. In contrast when Doug told me how perfect she was I lost all control, my insecurities came out and I was powerless. In essence he had me right where he wanted me. I tried to be what I thought she was along with everything else I was giving him, he had the wife of his dreams. Finally if the cheater lets go of the fantasy they will realize that they are not as perfect as they felt during the affair. All their insecurities, emptiness, failures will come right back to slap them on the face and that is humbling.

        Of course these reasons are all speculation of my part, you can certainly provide more insight than I can. As I said before I think way to deeply about things and maybe that is reason I would never enter an affair I would analyze so much that it wouldn’t be any fun. Linda

        • Jeffrey Murrah


          You definitely do some thinking. It sounds like you are connecting many of the pieces. The simple truth is that ‘the affair is alive until the fantasy is dead!’ Even though they may not be acting out, as long as the affair is running in their head, (including reruns), you will be dealing with affair behaviors. This is one of the dangers of couples role playing. It runs the danger of one of the spouses developing an attachment to the role that is stronger than the attachment to the spouse.

          The phenomena you are seeing is called ‘triangulation’. Rather than H and the OW teaming up against you, it is H and the fantasy teaming up against you. This type of communication occurs to avoid discussing and dealing with issues.

          When you said “if the fantasy stays alive the cheater won’t realize how stupid they were so they can continue to justify their actions.” you were seeing your H’s hidden needs. In this case, it appears that he is afraid of being seen as ‘stupid’ or a failure. Once you see it then you will be faced with the question, “What am I going to do about it?” Should you exploit it OR should you find better ways of dealing with it and learn how to turn it into a stronger attachment between you and him?

          The fantasies keep them from seeing the reality. The fantasies feed into their rationalizing of the affair. The fantasies keep them from facing their own needs and what they need from their spouses.

          • Linda

            Jeffrey, you gave me more to think about. I believe that what you are saying is the fantasy is just as dangerous as the OP and in order to move on we need to figure out why we got here in the first place. What issues, insecurities were present before the affair that are still present after the affair. Are you are saying that is important for the betrayed spouse to learn how to handle these issues in a manner that allows the cheater to feel safe rather than attacked. I wonder if we need to put our own pain aside and focus on the pain and emptiness of the cheater. All of us want to remove the third person in our marriages, rather it be the OP or the fantasy, I hope that you may be able to give us suggestions on how to do that. Linda

            • Jeffrey Murrah


              You are definitely connecting the dots. If I were still an active professor, you would definitely receive an A.

              You commented “I believe that what you are saying is the fantasy is just as dangerous as the OP and in order to move on we need to figure out why we got here in the first place.”

              The fantasy is dangerous, though not as dangerous as the actual cheating. You do need to figure out ‘how’ (replace why with how) it got there and the purpose it serves. When you decode that you are on your way to solving it.

              “What issues, insecurities were present before the affair that are still present after the affair.”

              I am saying that the issues that were there in the marriage relationship are still there after the affair. Those are the root problems that led to the choice to cheat in the first place. Removing the symptomatic behavior of cheating may reduce the pain, but it does not get to the ‘root’ of the problem.

              “Are you are saying that is important for the betrayed spouse to learn how to handle these issues in a manner that allows the cheater to feel safe rather than attacked. I wonder if we need to put our own pain aside and focus on the pain and emptiness of the cheater.”

              If you want to restore the marriage, YES, you need to learn how to handle (or resolve) these issues. Keeping your spouse on the defensive does not benefit them or you. Since marriage is a reciprocal relationship, the work you do on those issues will touch on your pain and emptiness issues as well. It has a ripple effect.

              “All of us want to remove the third person in our marriages, rather it be the OP or the fantasy, I hope that you may be able to give us suggestions on how to do that.”

              There is an old saying that there are four people at the altar when you marry. The two spouses and the spouses that they think they are marrying. As couples mature in their relationship, they learn how to love the real person rather than the fantasy person who they thought they married. They learn how to deal with ‘real’ hurts, needs, insecurities, etc. Recognizing that the fantasy has to be dealt with is a good start. Here are a few ways to start.

              1. Tell yourself the truth about yourself and your marriage.
              2. Accept that truth. Acceptance amounts to giving in to the reality of truth.
              3. Recognize that relationships need more than love in order to make them work.
              4. Being that the relationship is reciprocal, each party is responsible for bringing love to the table. That ripple effect I mentioned earlier operates both ways.
              5. When you resist something, it only makes it stronger. This includes resisting your spouse, their qualities and their needs. It also includes you, your qualities and your needs.

              There are more, but this is enough to get you or anyone else started on the path of healing.

            • Linda

              Jeffrey, thank you for your input. Improving my marriage and my self are my highest priority however I also feel that in order to help anyone who visits our sight I need to understand some of the issues I am struggling with. I know that I am expecting some huge revelation to drop in my lap and have realized that is unrealistic. I am learning that everything is a process, that takes time and cannot be accomplished alone, I need to employ Doug in this journey.

              I am not sure if this was your intent but I realized something about myself through your comment, I realized that I am still trying to be a fixer, and I am feeling overwhelmed by this task. Your comments helped me to see that in order for our relationship to be successful both of us need equally bring everything to the table. I feel that maybe I am too overzealous and I need to just let it go so we equally share the responsibility. Just a thought, as usual I am my own therapist. Thanks again for all your comments. Linda

    • Donna

      stupidandtrusting, thank you for your post. I am deeply touched by it. With tears streaming down my face I have decided to live my life the happiest I know how. I am at peace with what my husband has done, I can’t change the past, I can only choose ow I act today and each day after that one. Since I have been doping this, my husband and I are able to have some pretty good talks without the anger and he is showing so much more emotion as well. I have also found out that just because I think he and OW affair was all lovely with the odd fight here and there, it is actually not all that I have made it out to be. My husband needs to learn to love himself again, I do not know how he is going to do this again. He can’t give me anything that I need right now as he needs to love him and take care of him. I will supposrt him and love him by just being here. I do hope, and that is now my favourite word.. HOPE… that by my quiet loving support for him that will be the glue that gels us back together.

      I do wish you all the best in your recovery and I am so glad your husband is there to love and supposrt you through your struggle.

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