If your spouse has an affair, are you partially to blame? Why do people cheat in relationships anyway?
That’s been something I’ve been debating heatedly on Facebook and Twitter this week, because I saw this Facebook status by Focus on the Family:
I found this rather disturbing, and posted it both on Facebook and Twitter. I’d say that about 80% of people agreed with me, but some pushed back. So I’d like to spend today talking about why I think this approach to infidelity is toxic.
I really don’t want to talk about this. “Why do people cheat” wasn’t my planned topic for today. I had another post all planned for today–how a husband can know if his wife has had an orgasm. I’ve been planning posts on sexual tips for the rest of the summer, and I want to get back to fun stuff! But when an organization as influential as Focus on the Family says something this off-base, I feel like I have a responsibility to respond, because I know that this message is hurting people.
Please note, too, that I’m not commenting on the book itself. I don’t know the book; I haven’t read the book; I don’t plan on reading the book (I currently have a backlog of 11 books that are waiting for endorsements I need to read!). My issue is with the way that Focus on the Family chose to introduce the book–just those few words,
Her husband’s infidelity didn’t mean the end of Tina Konkin’s marriage. Her willingness to answer the question, “What role did you play in this?” saved her marriage.
So let’s jump in!
Rebuilding a marriage after an affair is a two-step process: Repentance of the one who cheated, and then addressing the relationship
Many people, in the comments, were conflating the two. “Knowing how you played your role in marriage problems is essential if you want to rebuild!” I’d agree. It is.
But here’s the thing.
You can’t rebuild until the cheater repents.
The first step must be repentance. In this case “why do people cheat” isn’t the right question. No ifs, ands, or buts. If Focus on the Family had said something like:
He had an affair and repented. She found the strength to forgive–and the humility to rebuild the marriage.
I’d be fine with that. But the way that Focus worded that status, the thing that mattered was not his repentance but her acknowledging her role. That’s toxic thinking. Here’s why:
A cheater is solely responsible for the infidelity. “Why do people cheat” is less important than the cheater acknowledging it was their choice.
but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.
Cheating is a sin that one person does. Nobody else causes it. We are solely responsible for our own sin. The Bible lays the blame for lust and adultery at the cheater’s feet:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to depart into hell.
Why do people cheat isn’t the point. Even if a spouse is acting badly, there are other choices than infidelity.
Jen Grice, one of the people interacting about this on Twitter, put it this way:
I agree. I hear that excuse all the time – “well she wasn’t a good wife!”… but you still cheated instead of setting boundaries, seeking counseling and then divorcing your “not good wife.” Totally makes sense!
Exactly. Even if a spouse is doing something truly awful–withholding sex for months or years at a time; ignoring you; even abusing you–there are other choices. You separate. You see a counselor. You draw boundaries.
Infidelity is a sin, and it needs to be treated as such. The question “why do people cheat” implies that the primary blame lies on the spouse, not the person who acted sinfully.
Let’s give someone the benefit of the doubt, though, and assume that the cheating husband was actually wonderful, but the wife drove him to it because she was an ogre and a nag and emotionally abusive. It is still up to him to repent of the cheating BEFORE they can work on the relationship. Once he’s repented, he may find that they can’t rebuild because of her issues, and he may separate as he should have done in the first place. But he still has to repent first.
It does not always “take two to tango” in the case of cheating
The “it takes two to tango” line can be very toxic, because it does NOT always take two to tango. I have known many marriages where one spouse is legitimately trying to have a good marriage, and one spouse isn’t putting in any effort at all. In many cases the problems even predate the marriage! A man walks down the aisle with an unconfessed porn issue. He continues to text other women and watch porn. She tries everything she can to be sexier and to be available, but he isn’t interested. That story is repeated time and time again.
Even if we do believe that it takes two to tango, does that mean that if you’re not perfect, your spouse’s cheating can partially be blamed on you? I’ve written before about how Keith and I went through a season of distance in our marriage a few years ago. It wasn’t anyone’s fault; it was just life, and we eventually realized it and changed some things to stop it. But if, in the middle of all that, one of us had had an affair, would the other be partially to blame? Neither of us was being cruel to the other or ignoring the other. We were just growing apart.
When you say that normal changes that happen in a marriage, that normal human interactions, can be part of the “cause” of someone cheating, then you create an environment where cheating can always happen, because no relationship, and no person, can be perfect. The expectation that someone will not cheat must be absolute. If it is not, then we end up justifying horrendous sin, and we give the person cheating an excuse and a reason to keep doing it.
When you say that normal changes that happen in a marriage, that normal human interactions, can be part of the “cause” of someone cheating, then you create an environment where cheating can always happen, because no relationship, and no person, can be perfect.
The Bible says that infidelity is grounds for divorce. We should not heap more blame on the innocent spouse than God does.
If the Bible tells you that you can divorce due to adultery, without saying something like,
Divorce is permitted in cases of adultery, unless that adultery is partially your fault.
then we should not heap more guilt on someone that the Bible does. God considers infidelity a breach of the covenant. He does not say, “but you may have played a part in that, and so sometimes infidelity really isn’t the problem–you were.” No, God considers it a grave evil. We should as well. That does not mean that you cannot rebuild. It simply means that the gravity of the sin must be faced first before we can move on to rebuilding. Why? Because:
You can’t rebuild until the cheating has been dealt with, or there will always be an element of emotional blackmail.
Until the cheater has said, “I am fully to blame for the cheating, I own the cheating, and I will not do it again no matter what”, you can’t move on. You cannot rebuild trust in a marriage until both parties know that the person is truly committed and won’t cheat again. If the cheater is justifying the cheating based on something that you did, then no trust can ever be rebuilt, because you have no guarantee that they will not cheat again.
