There are a few things that are going on in the mind of a cheater when it comes to deciding on whether to end their affair or not.
I’ve had a couple of mentoring clients lately who are going through a period where their cheating spouse won’t make up their mind to end the affair and come back to the marriage.
This feeling of being in “limbo” is probably one of the most frustrating and agonizing period after an affair that there is. There are a few things that are going through the mind of a cheater that might explain their wishy-washiness.
Quite often the person having an affair doesn’t really have a clue of what they want to do following the discovery of their affair. That is, do they want to leave their wife and family for their affair partner, or do they want to end the affair and remain in the marriage?
The Mind of a Cheater is Often Full of Uncertainty
To a large degree, the cheater is feeling ambivalent and uncertain. They want to keep their options open as long as possible – because they want to hold onto the fantasy like, feel-good aspects of the affair while still holding open the possibility of eventually returning to the marriage.
More than likely the cheater does not have the clarity of vision to see that this is what is going on inside their head. All they know is that they don’t want to face the fallout that comes with making a choice. After all, in the mind of a cheater, there are less than desirable consequences regardless of the decision they make. As Peggy Vaughan, author of “The Monogamy Myth” states:
“Often it becomes a classic “approach/avoidance” situation where the closer they come to making a decision in one direction, the more likely they are to shift toward the other decision.”
(Click here for a definition of approach and avoidance conflict)
And here is a short video by veteran therapist, Pete Gerlach that goes into what you can do about approach-avoidance in relationships.
It’s important to note that during this time the cheater is being heavily influenced by their affair partner – who is now stepping up their game – as they are openly discussing their dilemma with them.
However, in most cases the cheater is not openly discussing what’s going on in their head with their spouse. Any attempt by the betrayed spouse to “persuade” the cheater to stay in the marriage, usually falls on deaf ears. The cheater perceives this as an attempt to control him/her, rather than as an attempt to let them know what is truly in their best interests.
During the height of the affair, the cheater focuses on the “positive” aspects of leaving the marriage in order to be with their affair partner. They are comparing the positives of the affair with the negatives of the marriage. But as the final decision looms, they start to have second thoughts and often shift their thinking to the potential negative impact that leaving the marriage will have. There could be financial concerns, family concerns, concerns about their future with their affair partner or other issues that are now weighing on the mind of the cheater.
The result is that the cheater delays making any decision – often indefinitely – and may only make a final decision when either the betrayed spouse or the affair partner insists.
This is not to suggest that an ultimatum should be given, as they often backfire, but it’s smart for the betrayed spouse to clarify that he/she also has a decision to make, and that the future of their relationship is not just up to the cheater.
During this time of cheater ambivalence, it’s important for the betrayed spouse to work on himself/herself and find the courage and strength to not neglect other areas of life.
They mustn’t be clingy, needy or come off as being pitiful. The betrayed must do things that bring them some semblance of confidence and self-worth so they don’t lose their true self-concept.
Ultimately, the cheater must understand the unfairness of the position that he/she has put both the betrayed spouse and the affair partner in and must make a clear decision and commitment to ending the affair and focusing on rebuilding the marriage.
There is always the possibility that the marriage will eventually not work out, but in the mind of the cheater, at least they can make a more rational decision about the prospects for the marriage when they are not comparing it to the fantasy of their affair.
*This article was originally posted on June 2, 2012 and updated on 10/13/2020