Responding to the Cheater
If you determine that your partner has been cheating on you, there arises the question of how to respond to this revelation. The following are some suggestions.
It is an extremely good idea to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases. While people often worry they will be ridiculed or humiliated, this is almost certainly not the case. Health care professionals are trained to be professional about such matters and often tend to be sympathetic towards people who have been betrayed by their partners.
Even if you and your partner practiced safe sex, it is still a good idea to get tested. Even with due precautions it is still possible to become infected. You owe it to yourself and any future partners to be sure that you are not infected.
Some people believe that a cheater will always be a cheater and hence can never be trusted. While some people might be incorrigible cheaters, it seems unlikely that every cheat is beyond redemption and incapable of changing their ways. After all, people do change in the face of experience and some people do change for the better. Think of wrongs that you have committed in the past and ask yourself if you have been able to become a better person and not repeat your mistakes. Think of wrongs that you have done that you hope will be forgiven or, even better, wrongs that have been forgiven. If you can think of such things, then you might be able to forgive the cheat.
If you think that forgiving the cheat is about doing something for them, keep in mind that such forgiveness is mainly for your benefit. Bearing a grudge and refusing to forgive a person can wear on you-causing stress and perhaps even making you a worse person. This is not to say that the cheater should be pardoned completely, just that letting the anger go can be good for the heart and the soul. Holding onto the anger can have terrible effect on your next relationship by impairing your ability to trust others.
Because of the possibility of forgiveness, reconciliation can sometimes occur. Sometimes the person who has been betrayed is able to forgive the cheater and the relationship can be restored to a semblance of its previous state. Some people do learn and are able to change from a cheater to a loyal partner. While this can happen, it is a good idea to be wary of people who merely pretend to be reformed cheaters. While people can and do change, people also tend to stick with established patterns of behavior.
When you are wronged it is natural to want to wrong the person who harmed you in return. On one hand, there are good reasons to punish the cheater. On the other hand, there are good reasons not to do so.
One reason to punish a cheater is the psychological need for revenge. You might, it could be reasoned, feel better after punishing the person and thus be better able to move on. Of course, not everyone has this need and it can be argued that this need shows a character defect. However, the need is understandable. One reason not to punish for revenge is that doing so can make you a worse person-a vengeful human being.
A second reason to punish the cheater is that they deserve punishment. Some might argue that punishing the cheater is like punishing a criminal-the punishment is needed to set things right. This has a certain appeal. After all, we do owe others for the good they do us, so it would seem (by analogy) that we owe them bad for the evil they do us. Of course, doing wrong for wrong seems to merely double the wrong being done, thus providing a reason not to do this.
A third reason to punish the cheater is to deter them from doing it again. As philosophers such as Hobbes and Glaucon (in Plato’s Republic) have argued, if people can commit their misdeeds without fear of punishment, then they will continue to commit those misdeeds. But, if they are punished, then they will be much less inclined to commit their injustices in the future. One reason not to do this is that it is not clear that cheaters will learn to be more loyal from being punished.
If you decide that the cheater needs to be punished, then there is the question of the nature of the punishment. Before considering what action to take, it is very important to be aware that law enforcement officials generally do not consider cheating to justify taking action against a person.
People often entertain the idea of doing physical harm to the cheater or his/her property. For example, every time cheating is discussed in my ethics classes someone (for some reason it is always a woman…) brings up keying the cheater’s car. Laying aside the immorality of such deeds, harming a person or his/her property is generally illegal and doing so can end with criminal prosecution. In the past, courts were often lenient in such cases-even acquitting men who killed their spouses for cheating. However, those days seem to have fortunately passed and vengeance for cheating is much less well regarded in the courts. While fantasizing about torching the cheater’s prized Trans Am can have some psychological benefit, actually doing so would probably result in a law suit or even jail time.
People sometimes entertain the idea of exposing the cheater to the world thus shaming them and warning others. Of course, doing so will also reveal to the world that you have been cheated on and might cause you some embarrassment.
Some people say that the cheater is punished by not having them as a partner anymore. While this does reveal a certain degree of arrogance, it is certainly a peaceful and legal approach. Of course, the cheater might or might not consider this a punishment-they might simply move on to a new relationship (or, more likely, relationships) without any suffering on their part.
Perhaps the best way to “punish” the cheater is to move on and create a loyal, healthy and loving relationship with another person. A true cheater will never be able to have such a relationship and although the cheater might believe s/he is happy, this is almost certainly self delusion. In a sense, by denying themselves loyal and healthy relationships, the cheaters are punishing themselves.