For the new year, I put out a call for questions on my newsletter about surviving disaster. Nearly a dozen people wrote to ask me a similar question: how does one forgive themselves if they are the one who cheated?
You might expect that I have some charged feelings where this is concerned, given my past and the circumstances surrounding my divorce, and you’d be right. All the more reason to dive in and really think deep about the topic.
I will tell you that the degrees to which “cheating” can be measured are varied. There isn’t just “cheating” and that’s it. Like everything in the world, there’s gradients. “Cheating” can be anything from emotional cheating (getting your emotional needs met by someone other than your mate) to physical cheating (sexytimes), but there’s also degrees to how far it goes. A one night stand on a business trip, for example, is far different than a pattern of Craigslist meetups, which is far different than months or years of living a double life and having a second relationship (or third, or fourth), complete with lies and betrayal and all that sort of devious stuff.
Just like “Stealing” can range from shoplifting a candy bar, to an 18 month long con job milking a widower out of his life savings through a manipulative scheme involving any manner of horrible and disgusting acts. it’s not fair to just lump everything under the one banner. So when it comes to “cheating” and forgiveness, the answer isn’t so simple. You can’t just ask “How do I forgive myself for cheating?” It’s far too simple.
The very first step of forgiving yourself for ANY transgression: you have to acknowledge what you’ve actually done.
This is going to hurt.
You can’t just glibly say “yeah, I did a bad thing.” You need to pull this bad thing out of its little black bag and really look at it. You didn’t just cheat. You put your wants — NOT NEEDS, WANTS — above someone else’s feelings. You completely disrespected the other person. You were selfish. If you carried on an affair or another relationship, you also lied. You manipulated. You did something pretty shitty, and you did it so you could have what you want, regardless of what it would do to the other person.
And it’s tempting to say that that’s why you kept it secret; so they wouldn’t hurt. No. You kept it secret so you could have your cake and eat it too. Or better, as my friend Andy put it, “You want extra frosting without buying another piece of cake.” You wanted what you wanted, but you didn’t want to lose what you had.
Second, you need to come clean. Honesty is the scalpel that cuts the infection out. It hurts, yes. But it removes all the dangerous, horrible elements which complicate the healing process. It’s also a sign of respect. But this is where I take a little bit of a turn: the honesty is inside yourself. You need to not hide from your transgression. You need to face it head on. Take responsibility. Own it.
Third, if they don’t know, tell them. You have kids? A house? A business? Stuff to protect? How much more do you value all that crap than the truth? Because that’s the choice you’re making when you decide to keep a lie a lie. They’re going to be mad, of course. If you felt the need to hide it, there’s a really, really great reason, and their anger is probably at least half of it. Own up. Tell the truth.
Fourth, for God’s sake, knock it off. No more. You want to have more sex with other people? Let your mate go. You want to explore the emotional depths of romance with someone online? Let your mate go. It’s unfair to stray from the spot you expect them to stay.
Lastly, forgiving yourself isn’t really about any of the stuff above. Those things are definitely necessary, but they’re only the steps to this final bit: Change. It’s not enough to ‘never do this again.’ That’s just part of being the person who has learned from their mistakes, and never repeats them. One is a behavior, the other is a mindset. You can do the behavior (never cheating again) without learning your lesson. My hope is that you never cheat again because you don’t need to. And that’s going to require some help. It’s going to demand you do some soul searching. It means everything I listed above to start, and a pretty deep self interrogation as to what made you do this in the first place.
It’s not going to be easy. It’s just what you need to do if you really want to forgive yourself. And don’t fall into the traps of wondering if you are a bad person or bagging on yourself. That self-abuse might feel somewhat necessary and you might feel justified in it, but it’s actually pretty counter-productive. If you’re feeling like you’re a bad person, the antidote is to do non-bad-person things. The above list gets you most of the way there.
Now, as for the other person: It’s not actually necessary for them to accept your apologies for you to forgive yourself. When you ask for forgiveness from someone, what you’re really doing is asking for permission to forgive yourself. And you don’t need that. It’s not part of the recipe (although it is REALLY nice to have). In time, if you’ve truly looked at what you’ve done and learned from it and changed, they’ll see it. And if they never forgive you, well, that’s their problem. They’re going to have to carry that weight for as long as they decide to.
The same goes for you. Go through the wrong steps, you’ll simply delay carrying the weight… But it’ll still be there waiting for you. But if you pick it up and carry it and do what you know you need to do to process what you’ve done, it’ll get lighter and lighter, pound by pound, until one day you don’t have to carry it anymore — because it’ll be truly gone.
And that’s the ultimate goal: to move forward and be better tomorrow than you were today. Just because you screwed up doesn’t mean you’re condemned to be a screwup your entire life. You are what you make yourself. Let this be a lesson in how not to do it, and learn from it.
I hope this helps.
This post originated from my daily newsletter on surviving disaster, full of non-bullshit inspiration and real talk. Check it out if you need something like that in your life (and if you want to see the kinds of things it covers, check out the archives). I also write quite a lot on my blog about topics ranging from Star Wars to media manipulation to divorce and recovery. It’s the best blog that has ever been linked to from this article. Read and enjoy!
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