Ending a relationship is extremely difficult. In my therapy room, clients in unsatisfying relationships often express that they wish their partner would just end the relationship.
My clients often feel guilty that they aren’t satisfied in the relationship. Their partner hasn’t done anything “wrong,” but they just aren’t happy.
As a therapist, I’ve typically found that beneath this is a lack of true connection. My client often doesn’t feel seen, heard, or understood by their partner. Much of the chemistry and romance is dead - from the emotional connection to a sexual relationship.
Given the lack of true understanding and connection, the idea of explaining a break-up to someone who never seems to understand is daunting.
It is in these moments that people often cheat.
I had one client who had been in a deeply unsatisfying relationship for over 5 years. During our first meeting, she told me how much she wanted it to end, but that she didn’t know how to do it.
She later cheated on her partner. I wasn’t surprised.
Whether consciously chosen or not, cheating can provide a clear out for someone who is struggling with exiting a relationship. Cheating creates a clear line that the relationship is over. This is especially solidified when the partner “finds out” and demands the relationship end.
This is secretly what the client wanted all along. She wanted the relationship to end and she didn’t want to be the one to do it. Cheating was her out.
I’ve had multiple clients choose this exit strategy. I understand why people do it. In the moment, they’re trying to avoid pain.
Unfortunately, this strategy often leads to more pain.
For example, when my client’s partner found out she cheated, he immediately threw her out of the house. It also led to difficulties during the custody battle with their children. Any real critiques my client had of the relationship were eclipsed by the fact that she cheated. Everything became about that incident and people took sides with the person who had been “wronged.” Her family was also embarrassed and it strained her relationships with them. As the months unfolded, my client also had to deal with the personal shame and self-judgment she held about her actions.
My role as a therapist is not one of judgment. It is one to bring understanding and acceptance. Through understanding, we can understand WHY we did something and the impact of it (I explore this in my essay ”I Created This Mess, So I Have no Right to Feel Bad.” This can help us to make wiser, more experienced decisions in the future that bring us closer to the outcome we want.
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