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October 25, 2021

Cheating, Communication & Choice: Who’s Responsible?


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This question was asked by a pretty large social media page, and it stopped my mindless scrolling with my morning coffee dead in its tracks.

“What can a woman do to stop her husband from cheating?”

There is, of course, plenty of things wrong with this question. The way it (I hope unintentionally) disregards different marriages and how cheating can occur in different scenarios. It assumes that the conversation should only regard “traditional” marriage and that cheating only occurs in one direction.

Not only that, but it also creates the notion that the husband bears no responsibility for his own behavior. It assumes that he needed to stray because his wife wasn’t enough for him, that if she was “serving” him better, he wouldn’t need to go searching for his needs to be met elsewhere.

It should be clear what is wrong with this picture. If not, we need to talk.

Deliberate or not, can we stop trying to bring America back to 1952? It wasn’t as great as some advertise, and it’s a place we don’t need to revisit.

Having acknowledged the obvious issues, we can reframe this question because this is important to discuss. Translating from 1952 to 2021:

“How can we work to avoid the desire to cheat in our marriage?”

This feels like a better, more empowering question to dive into.

Cheating is a choice made solely by the parties involved in the behavior itself. Regardless of the reasons, whether any justifications are legitimate or self-created denials. At some point in time, a conscious decision was made by someone to break their marriage vows. The act of cheating is the responsibility of the party who cheated, and theirs alone.

It is a conscious choice usually made because the “cheater” has an unresolved need that hasn’t been expressed well enough within the marriage. Needs, no matter how poorly articulated, cannot go unresolved because the impulse to solve them can become impossible to control. If they cannot be communicated in the marriage, they’ll be explored outside the marriage. They don’t go away.

Whose responsibility is it to solve this? (Hint: look in the mirror.)

We must learn to communicate when we have a need, regardless of how uncomfortable it may be to bring it up. It’s not for your partner to assume or know a need exists if they are unaware.

Cheating is an effect, a response to poor communication of our thoughts, emotions, and needs. A poorly thought-out solution to a problem of our own creation.

We can feel discomfort, vulnerability, and sometimes flat-out shame in discussing our needs and wants. It can be really hard to have these conversations. But it is on us to work through this, and to make our needs known to our partners so we can begin to work out what feels good and what would violate our boundaries—and then work from there.

One path to explore is Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication (NVC). NVC allows us to take responsibility for our feelings and needs while also making requests of others.

We share our experience without blame by describing what we are observing at the moment. This is followed by voicing our feelings about said situation. It is essential to own all that we feel. It can’t be, “you make me angry.” The feeling should be expressed in the frame of: “I feel angry because I am experiencing A, B, and C in our relationship.”

These feelings about the situation reflect our needs which are not being met. We need to understand them ourselves first. From there, they must be clearly described so they can be easily understood. We have every right to own all of our needs and to share those needs fully, without shame or judgment.

After our observations, feelings, and needs have been expressed, the last step is to formulate a specific request that will help that need be met. There can be no room for misinterpretation; our requests must be crystal clear and easy to grasp.

These pieces are the blocks for building what Dr. Rosenberg labeled an OFNR Statement (observation, feeling, need, request).

Here is an example of what an OFNR statement can look like:

“Since you’ve gone back to working out of the office, I’m noticing that we just zone out on Netflix every night after the kids go to bed.” (observation)

“I miss our intimate time and I feel disconnected, lost, and unworthy in that space.” (feeling)

“I have a need to feel seen and connected.” (need)

“Could we take at least 30 minutes twice a week after the kids go to bed with no TV, no devices, just us connecting intimately in a way that feels amazing to both of us in the moment at those times?” (request)

When done correctly, they should clearly see what you are looking for. If unsure, feel free to ask them to repeat your request.

From there, they get to respond in the way that they need to for their feelings and needs to be heard. Clear requests do not guarantee or require compliance. They may see the situation differently, or have different, conflicting needs. It’s possible that the request may violate boundaries for them. They need to communicate all of this clearly and explicitly. Seek clarity if it doesn’t exist.

We need to be clear about what is and what isn’t acceptable after processing their response. In the process, there also has to be an openness to compromise in a way that feels aligned. If it’s not a clear no, explore possibilities, but if it is, hold that ground. Even if it means hard choices are needed. It will hurt, of course, but it will be worse later when those issues linger unresolved.

Communication is everything. We need to be clear and specific about what we need and desire, even when it is hard. We must become connected and aware of our needs, and it is imperative that we own them fully.

We each carry the responsibility to fully and honestly communicate our feelings and needs. It is a choice, as with every other action we take. Yet, if we choose not to (and really hard, important things stay uncommunicated), the temptation to make choices with devastating consequences can become too much to resist.

There’s the answer to the question at hand. Well, the answer to the “revised” question.


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