Cheating in a Nutshell: What Infidelity Does to the Victim
I recommend to readers the book Cheating in a Nutshell: What Infidelity Does to the Victim, published in September 2019. It’s written by an advice columnist couple, Tamara and Wayne Mitchell, on the basis of 3,000 letters they’ve received. They’re not professional psychologists, but they’ve done an impressive amount of psychological and sociological research. They have an overly pessimistic view of the viability of a betrayed staying with a betrayer, but they say some things that, from my experience, I think are true:
– Infidelity marks an indelible before and after in a marriage.
– Most memories fade, but trauma memories are unique in not fading.
– Staying with a betrayer is biologically as well as emotionally counter-intuitive.
– DAST is the natural reaction to betrayal: Disgust, Anger, Suspicion, Trauma.
– Reports of post-betrayal marriage improvement are probably false or exaggerated.
Among many sobering and sometimes devastating resonances I find in Cheating in a Nutshell is this: 80% of relationships where cheating occurs end – relationships, not marriages. So, yes, while research suggests that only 30% of marriages end after cheating, when cheating occurs while unmarried people are ‘dating’ or in a ‘longterm relationship’ or ‘living together’ – well, they do the obvious: end the relationship.
Cheating in a Nutshell is a tough and well-researched book that counsels victims of cheating to leave those relationships because they will never recover. The authors’ arguments are well made and powerful. However, while they uncover lots of important truths along the way, they don’t have the whole truth. There are just too many of us who have made a go of it after suffering adultery. But the book does reaffirm the hard lines of some truths: Adultery is abuse. A marriage will never be the same. Trust can never be rebuilt entirely. The reactions that many betrayed spouses feel are not the result of personality peculiarities but are built into the human organism biologically.
Here are some particular insights:
– Degrees of trauma correlate with sources: Trauma from natural disasters like earthquake, fire, flood, heart attacks. Trauma from inadvertent human action, like many car collisions. Trauma from deliberate human action, like assault, murder, workplace intrigue. But trauma from deliberate human action by an intimate, by someone whom you have let into your inner sanctum of intimacy, is the most severe and searing – here is where adultery fits. It’s why in virtually all societies divorce is accepted for adultery.
– Trauma treatment typically includes removing victim from the scene and assuring the victim that they are no longer in that situation despite the dreams, flashbacks and so on. But when an adultery victim stays in the marriage they are staying at the scene of the crime and staying with the perpetrator of the crime. So it’s no wonder that staying in the marriage is not only difficult but that the flashbacks, the replaying, and the struggle with relationship continue indefinitely.
– Lying: ‘A lie is an assumption of power over another. A lie is an assault that attacks not only the dignity of the other person but also their physical and mental wellbeing. A lie steals power from the one deceived. It reduces their alternatives. It causes the betrayed person to act as they never would have acted had they known the truth. A liar deliberately feeds inaccurate information, and when there are children, the lies reverberate in their lives as well. As ethicist Sissela Bok says, ‘The greater the actual gap between role and reality, the more constant the need for concealment.’ The more the concealment and the longer the concealment, the greater the damage. . . . Infidelity wounds because it is an attack from the human being with the highest level of access to our private, personal, intimate information. No one else possesses that kind of knowledge or that kind of power.’
– The authors deconstruct forgiveness as commonly understood as saying, ‘People who do bad things always get to win.’ And: ‘I gave as a victim, and now you are telling me to give again. That puts me in a way to be victimized a second time.’ Yes, give up the resentment, but also exit the relationship, otherwise your cheating alarm will always be on. And: ‘More forgiving spouses experience a constant level of psychological and physical aggression from their partner. Less forgiving spouses saw aggression from their partner decline over time.’
– ‘How people manage to stay, and the likely answer is through cognitive distortion. People often stay with a cheater by kidding themselves about their own and his or her motives. They also stay by trying to accommodate to the pain they feel and making it the new normal.’
As a betrayed spouse, I’m committed to healing and reconciling in my marriage, and my wife and I have made a lot of progress. Cheating in a Nutshell argues otherwise, and I disagree with the authors’ pessimistic conclusion. Nevertheless their insights are helpful for us betrayed spouses to keep in mind.