It was the last thing freshman Elizabeth Johnson expected to find when she showed up unannounced at the home of her boyfriend of a year and a half.
“I never expected him to go that far and do something that bad,” Johnson said.
What she found was what many consider the ultimate betrayal in a relationship. Upon walking into her boyfriend’s bedroom, she discovered him with another woman.
“That was the angriest I’ve ever been,” Johnson said. “I just wanted to break something. I just started crying and yelling and cursing.”
Cheating is a destructive force in relationships, one that often finds itself at the forefront of television shows like “Maury” and “Jerry Springer.” But beyond the facade of chair throwing and bleeped-out cursing lies the deep pain associated with being cheated on.
With the variety of perspectives on what constitutes a real relationship in college, whether by making it “Facebook official” or simply asking the other person to commit, the definition of cheating can often be lost in the haze of “are we or aren’t we a real couple?”
According to Matt Mallin, associate counselor at University Health and Counseling Services, cheating is most commonly associated with physical interaction with someone who isn’t your partner, but can include emotional intimacy as well.
“That part is very much open for interpretation to the individual, so one partner may see [emotional cheating] and think, ‘I’m not doing anything wrong, I’m just talking to this person,’ and the other partner might be feeling extremely left out and extremely hurt by what’s transpiring,” Mallin said.
Although infidelity is often considered to incorporate senseless acts of physical gratification, this is not always the case.
According to Mallin, cheating is sometimes a way of fulfilling needs that aren’t being met in a relationship, and can also serve as a way to express emotions that are too difficult to put into words.
“At a deeper level still, it can be about the person who is cheating,” Mallin said. “What’s their ability to really connect and get involved in an emotional relationship? … And for some people, for lots of really good reasons, that’s hard to do.”
In these situations, Mallin said infidelity serves as a “defense mechanism” for those who have a difficult time expressing their true feelings about a relationship.
Many times, those who cheat do it because it is easier to end a relationship as a result of cheating than by ending it for other legitimate reasons, which are often more difficult to talk about.
For Johnson, this was exactly the case. Johnson’s reason for going over to her boyfriend’s house that day was to talk about an argument the couple had gotten into earlier. This was the same argument that had prompted her boyfriend’s admittedly impulsive decision.
Despite his infidelity, Johnson said she decided to forgive her boyfriend. Though she is asked about her decision often, Johnson said her reasons for returning to the relationship aren’t completely clear to herself.
Despite the challenges that come with forgiveness, she said she is happy she is still with him.
“We’ve been together for two years now, and I can’t really imagine not being with him,” Johnson said.
This experience embodies Mallin’s sentiments on people returning to a relationship that has been broken by infidelity. Mallin said it is often an internal compromise between comfort within a relationship and the seemingly doomed perspective that is often associated with being single.
“There is a lot of comfort and idealism put into being a couple. That’s some sort of sign of success,” Mallin said. “That’s part of what happens in college. You come and find this person and it’s hard to fight some of those expectations, even when it runs contrary to your most basic logical beliefs.”
According to Mallin, deciding whether or not to return to a relationship is not only a very individual decision, but also one that should carry considerable weight. Those who have been inflicted with the pain of deceit need to decide just how important fidelity is within a relationship.
“We all have certain ‘must-haves’ in a relationship and some are things we are willing to negotiate on, and certain things we don’t care about,” Mallin said. “You need to decide what that line is for you when it comes to cheating and decide, ‘do I demand fidelity from my partner at all times?’ If that’s true, you need to seriously think about whether or not you want to continue going on.”
Both Mallin and Johnson agree that the most difficult aspect to gain back in a relationship is trust. Mallin said those who have been cheated on need to consider the rules they are making their partner abide by in order to prove their fidelity.
If constantly reviewing someone’s text messages or Facebook friends is the only way to ensure that trust isn’t being breached, Mallin said exactly the opposite is being done, and the relationship will often end as a result. Often, the person who has done the cheating will begin to feel boxed in, as though they cannot do any more to prove they have changed.
Mallin said although bumps in the road to recovery are inevitable, overcoming feelings of hurt can be accomplished through face-to-face communication and understanding the risks of staying together.
“Talk to one another about how you’re feeling and what’s going on,” Mallin said. “It does mean risk-taking if you want to stay in that relationship … It means letting that person go out … at some point, to a party and drinking or wherever … maybe the original cheating happened.”
And what about the old saying, “Once a cheater, always a cheater?”
“I believe that, at the end of the day, we all still have the will to make choices and we can get stuck in a pattern of doing things, making some poor choices for a long time,” Mallin said. “That doesn’t mean we are bound by life to continue that behavior at all. Somebody who cheated once will not always cheat again.”
For Johnson, this is exactly the belief that is helping her and her boyfriend mend their relationship.
“If you really do love the person, and you want to forgive them, everyone deserves a second chance.”