JFK once said that we would choose to go to the moon, not because the tasks were easy, but because they were hard. Maybe that’s easy to say when it’s a glorified mission like the moon landing.
But when that mission involves stumbling towards knowledge we were never exposed to as children, or ever before in our entire lives, or saying uncomfortable things to our spouses that, once said, cannot be taken back, choosing to do the harder thing seems scary and fraught with peril. Sometimes, we can’t choose to do the harder thing, because we literally have no idea how.
When someone can’t find the courage or the skills to confront their marriage problems or to leave rather than cheat, or when they discover truths about relationships and love through a third party that healthier people know but they simply had no exposure to anywhere else, and a relationship is imploded by infidelity, one person and only one person gets the blame: The person who cheated.
When a suffering person sits in the therapy office, realizing how deficits in the way they were raised have harmed them, many times they feel guilty about “blaming” their parents, especially if they realize their parents were burdened by poverty or another child who was sick or who had a drug problem, and they didn’t mean to harm their other children.
And we say, “We aren’t blaming your parents, even as we acknowledge that what they did caused harm.”
We tell people who have stumbled into an unhealthy relationship, “It’s never your fault for falling for someone like this. Don’t blame yourself.” Yet we look at their difficult childhoods, and we are reluctant to blame their parents, either.
And yet, cheat, and the cheater gets blamed.
Boy, does the cheater get blamed. And nobody else ever receives any share of blame at all, no matter what they may have contributed, how, or why.
Why is blame so easy to place there and then, when we are so reluctant to place it anywhere else or at any other time?
What do we even mean by terms like blame and fault, and why should they apply in one situation but not another, even when similar harm was caused? For that matter, why is the law more lenient in some cases of murder than it is others? After all, if you murder someone, do you not bear the blame?
Merriam-Webster tells us that when we blame someone, we find fault with them or hold them responsible for something. Under fault, we find, again, the responsibility for wrongdoing or failure.
These Merriam-Webster definitions carry no moral undertones. Yet, when I see the word blame used in any situation where someone else was hurt, I perceive a level of vindictiveness and scorn that I don’t perceive in the word, fault, and certainly not in the word, responsibility.
As in, “It may be my parents’ fault that I have depression and anxiety now, that I feel socially impaired in fitting in and making friends, and that I have low confidence in myself and am attracted to emotionally unavailable people, but I don’t blame them for what they did.”
Let’s look more closely at this example.
I had a childhood growing up with my mother that’s damaged my life in myriad ways — much worse, I submit, than any extramarital affair ever damaged anyone.
I’m aware that many betrayed spouses struggle with the pall that discovering their partner’s infidelity has cast over their lives for many years afterward, but it probably didn’t render them nearly incapable of making friends over their whole entire life, or damage their ability to believe in themselves over their whole entire life in a way that affects their career, their earning power, and any vocation they might try, as well as their love life, pretty much forever.
My mother, I will bet any clinician, meets criteria for borderline personality disorder, and I know why. When she was growing up, my grandfather sexually abused her and physically abused all the children. Before his death, my grandfather described a childhood with an abusive father and a mother who was most certainly felled by serious clinical depression, and when I read descriptions of male borderlines, I wonder if he wasn’t borderline himself.
When I think of the ways my mother abused me and how that abuse has warped my life, I think: Should I blame her?
And in some ways, it seems reasonable to. My mother would often describe something abusive my grandfather had done to her, my uncle, or my aunt, in a way that implied that she knew it was wrong, and that of course I should be shocked and saddened. For instance, when my grandfather yelled and smacked my mother for not knowing how to wash dishes clean when the parents had never taught these very young children how to wash dishes, or called my uncle “gay” in his teens because he hadn’t started dating yet.
How was I to feel, then, when my mother then turned around and did these exact same things to me, in some fit of vindictive anger when I wasn’t behaving the way she wanted me to behave or doing something she wanted me to do? Especially when she had just outlined these very things years or months prior as things that were wrong when they were done to her?
Blaming her was tempting, I can tell you that.
After all, doesn’t everybody know it’s wrong to hurl “gay” as an insult at your child (gay or otherwise), or hit or scream at a child for not knowing how to do a chore neither you nor anyone else has ever taught them how to do?
Yet, I know that my mother is very impaired. Very seriously impaired. Every once in a while, the clouds clear for a few minutes, and she can see the world the way the rest of the world sees it. She can see that some way she has treated me was wrong, and even apologize.
But I know not to take that too seriously. A few minutes later, the clouds roll back in again, and she is off behaving in ways that most people raised in our society know are inappropriate — far too much unsolicited self-disclosure about her abusive childhood, for example, on a holiday, to someone she’s just met.
The last time I saw her on Facebook, she was sounding off about being muted in a chat room because twenty people had complained to the moderator about her behavior, in a way that strongly suggested this wasn’t the first time.
My mother is mentally ill, with tons of adverse childhood experiences. As such, her ability to perceive and control her own behavior waxes and wanes. Where that problem leaves off, she’s simply had fewer opportunities for social learning than the rest of us, and she’s so needy that those few opportunities didn’t impress themselves upon her the way they do the rest of us.
