43: What is Infidelity?

You either walk inside your story and own it or you stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness.

Brene Brown

Infidelity is a coping mechanism. Everything else is a story.

Infidelity is not an issue of character, morality, or pathology.

Infidelity is an unskillful response to whatever is driving our emotional bus. The bus carries the wounds, chaos, pain, grief, loss, discomfort, and consequences we are avoiding. The act of infidelity is an attempt to cope with life’s discomfort. It is one of an infinite number of paths people turn towards to avoid the moments that make us uncomfortable.

It is one way to cope with life.

The growth and awareness begin when I abandon immature perspectives around infidelity. Self-serving perspectives that allow me to excuse my behavior and blame others for what I am doing and emotionally experiencing. The conversation shifts when I am curious enough to ask, “what is at the root of the choices that perpetuated my mistakes?”

There is less value in interrogating myself and others with the question of, “why did I do such a disrespectful thing to myself and someone I love?” 

Even less when I decide for others their intentions.

To be clear, there is nothing justifiable about infidelity, even though it makes sense when people are making these choices.

It is also worth noting that an affair doesn’t automatically make a person an unworthy parent, employee, sibling, or friend. It doesn’t even necessarily make them a bad partner. Affairs don’t make people unworthy of compassion, friendship, clemency, patience, or love.

Does that mean people are entitled to forgiveness or reconciliation?

Of course not. People are not entitled to those things. I am entitled to nothing and I certainly don’t deserve them. The people I betrayed certainly didn’t deserve that either.

Just as infidelity is an unskillful coping mechanism so is venging, silence, name calling, bitterness, contempt, and a host of other responses. We cope with the skills we practice. Growth requires I admit where I am unskillful and focus on practicing the skills I want. Practice that makes us vulnerable to new failures and mistakes. For this reason, people get stuck in ruts repeating old coping mechanisms in new ways.

I have always believed people are allowed to end a relationship at any time, for any reason, or no reason at all. People are not entitled to the relationships they want with the people they want…or at least imagine they want. For this reason, when Painter asked me to leave I left. I couldn’t force a relationship on her, she had to choose to let me back into her life.

A choice she didn’t make.

There are many emotionally lazy and self-righteous opinions about infidelity. People will prefer to embrace the comfort in the contempt they direct at men and women they believe cheated and all their partners.

Although exceptions, in my view, almost all of the non-clinical perspectives on infidelity rely on self-serving echo chambers staffed with armchair psychologists and coaches narcissistically manipulating the pain of grieving men and women navigating the emotional, mental, and sexual minefields of life.

As I have navigated this path, one of the best things I did is practice letting go of the contempt-filled and ill-informed opinions of people that weren’t living in our home, bedroom, motorhome, and private life. 

Today I diligently practice letting go of people’s victim and villain stories projected onto me and others.

Stories that are often defined by the entitlement inherent in unskillful approaches to pain built on religiosity, positivity, individuality, and the Law of Attraction. Perspectives build on a selfish belief that we deserve to feel good, be protected, and live a romantic story as adults.

These opinions are informed by the stories and directed by feelings. As a result, we rely on the exact coping mechanisms fueling the patterns we are working to avoid.

At times, and in places, that can be difficult. We are all evolutionarily wired for connection, and often the relationships we lose in the untangling of the patterns in our lives are consequential losses and need to be grieved.

Sometimes what appeared to be meaningful relationships were the shallowest of reflections. I’ve learned over the years, we all carry relationships that are not what we imagine they are. As a result, not every relationship will survive the fire.

Not every relationship should.

People will imagine I am talking about Painter or Beatrix. I miss a lot of things about my life with Painter, including Painter. I miss things about Beatrix. They were not bad relationships or bad people.

Naturally, that doesn’t mean what some people imagine those statements mean. Their opinion will be informed by their own bias.

People look for evidence that reinforces what they already believe. If someone thinks infidelity is a crime, they will imagine a criminal. If they imagine infidelity as pathology, they will imagine a narcissist. If they imagine an issue of morality, they will imagine evil. If they think it is about character, they will embrace a caricature.

All stories people imagine, without evidence, about infidelity.

Some people will imagine something about my motives or intentions and will find what they seek. None of these things are remotely accurate, but there will always be people that need it to be true to justify their patterns and responses.

What they won’t do is look in the mirror and, with curiosity, investigate why they embrace these stories.

Learning to let go of stories people image and live from my place of truth has been an evolving practice. However, over the last three and half years, I have reached the perspective that, as Charlie Skinner in The Newsroom declares, “I’m too old to be governed by fear of dumb people.” 

I’m working on not responding to the dumb people that accuse me of creating fake accounts, spoofing, stalking, or other nonsense.

There is freedom when I let go of the dumb opinions around infidelity, and recognize my infidelity as a coping mechanism. My cheating and all it entails becomes a simplistic cliche when the explanation is defined as a morality tale, pathological bugaboo, or character deficiency. Cliches minimize the impact and the intention and sow shames and fears for all the parties involved.

The rigid model of infidelity claims character is fixed. It argues pathology is unyielding. It falls back to mysticism for change. “Once a cheater always a cheater.”

I might as well be dead if that were true.

Recognizing infidelity as a coping mechanism, I am free to learn, grow, and practice new approaches to new opportunities and old wounds. I am unchained from rigid and unyielding perspectives. A lack of curiosity is the fuel that drives patterns relationship after relationship, generation after generation.

However, when I see my choices for what they are I realize I have choices and am not defined by the past. I can practice new skills, new approaches and incorporate new information. I can make mistakes as I learn. I’m committed to learning and practicing doing life differently every day.

Even if it is haltingly. Even when it makes me vulnerable to some anonymous social media troll or other critic sniping from the comfort of contempt.

I’ll never understand why my infidelities, secrets, or escalating series of lies matters to anyone other than those impacted by my selfish decisions and compounding mistakes. I once cared about opinions, hoping that I could better understand Painter and Beatrix’s grief if I better understand the opinions of strangers. It made me vulnerable to people not dealing with their own damage.

But now? 

Now, I mostly don’t care about people’s dumb opinions that were never there; strangers that are projecting their experience, damage, and imagination into my life. I’m done hustling for worthiness in someone else’s story.

Instead, as I watch people freezing time to cope in order to protect themselves, I remind myself to move forward and embrace the uncertainty inherent in living with discomfort.

I know I carry serious and meaningful damage from the past into the future. There is no switch to turn it off.

The best hope is to apply a dimmer switch to those stories. Over time I’m learning to turn down the energy to the chaos and redirect that energy to more constructive approaches. I’ve come to appreciate that these wounds won’t heal by ignoring them, globbing onto a magical positivity, or smacking myself emotionally about for failing to live up to my ambitions.

There may be wounds that may never heal but that doesn’t mean I cannot grow around them or grow past them.

“Every day, we begin again,” said the Buddha. “What we do today matters most.”

Yes, I cheated. The decision to cope with my discomfort by cheating, keeping secrets, and telling an escalating series of lies is a truth that matters.

However, what matters most is what I do with my truth today.