‘Can a cheater change?’ is one of the trickiest, most loaded relationship questions there is. It’s easy to assume ‘once a cheater, always a cheater’ but the question still remains, can a cheater change their ways? If you’ve been cheated once, it will be difficult for you to trust your partner again and you’ll always be looking for signs he will cheat again, or wondering to yourself, ‘will my wife cheat again?’
Jess, whose long-term partner cheated on her after 7 years of being together, is skeptical. “I’m not sure cheaters can change,” she says. “For my partner, it was all about the thrill of the pursuit, the chase. I don’t even know if he had feelings for the woman he cheated on me with. He just wanted to prove to himself that he could get her.”
As we said, it’s tough to be dispassionate when you’ve been cheated on. But, let’s look deeper. How do cheaters feel about themselves? And can a serial cheater change, really change?
We talked to Shazia Saleem (Masters in Psychology), who specializes in separation and divorce counseling, and Kranti Momin Sihotra (Masters in Clinical Psychology), who specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, for some insights into whether or not a cheating spouse or partner can really change.
Is It True Once A Cheater Always A Cheater?
“I think once someone cheats, it’s impossible to trust them again,” says Judy. “My husband and I were both in our 40s when he had a brief fling with a younger woman. Now, I don’t know if she was the first, or one of several other women. But in my mind, if he could do it once and shatter 15 years of marriage, he could do it again. I kept looking for signs he will cheat again and wondering, “Can a man change after cheating?” It drove me crazy, and we eventually divorced.”
5 Signs You’re With A Serial Cheater
While there might not be concrete evidence of ‘once a cheater, always a cheater’, it doesn’t hurt to look out for a few signs that your partner or spouse is liable to stray over and over again. If you’re suspicious that your partner is cheating and has cheated before, here are some things to observe.
1. They downplay the importance of fidelity
If your partner is constantly laughing off the concept of commitment and saying things like ‘what’s the big deal about staying with one person forever’, there’s a chance they’ll be looking for a little fun outside the relationship. There’s also the chance they’re big-time commitment-phobes, in which case they’re not good for you anyway.
2. Their charm is a little too potent
Charm is great, but do you feel your partner is a little too charming? Also, do they set out to charm everyone they meet and enjoy the attention it brings them? For many serial cheaters, it’s knowing that they can get what they want simply with a smile and a charming word or two that brings a thrill and makes them want to taste the forbidden fruit over and over again.
3. They have an alarming ability to lie
Now, every relationship comes with a few little white lies. But if your partner’s ability to pull off a convincing and completely untrue story is scarily good, it could be one of the signs he will cheat again.
4. They admit to cheating in previous relationships
Of course, this could be construed as honesty in a long-term relationship. But if they are tossing it off as a fact of life, they probably think there’s no harm in it. Or maybe they’re hinting that they’re not cut out for monogamy or commitment.
5. They suffer from insecurity
Relationship insecurity can occur anywhere, anytime. However, serial cheaters often engage in multiple emotional or physical affairs simply as a form of validation, which they constantly need. If your partner constantly needs to be told how wonderful they are and often sulk or seem morose when you don’t dance attendance on them, there’s a chance they will look for this validation elsewhere.
Do I Assume My Partner Is A Serial Cheater
“It’s a tricky question,” says Shazia. “On one hand, to label or judge a person as a cheater forever closes off the possibility that they could change. On the other hand, for the sake of our own emotional wellbeing, it’s a smart move to know that if someone has cheated, there is definitely the chance they will do it again.”
She adds, “Our safety is in our own hands and judgment. Cheating is a personal choice made by someone for whatever reasons or justifications they might offer. So whether they may do it again or not isn’t always clear to us. However, if it has become a pattern in someone’s life, if they start seeking love, affection or care because they feel they’re not getting it in their current relationship or marriage, then there are chances they will keep repeating the same thing and cheating over and over again.
Related Reading: Infidelity: Should You Confess To Cheating On Your Partner?
“Cheaters have a tendency to always play the victim. They are often unable to recognize, process and channelize their own emotions, and most of the time, are in a state of confusion and conflict with their own beliefs and value system while trying to justify their actions and convince themselves that what they are doing is right or wrong depending on the circumstances.”
What Motivates A Cheater
Drawing on existing psychological theories, Kranti says, “Psychologists believe there are several motivations that may lead to serial infidelity. However, two of the most significant are the quality and availability of alternative partners and the existing societal attitude towards infidelity.
“In other words, if an individual sees that there are desirable options for alternative partners that they can pursue, the chances of serial infidelity increase. Now, if you’re someone who’s already cheated in a relationship before, you know that there are always emotional affairs or sexual encounters to be had outside of your current relationship. Therefore, in your conscious or subconscious mind, such people might believe that such affairs are always available to them, which again increases the chances of infidelity occurring repeatedly in existing and future relationships.”
She also points out that there are conflicting theories and research regarding past infidelity and its effect on future infidelity. “A study by Banfield and McCabe and another by Adamopolou, each demonstrated that a partner with a recent history of infidelity is potentially more likely to cheat again. However, these studies remain ambiguous about whether the repeated infidelity was taking place within the same relationship, or if it was across several relationships. The difference is significant.
“Some risk-factors for infidelity are relationship-specific (eg: whether a relationship was committed/monogamous), while others are related to a person’s individual characteristics (such as their personality) which they carry into every relationship they enter.”