I do think she should have known better, that from time to time (usually too late), she did, and that most people would have known better all of the time. But I am not angry at her or scornful of her for not knowing better in the moment, nor do I feel vindictiveness toward her borne of some conviction that she was viciously trying to hurt me … even though I can recall her literally spitting with anger during some of these episodes, and I do believe she did some of these things in a spiteful attempt to be hurtful.
I can see why she did not know better, and I can see that circumstances legitimately led to this condition, and also that she never received needed help and needed opportunities for appropriate learning when she would have been able to benefit from them.
My mother is eighty years old tomorrow. I would say that by now it’s definitely too late.
I would also say that, while I understand enough not to blame her even though she does bear responsibility and was at fault … I am no contact with her at this point, and while I am sending flowers, I will not be calling or visiting.
It is these gradations in thinking that are missing when we blame the person who cheated in an extramarital affair.
Complicating this issue is the fact that some people who cheat absolutely lack empathy and run about using and discarding people of the opposite (and sometimes also the same) sex like butterflies sampling meadow flowers.
It could be argued that these people, who do indeed cheat with no regard for the feelings of others, do deserve some degree, not only of fault and responsibility, but also of anger and scorn, and therefore blame.
Yet, some of these people are extreme narcissists, or people with borderline personality disorder. These people are also mentally ill, and they got that way through some innate fault of brain formation or because their own parents were abusive or neglectful.
Therefore, they are in the same state as my mother. When we understand that, how much blame do we assign, and how much do they deserve pity and compassion?
For they, just like my mother, meted out injury to other people that anyone could see would cause harm, yet they could not see in the moment, or did not care. My mother, in the moments she meted out that harm to me, did so in a bitter spirit that showed me she did wish to harm me in the moment, and at that time I was not an adult in a romantic relationship being cheated on, but a minor child dependent on my parent.
Yet, we’re careful not to blame our parents for the harm we suffered in childhood, even though we were innocent children and it’s warped our entire lives, while we viciously assign blame to people we chose as adults and participated in relationship with as adults, so we bear some responsibility ourselves as adults for the way those relationships went.
Why Don’t We Want to Blame Our Parents?
Because we understand that they really did love us (in most cases, at least), that parenting is hard, and that they were doing the best that they could.
When someone cheats, however, the ability to apply that logic is completely missing in most people. Even though the genesis of both situations is exactly the same.
In many, many cases I’ve seen since beginning my publication on infidelity on Medium, a person cheated because a great emotional, physical, and sexual distance grew in their marriage that, despite attempts on the part of the lonely spouse to repair, the betrayed spouse chose not to attempt to repair. In some cases that spouse was actually abusive.
We all love to throw rotten eggs and claim the cheater should have divorced rather than cheat, but, in a manner directly opposite to my mother, that spouse elects to stay because they are afraid of a divorce hurting the children.
Some of these spouses grew up in just such a marriage, and based on all of their experiences, they do not even believe any relationship could end up differently.
And then … that person comes along, and changes everything.
In that event (which many people don’t even believe truly exists, but I assure you that it does), why is:
“It may be my parents’ fault that I have depression and anxiety now, that I feel socially impaired in fitting in and making friends, and that I have low confidence in myself and am attracted to emotionally unavailable people, but I don’t blame them for what they did.”
so easy, but:
“It may be my spouse’s fault that I have depression and anxiety now, that I feel sadness that the marriage I thought I had is gone, and that I have low confidence in myself and am grieving how I thought things were, and I’m angry that we have to do all this painful recovery work now, but I don’t blame them for what they did.”
Because, I think, we want to understand the parents who wronged us, but when it was a spouse … we do not.
Because, I think, that spouse was supposed to be better than our parents … yet they let us down.
Did we also let them down? Did we put them in a no-win situation? Did our parents put us in a no-win situation?
Nobody wants to look at that.
It’s so much easier and more satisfying to assign to cheaters all the blame, and never look back, when we’d never treat our parents that way. Parents we were assigned as children and not allowed to choose.
Yet, did we not choose our spouse as an adult and promise as an adult to love our spouse? And does that not include the same curiosity, understanding, and compassion we would extend to even an abusive parent?
To be clearL I'm not saying you absolve a person of any responsibility for having cheated, and then, good heavens, having lied about it!
I mean ... the person cheated. And lied about it.
BUT ... so many people stop there and just condemn the person as horrible and unforgivable, someone never to speak to again, and certainly we must never look at their side. (They cheated, so there can be no other side.)
I could have done that with my mother, but, having been raised by this person who expected me to validate and support her, I came to understand her mindset very well.
And I know that awareness and control on her part faded in and out. She was aware but she wasn't aware but she was but she wasn't.
This is mental illness. And to a great extent, she couldn't help it. Except when she could. But then she couldn't again.
And I know this. Therefore, while I acknowledge she bears responsibility, I do not respond with the sort of condemning rage and hate I see applied to cheaters on the daily, here and in the outer society.
Holding a person accountable is not the same as vindictive hating and blaming. If a person is capable of being accountable, then we look with compassion at how this circumstance arose.
If the person is not capable of being accountable, then we separate ourselves for our own safety. Which is why it's my mother's 80th birthday and I have no plans to see her or call her.
Ram Dass said that we are all just walking each other home. That does include people who cheat, who receive a lot more prejudice and judgment than even some murderers, when we would all be better served by less need to blame and more need to understand how they came to be at fault.
If we want to be a healthier society, some of this is indeed our collective responsibility.