How Cheaters Justify Cheating – The Psychology of Betrayal
One of the most confusing aspects of being cheated on is how your cheating partner can claim that they didn’t think about you, your kids, home, family, friends, community, or employment – especially if they cheated with someone at work, before they cheated or even while they were cheating.
While on the surface it defies belief that someone could intentionally take all the steps and actions necessary to have an affair (or affairs) and claim that they never thought it would hurt you, here’s why it makes sense, and how it is possible for your partner to never think that their cheating would hurt you.
The Mindset of a Cheater – Compartmentalization
Have you ever driven during a blinding storm? How about dug deep during a sporting or fitness event in order to excel or simply to finish? What about buckled down and spent a successful day in the office despite an upsetting personal situation? How about muscled through a funeral of a loved one?
I have, and if you are anything like me, I know that you have too. I even remember taking the SAT exam in high school and consciously not focusing on how badly I needed to use the restroom! You see, I had mainlined coffee that morning not realizing that leaving the test to use the restroom was not allowed.
All of these scenarios are examples of compartmentalization, which is a psychological defense mechanism than enables someone to suppress their thoughts and emotions. All humans use some form of compartmentalization to put uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, or realities aside and function successfully in life. While compartmentalization is a normal, healthy, and useful skill, it can reach unhealthy levels if it goes too far.
As is the case in cheating. Compartmentalization that goes too far is most often the result of the biological differences between men’s brains and women’s brains, and toxic masculine socialization.
How Men’s Brains Differ from Women’s Brains
Although everybody can, and does, compartmentalize, men’s brains are wired differently than women’s brains. While you can learn all the details here, the upshot is that due to hormonal surges in developing fetuses, men’s brains are literally wired for compartmentalization and are they see less connection between things than women do.
Think of a man’s brain as being a chest of drawers and a woman’s brain being a plate of spaghetti. Men keep things separate, distinct, and see things in one drawer as having no relationship or impact on things in a different drawer. Whereas women more easily see the interconnectedness of everything.
How Men Justify Cheating – Men, Culture, and the Masculinization of Disconnection
Walk it off! Man up. Pull it together. Get a grip and get hold of yourself! These phrases are examples of the messages we give our boys and men encouraging them to disconnect from what they are feeling in the moment, to compartmentalize their discomfort, and to go to another place in themselves so they can deal with the task at hand – making the play, suffering through discomfort, or stuffing down their tears.
Our culture encourages men to compartmentalize and teaches them that stoicism is a hallmark of masculinity that is something to be proud of. Men are taught that being a man means being able to compartmentalize and disconnect from painful feelings. But sadly, for both men and those who love them, men are not taught how to go back, reconnect with, and process those painful feelings at a later date. Without an outlet for these difficult emotions and feelings, many men become masters at compartmentalization, justification, and disconnection form themselves and others.
Is it any wonder that a man caught cheating will inevitably tell you that he didn’t think about you during his affair? He didn’t. He compartmentalized his illicit behavior, treating it as something that was not a part of his “real” self or life. Because in his brain, it wasn’t, it was in a different “drawer,” enabling him to subconsciously not connect his “married self” with his “cheating self,” “fatherly self,” or even his “community self.”
Why Men Don’t Think About You When They Cheat
Look at it this way. Have you ever lost your mind and screamed at your kids in utter exhaustion and frustration? Have you ever tailgated or roared around a slow driver in the left lane who seemed to be intentionally driving at the exact same speed as the driver in the right-hand lane? Yup, me too.
But I don’t identify as a screaming, out of control mom. Nor would I ever say that I’m an aggressive driver. Even though, according to my actions, I have been in the moment. It’s just that in my mind I’m a good person. In my heart and mind, I’m a patient and loving mom, a calm and rational driver. I compartmentalized my “out of character” behavior and I dismiss it in my own mind because I know that I’m a good person.
I don’t think about the long-term damage to my kids. The confusion and fear that they must feel seeing mom turn into a temporary psycho. Nor do I think about the car accident I might cause. Whether or not people in surrounding cars are safely buckled in, whether their kids, dogs, or other loved ones are in the car with them, or the grief and pain their loved ones would experience if they were maimed or killed. I don’t think of any of that in the moment, and if it crosses my mind later, I promptly shut it down so the grief and pain doesn’t overwhelm me.
The same is true for many a cheating spouse.
What do Ax Murderers, Pedophiles, War Criminals, and Cheating Spouses Have in Common?
No, this is not the beginning to a bad joke! While the preceding statement may be a little dramatic, the sentiment remains true. No matter what disaster you are reading about – murder, child abuse, torture, or adultery what you will hear most often from the people who knew the perpetrator is, I am so shocked! He is the last person I would have ever expected to do such a thing!
How many times does someone who could otherwise only be described as a monster lead a bland, normal, or even upstanding life? Some Nazi officers who literally tortured humans by day were loving, jovial husbands and fathers by night. Some priests who served their parishioners humbly and compassionately for decades routinely abused boys.
Compartmentalization and learned disconnection.
Can Cheating Ever be Justified?
While cheating is never justified and is always wrong, it is important for the betrayed partner to gain an understanding of why his or her partner cheated. Understanding brings peace, and peace eventually brings forgiveness.
As someone who stayed with her partner after his infidelity, I can honestly say that even though I don’t totally get it in my heart, I do understand it in my head. I see how my husband is, and always was a “good person” and most importantly how his cheating, behaviors, and actions truly had nothing to do with me. Or our family, friends, community, or situation.
Wherever you are at on your journey, it’s my greatest hope that you can find the understanding, peace and eventually forgiveness that you desire. For more information, download a copy of my Betrayal Recovery Guide at www.BetrayalRecoveryGuide.com