No spouse can be perfect. To say that a spouse has a role in their spouse’s cheating puts an undue burden on people that we aren’t meant to have and that Jesus does not put there.
If your lack of libido caused his cheating, then what happens the next time you go through a dry spell? How are you supposed to embrace sex and get a high libido if you’re doing it under the threat of blackmail–if you don’t keep him sexually satisfied, he’ll stray? If your busy-ness with the children caused him to stray, then what’s going to happen if one of your children is diagnosed with an illness and you go through a period of time shuttling back and forth to the hospital while still trying to manage the household? Do you have to fear that he will stray again?
That’s why rebuilding the marriage MUST be a separate step than dealing with the cheating.
The cheating must be confessed and repented of first before you rebuild, before you address relational issues. Yes, quite often there was drift going on in a marriage, and a marriage slowly disintegrated. That can leave a spouse vulnerable to cheating. But that choice to cheat is still entirely on them. Once they’ve owned it and committed to the relationship again, THEN you can address those things that caused the drift. But you can only do it when the threat of cheating is lifted. But there’s another problem with this “let me figure out my role in the cheating” mindset, and it’s this one:
Not all marriages with infidelity can be saved, even if the innocent spouse is willing to work on things. “Why do people cheat?” Well sometimes it’s because a spouse had and still has an unrepentant, sinful heart.
When we make it appear that the key to saving a marriage after infidelity is for the innocent spouse to figure out what her role in the cheating was, then if the marriage isn’t saved, the blame for that is also partially laid at the innocent spouse’s feet. Sometimes a marriage can’t be saved, no matter how hard you try. You cannot change another person. But there’s a broader issue that I see with a lot of marriage advice, and it’s this one:
When we make marriage the idol, we often give advice that focuses on keeping a marriage intact rather than advice that focuses on pointing people to Jesus.
Advice tends to get directed at the spouse that most desperately wants to save a marriage, and frequently that’s the spouse who is cheated upon. She (or he) wants to rebuild. They hear the question “why do people cheat” and start looking for ways they might have been to blame. So you look for advice that tells you what to do. You’re desperate for an answer that will make your spouse come back to you.
Much of that advice will heap blame on you, because you’re the only one whose actions can be influenced. What often ends up happening, then, is that a whole ton of marriage advice focuses on victim blaming–how to stop him from cheating by being sexier, more available, less critical, less tired, less involved with the kids. But it never really addresses the problem. It just gives fodder to the cheating spouse–“I cheated because you did X and Y. You’re still doing X and Y, so it’s not my fault.”
Ironically, Focus on the Family used to understand that this was a bad message. My favourite Focus on the Family book has always been James Dobson’s book Love Must Be Tough, written in the 1980s I believe. I haven’t read it since the early 90s, so I may not remember it correctly, but my impression was that he was writing to people whose spouses had cheated on them, telling them they had to get firm with infidelity, draw clear boundaries, and allow the spouse to experience the consequences of their actions. Dobson knew you can’t rebuild at all until the cheater has firmly owned up and put the affair in the past. And Dobson was trying to write a book for those wanting to save the marriage when the other spouse doesn’t seem to–because of an affair or some other reason. HIs answer? It wasn’t to blame yourself. It was to draw clear boundaries and say, “no more!”
He’s right. That approach works.
I do believe that most marriages can rebuild after infidelity, and that the question “why do people cheat” can eventually be asked. But only IF the cheating spouse takes responsibility for the cheating, and IF they are both willing to work on the relationship.
I do believe that both spouses need a lot of humility and introspection if a marriage will be rebuilt. But asking “why do people cheat” can only be done once the cheater has repented.
The first step is always the cheater recognizing his (or her) sin; not in the innocent spouse accepting blame. When we get the order wrong, we seriously distort the emotional dynamics in the marriage and cause huge problems.
I thought that Focus on the Family would have known that, and I am grieved that they presented this book in that light. I only hope that with all the negative feedback they’re getting, they’ll reconsider and recognize how toxic their approach is.
Again, I don’t want to sit here and beat up on organizations or other authors. I really would rather write the stuff that I like to write–about how to make sex great, or how to fun in your marriage! Dissecting how “why do people cheat?” is a damaging question isn’t fun. But sometimes big things happen and I feel like I have to respond. Jesus said, about His mission, that:
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
A lot of teaching that is directed at women in the Christian church has women in bondage, and I really want to set them free (and, in the case of men whose wives have cheated on them, set them free, too!).
But I’m still looking forward to some posts about orgasms and feeling sexy coming up soon!
For today, I’d like to end with this comment left on Facebook, which I felt summed up everything well:
The problem isn’t that a wife saw how she contributed to a rocky marriage. That absolutely does happen.
But a choice to cheat is on the cheater. Asking “why do people cheat” is victim blaming, and there’s plenty of that going around already.
And the problem is that there is a HUGE problem of women being blamed for things without there being proper blame on the husband.
A woman is cheated on – well what did she do? Did she sleep with him enough? Disrespect him?
A woman is raped – well what was she wearing? Did she go out somewhere alone? Why didn’t she scream louder?
A woman is abused – well did she make him angry? Did she start the argument? Was she struggling to submit?
Marriages are two people. These people are flawed and I actually believe marriages can survive infidelity. And I think it is totally great to look at ourselves and see how we can improve in a marriage. But it isn’t about accepting the blame for the sin of others. It isn’t about “why do people cheat” in other words.
And it is such a slippery slope that we know occurs – where women get the blame and men get off without blame because they were “pushed”.
There needs to be caution in how we approach this. Because a woman who was just cheated on could see only this post and think she was the problem. She wasn’t.
Yep. Great way to sum it up. “Why do people cheat” isn’t the right question, especially not early on, and implying that it is is dangerous.