Can a leopard change its spots? An in-depth analysis of infidelity and its consequences

Is it true that once a cheat, always a cheat, that a leopard cannot change its spots? Having previously shamed the act of divorce, society now shuns those that stick with their adulterous partners, ‘staying is the new shame’. Language surrounding infidelity is inherently judgemental and contains no morally neutral terms. It has created a series of cultural absolutes that are firmly on the side of the monogamous. Thus, we develop defence mechanisms to avoid heartache - an easier option than risking being hurt again. After all, adulterous partners are three times more likely to stray again than non-adulterous partners. However, given the ubiquity of infidelity (up to 70% of non-marital relationships) such an uncompromising moral compass may well be misguided. Do the rewards outweigh the risks? And does this approach deny the opportunity to develop a stronger, more open relationship? Moreover, what role do societal and peer pressures play? This article will examine these questions with the aim of understanding whether an unfaithful partner should ever be forgiven. 

It is important before any discussion on infidelity takes place that it is clearly defined – something that is easier said then done. The dawn of the digital age expanded what it means to be adulterous and blurred the lines for many. For simplicities sake, this blog will define infidelity as physical intimacy with someone that is not your spouse, for whom you have decided to be monogamous with. That is not to say that emotional intimacy is not infidelity, it’s just that such a discussion is highly complex and requires a separate article altogether. Secondly, opinions differ on the severity of infidelity. Some people will say that cheating is wrong regardless if it was a kiss or much more. Others believe its severity is dependent on the action itself. This article will treat all forms of infidelity equally for reasons that will be explained later.

Generally, people don’t start romantic relationships with the intention of cheating. Therefore, common sense would dictate infidelity indicates something in the relationship has gone wrong. However, leading relationship expert, Esther Perel, asserts that infidelity is more often a sign of self-exploration. She highlights that many, if not most, instances of infidelity are not committed by chronic philanderers, but by people who been faithful for years, even decades. Her experiences with countless cases of infidelity have yielded one commonality – that the infidelity makes the adulterer feel ‘alive’. It is not that they are looking for another person to be with or that they want to leave their spouse, they are actually looking for another self and they want to leave the person they have become - it is a crisis of the self, not of the relationship. In many cases, it is easier for the individual to transfer their self-doubt onto the relationship and victimise themselves than admit their identity crisis. 

Understanding infidelity as such allows it to become a generative experience for both spouses and the relationship itself. It does not condone or justify the behaviour while invariably painful to begin with, if dealt with in the right way, it can highlight some major issues that may not have been addressed otherwise. It provides an opportunity to challenge the status quo, to redefine the relationship through honest and open conversation –‘the relationship as it is known is over’. For instance,Anne says she loves her partner ‘more than ever’ since she discovered his affair - she believes they are closer as a result. While Sienna refers to the years since she reconciled with her adulterous partner the ‘best years of her life’. This was only achievable because their partners showed great remorse for their actions and worked hard to rectify them. This is absolutely necessary – the person who has cheated must acknowledge their wrongdoing. They must express guilt and remorse towards their spouse, for whose trust they have violated. Even if they are only remorseful for the pain they’ve caused and not their actions. Moreover, they must understand the reason(s) why the affair occurred and be willing to learn from them. Should they blame their actions on alcohol or a moment of madness instead, and not address the conditions that allowed infidelity to occur, it will likely happen again. In turn, partners affected by infidelity should constructively express their emotions and curb their curiosity for the sordid details (e.g. where did you do it? And how often?) and instead focus on investigative questions (e.g. what did it mean to you? And what did you experience?) that allow a better understanding of its causes. The key is communication- the adage ‘time heals all wounds’ does not apply in this instance. This process is referred to as the ‘three Rs’ by Andrea Tibbitts: responsibility, remorse and reconciliation.

Importantly, both spouses should be aware that even if responsibility is accepted, remorse is expressed and reconciliation is achieved, the journey to recovery is long and arduous. The death of the previous relationship needs to be mourned before a new and improved one can flourish. This does not occur instantaneously, trust is not easily earned, and may require new boundaries to be set. It can be extremely difficult for the adulterer to understand why they did what they did and may even require a break from the relationship to become completely apparent – a soul searching period. Furthermore, the openness and honesty expressed in the aftermath of the affair should be continued throughout the new relationship. As Tim recalls, failure to do so can be disastrous. During their 20-year marriage, Tim’s wife had 3 affairs. She was always remorseful when he found out but she, nor him, addressed the underlying reasons for the affairs and consequently did not resolve the issues. They weren’t open and honest with one another and consequently are now divorced – it wasn’t that she couldn’t change her spots, she was just never asked to. Such instances highlight the potential importance of relationship counselling. Now, this does entail a certain amount of pride to be swallowed, however, should you truly want the relationship to continue, attending counselling sessions makes this much more likely.

In summary, cheating on your partner is never good or recommended, and understanding it does not condone or justify it. But, while future patterns of behaviour can often be inferred from current patterns of behaviour, infidelity is complex. It is unique to the adulterer, encapsulating their personality, life history, beliefs and the dynamics of the relationship they’re in. Thus, hard and fast rules statements such as ‘once a cheat, always a cheat’ and ‘a leopard never changes its spots’ are not particularly helpful and fail to capture the essence of why affairs occur in the first place. Instead, remorse, self-reflection and a willingness to learn, can rejuvenate a faltering relationship and begin the evolutionary process from the previous relationship into a new one.