She adds, “There is research that directly correlates infidelity in a previous relationship to increased risk of infidelity in a later relationship. However, there were no specific reports on which previous relationship or how long ago the infidelity occurred.
Therefore, while there is plenty of literature to comb through on the subject, there is no definite conclusion on can a cheater change their ways.”
How Can You Tell If A Cheater Has Changed?
So, maybe you can’t be entirely certain if a cheater has changed or not. But, there are things that they will do, or stop doing, if they’ve decided not to be a cheating partner anymore.
- They will stop seeing the person they were cheating on you with. By seeing, we mean cut them off completely.
- They won’t be glued to their phone, smiling, and then look up startled when you ask them what’s happening
- They won’t take their guilt-rages out on you
Related Reading: How To Protect Your Marriage Against Internet Infidelity
For Ryan, it was a pattern of continuous actions that convinced him that his wife had actually changed. “She was having an affair with someone at work. She swears it meant nothing, and that there were no others. But that didn’t stop me from wondering, ‘Will my wife cheat again?’” Ryan says.
Misha, his wife, knew she had to make long-term efforts to convince Ryan. She cut off all contact with her paramour, and started seeing a therapist. She realized that Ryan would have trust issues with her perhaps forever, but she was determined to make the marriage work.
“I still find myself thinking, ‘If a woman cheats, will she always cheat?’” Ryan admits. “It’s not a pleasant thing to think about your wife. And can a serial cheater change or not is still a question I cannot answer readily. But, we’re trying.”
6 Signs A Cheating Partner Has Changed
“Can a serial cheater change?” remains a tough question, as we’ve already seen. But if they truly have, how would you know? We rounded up some signs you could look out for if you’re looking for some degree of certainty in answer to the question, “Can a cheater change?”
1. They’re willing to seek help
Admitting that cheating or being a serial cheater is hurting your relationship is a major step. Being willing to seek professional help for this is definitely a sign that a cheating partner wants to change. Allow them to seek individual help first if that’s better, and then couple’s counseling could be the next step. You could even reach out to Bonobology’s panel of counselors for a willing and patient ear.
2. They make changes in their routine/environment
It’s rare that infidelity grows in isolation. Work environment, friends, family, pop culture, all of it can become part of the problem. If you’re wondering, ‘if a woman cheats, will she always be a cheater?’ check if your spouse or partner is making concrete changes to their routine or environment.
Maybe they don’t meet a certain group of friends anymore. Maybe they work out more and find new, more wholesome ways to expend their energy. And most important, see if their routine now actively involves you. Whether it’s emotional cheating or physical, or both, the change will (hopefully) become their routine.
3. They confess completely to the indiscretion
This is different to throwing out a confession lightly without reason or remorse. This is when they sit down and have a real, adult conversation about what they’ve done and show awareness that they realize it’s a mistake. They won’t get into sordid details, but they will be completely honest with you, and won’t try to save face.
4. They introspect on the reasons behind the cheating
There are different types of cheating, and most have a reason. Going into the whys and wherefores behind their behavior isn’t a pleasant experience for someone who’s cheated. If they’re doing so, there’s a good chance they’ve changed or at least are willing to change as much as possible. Whether it’s abandonment issues from childhood, or trauma from another relationship, they won’t make excuses, but they will be willing to look within and foster change.
5. They are patient with the healing process
Yeah, no matter how much they claim to have changed, you’re not about to fall back into their arms in a hurry. Healing and repairing trust take time and effort from all parties involved. If your cheating partner is truly serious about changing, they will respect that it’s a process. They will accept that they can’t change overnight, and neither can they win back your love and trust immediately.
6. They are committed to changing their behavior
The little, everyday things we do can mean so much. Maybe your partner flirted with other people at parties or was forever texting late into the night. If they are committed to changing, their behavior will need to change. It sounds simple, but as a serial cheater, they could have become so used to flirting and straying that it’ll take a while. If they consistently show signs of new and improved behavior, well, maybe they really have changed,
“Change has to come from within,” says Shazia. “Often, when one partner cheats, the blame goes to the other partner. The logic used here is that infidelity stems from a place of lack. If the cheating partner had everything they needed/wanted from their existing relationship, if they were perfectly happy, they wouldn’t stray.
“This is an absolute myth. Most people who cheat are in fact unhappy, but they’re unhappy with themselves and are trying to seek happiness and attention from others. That deep well of contentment and joy that functional people with emotional intelligence have within them is what is missing. Ultimately, a cheater cheats only themselves and then justify it to themselves, claiming that cheating was the only option they had, or that they couldn’t help themselves. Integrity and loyalty are personal choices when all is said and done; if a cheater wants to change, there has to be a true and strong impetus to change that comes from within.”
Shazia recommends looking at actions rather than words when wondering, “Can a man change after cheating?”, or a woman for that matter.
“Actions speak louder than words. Never believe anyone who makes grandiose, flowery statements claiming that they are a changed person or make tearful promises that they will change for you and only you,” she says.
“Nobody ever changes until and unless they want to. Only if they are able to show a change through their actions or behavior can we start believing them. Even then, the consistency of those actions should count,” she warns.
Despite extensive research, the question of can a cheater change has no easy answers. It’s even more difficult to fathom how do cheaters feel about themselves or if they’re even capable of showing remorse.
There are signs and there’s always help available for those willing to go to therapy. Ultimately though, it’s up to the individuals and the couple in question to know whether or not they and/or their partner really have changed. And if it’s enough to warrant forgiveness and move on, together or apart.