Can a cheater truly change?

People only take one second to determine whether they find someone sexually attractive. Then in only three minutes, they decide whether they want to see that person again. That’s how quickly we decide if a prospective mate should be in our life — for better or for worse, and usually, when it happens that quickly, it’s for worse. Over and out!

For example: My client, Marilyn, quickly concluded that the man she had just met was The One. But as she got to know her Lothario, she soon discovered that he remained in touch with all his ex-wives, ex-fiancées and ex-girlfriends. And this dude’s harem appeared to be very crowded, since he had been married to four different women — and engaged eight times. Lothario told Marilyn that all these women were now “just friends” of his who happened to keep in touch. I told her that I concur with the When Harry Met Sally school of thought when it comes to exes: the sexual tension between our plugs and outlets makes platonic gender friendship nearly impossible.

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Lothario admitted to Marilyn that all of his marriages ended because of his infidelity. However, he insisted that with Marilyn things would be different because she was different. I could not help thinking, How many times have I heard that? Marilyn then asked me if a cheater could ever truly change.

Does a leopard change its spots? Well, in a perfect animal kingdom, if a leopard COULD change its spots, perhaps it would prefer to trade traditional spots for stripes or something else more fashionable. But no prodding from another animal would initiate this change if the leopard were happy living the typical leopard life, spots included. Did Marilyn’s boyfriend WANT to change his cheating ways? Why would he? From the looks of it, he’d been deliriously happy “staying with friends” all around town. But, to be fair, even if he did want to turn over a new bedspread (so to speak), how could Marilyn trust him to become faithful after a history of total dishonesty? Marilyn listened to me, but still hoped her promiscuous alley cat would become a devoted house pet. I told her this would be a stretch for him and to adjust her expectations accordingly.

There are two schools of thought on whether a cheater can change; some believe that once an infidel crosses the line, the protective seal on the bottle of love potion #9 is irreparably broken. Others feel that just because someone cheated in one relationship, it doesn’t mean that person will cheat in all relationships. So, where did that leave Marilyn’s beau, who historically cheated in every relationship? While it was flattering for Lothario to tell Marilyn she was “different” from the pack, how reliable could his disavowals be?

I asked Marilyn to ponder these two questions to guide her in her pursuit of this potentially reckless love:

1. Do you perceive your future with Lothario as a courtship, or a battleship? (Tiger Woods’ wife could help you answer that!) As you may know, I’m sometimes called “The Country Music Doctor.” A favourite song of mine is Miranda Lambert’s “White Liar.” Dressed in her bridal gown and already in front of the minister, she’s about to wed her cheating fiancé. But right before Miranda utters “I do,” she drops the bomb that not only does she know about his dalliances, but she’s had a few of her own. This is pure revenge, country music style. Then the former bride-to-be smugly walks off with her lover, leaving her almost-husband alone in the dust. This song allows listeners to safely play that “gotcha” game by proxy, clearly enjoying only a vicarious thrill. I asked Marilyn if she liked the idea of always having to scope out Lothario when she’s not available to babysit him. Also, would she want to expend her energies concocting complex “gotcha” maneuvers as payback for his future potential bad behavior?

2. If Lothario did promise to change, would Marilyn trust him to keep his body parts to himself in the future? There are always opportunities to cheat. I name serial cheaters “cheataholics” because they are rarely motivated by sex alone. Some are obsessed with the thrill of the chase. Some look to forever polish a poor self-image or mirror the role models they’ve seen all their lives. Others cheat because they believe they can get away with it. The worst are some combination of the above. I asked Marilyn if she knew Lothario well enough to size up his true motivations. Did she know what incentive he might have — besides winning her devotion — to permanently change his ways? Marilyn being “different” was not a good enough ploy; everyone is different at first blush.

I instructed Marilyn to level with Lothario. As my Gilda-Gram says, “To stave off problems later, tell your sweetie your feelings now.” Instead, Marilyn chose to hide her concerns, hoping Lothario would arrive at an epiphany in time on his own. (Don’t hold your breath, honey.)

Robert was another one who held back from discussing his disintegrating marriage with his wife. He told me, “I know she is cheating! Last month she said she didn’t love me anymore and she wanted a divorce. After five years of marriage, this hurt so much. I guess she no longer finds me sexy.” While Robert blamed his spouse’s infidelity on his diminished sex appeal, the truth was that this couple never faced what was really happening in their relationship. Cheating is often a cop-out; it is a coping mechanism people misguidedly use to distract them from deeper issues.

I have worked with hundreds of couples, both married and single, with cheating issues. I wrote How to WIN When Your Mate Cheats to help them restore their love after an affair. The book shows that unless two unhappy people readily admit they have a problem and are willing to work on it together, it will only get worse.

Could Marilyn’s relationship go forward? I told her I didn’t know how. She’s now married to a terrific guy who bears no resemblance to Lothario in his words or deeds. She trusts him and enjoys peace of mind in their relationship. While Marilyn wasn’t happy with my advice about Lothario, she can’t stop thanking me now that she’s chosen someone else!

Relationship expertDr. Gilda Carle, Ph.D.,has a private practice and is an associate professor at Mercy College in New York. Her best-selling books include99 Prescriptions for FidelityandHow to Win When Your Mate Cheats. Please visit herwebsiteand send your relationship questions to her atDrGilda@DrGilda.com.

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