Relationship Fitness

S22 E6: Practicing Empathy When You’ve Cheated

In this episode of Relationship Workout for Men, host Vince Vasquez and Dr. Rivka Edery discuss how men can practice empathy in the wake of infidelity. They explore the deep emotional work required to rebuild trust and understand the underlying motivations for cheating, offering insights into the healing process for both partners.

Vince Speaking:

Welcome to Relationship Workout for Men, a podcast dedicated to helping men be intentional in choosing a better partner and being a better partner to the person they choose. Season 22: Emotional Alchemy: Turning Trauma into Connection. I’m speaking today with Dr. Rivka Edery, a highly respected psychologist deeply committed to advancing mental wellness and guiding individuals through the intricate journey of trauma recovery. We’re in Episode Six: Practicing Empathy When You’ve Cheated. The discussion here is about how men can be empathetic in the wake of infidelity. So, Rivka, welcome. What do you think about this topic?


Dr. Rivka Edery Speaking:

Well, before I worked with my first cheating couple, I probably would have said run for your life. So, Vince, I just want to say thank you so much for having me again. It’s a pleasure to be here to talk about practicing empathy when you’re the one who cheated.


So, a little bit about my practical experience with this, just so your listeners know, I have been working with couples and as a therapist for about 15 years, give or take. For many years, I was really stumped with how to work with the cheater. Extending empathy to the one who was cheated on came very naturally; feeling anger and disappointment at the cheater also came naturally. The question became, how was I going to help them?


Now, I learned a couple of things. So, for many years of doing this work, what I found and what I practiced is guiding the man, the cheater, to put himself in his woman’s shoes. So, what I would do is start with a detailed description of, say, I’m going to use the terminology of wife and frame the example as husband and wife.


Okay. So, I would ask the husband, tell me where your wife was when she got the call or she was informed. Describe it to me in detail. Usually, the wife is there, and they remember every detail. So, if the husband messes up, she’s there to remind. And I ask him to walk me through and imagine if he was in her shoes, what might she be feeling?


Then I’ll ask him to pause and take me back to their wedding day. What did you feel when you were standing under the canopy or at your wedding? And what might your wife have felt on her wedding day when she saw you walking down the aisle?


Now compare it to when she got that call or when she read your email with the message or whatever. And I pay close attention to the reaction I’m getting: what is stirred inside.


If there’s no empathy or remorse, I will try to work with him over time, but that’s a separate issue. So, I’m just going to discuss the cases where there was empathy and remorse.


Once I awaken that empathy, I ask him to acknowledge the hurt, the immense pain, and the betrayal that the partner experienced. Then I’ll pause and say, how did you betray your own values? Because on your wedding day, when you took those vows, your values were to uphold these vows, to be trustworthy, to be loyal. If he tells me that’s the case, how have you betrayed your values? And how does that feel to have broken your oath of loyalty?


Then, if there are children involved, I ask, what do you think your toddler, when they’re a teenager, how do you think they might feel when they find out?


Then I will ask the husband to fully disclose and be honest about the affair so long as it’s not going to be hurtful to the wife. So, I don’t mean specific details. What I mean by this is, for instance, it started off, and we were coworkers and getting too friendly. What I should have done at that point was sit you down and be transparent with it. But instead, I went with it, to tell the tale from a place of full accountability.


The next thing is a bit tricky: to end the affair if it’s not completely over. I have had situations where clients were still very unable to cut ties with the person they were cheating with, but they were not fully transparent until they came to me. I ask directly, are you still in contact with this person? Are you still cheating? It’s a very uncomfortable question, especially if their wife is there.


If the affair ended and they’re no longer cheating, it’s not just enough to say I’m sorry. We have to go beyond just saying I’m sorry by understanding the pain and the wound that the betrayal causes and how it destroys trust. A good family, a healthy, stable family, is made of trust, first and foremost.


If you recall in our episode about attachment styles, every human being learns to trust based on their attachment to their caregiver. At the root of our relational beings, so to speak, is trust. We learn that from how our caregivers treated us and related to us. That’s a fundamental building block to a healthy family and a healthy marriage.


So, in explaining that to the cheater: do you want to have a healthy family? Do you want to be in your son’s life, in your daughter’s life? Do you want to watch them grow up? Most importantly, do you want them to go through life proudly being able to say I have a trustworthy dad? Think of what that’s going to do to their life. Think of the child who turns into a teenager, who turns into a young adult, who turns into a middle-aged person who can go through their whole life saying, my dad’s trustworthy.


There is a long list of ramifications of being the child of a trustworthy man. For sons and daughters, there are very powerful ramifications for their lives, for communities, and for the planet at large.


Transparency and reassurance: Another thing that I will ask the man to do—the cheater—is to be transparent about their actions and whereabouts. It’s not enough to say I love you and I won’t cheat again. It’s about providing solid evidence that I was not a trustworthy person because I cheated on you. Here is how I will heal that rupture and become a trustworthy person. So, being transparent about your whereabouts; your wife having your passcodes and pins to access devices and websites. There are many digital tools where partners can be transparent with each other’s online activities.


Empathic responses: Listen actively when your wife expresses her emotions, whether she’s enraged, sad, confused, lonely, or hurt.


Avoid problem-solving mode; instead, offer emotional support, love, and concern. You can say things like, I understand why you feel this way. If I were in your position, I would feel this way too because the trust is shattered, the trust is broken. Unless there is that dedicated repair, the trust will not repair itself. Shattered trust never just repairs itself. It has to be a very mindful, cogent, deliberate, on-purpose pilgrimage to healing trust. It can be done.


Self-reflection: Reflect on your motivations for cheating. Understand what led you down that path. Consider the impact of your actions on your partner’s emotional well-being. Remember that empathy involves recognizing your partner’s emotions and responding with genuine care. It’s a gradual process, but practicing empathy can help rebuild trust and foster healing after infidelity.


Vince Speaking:

That was fantastic. I want to click in and bring it back around to the full season we’ve been talking about because I’m not sure that many men are unfaithful just for the sake of being unfaithful. I want to bring it back to the cases where you identify that, whether it be the childhood trauma or some of this wound, is also part of that. You’re not going to really be, I’m not sure how the wife would trust the man if he hasn’t done the work to figure out why he was unfaithful in the first place. You mentioned the motivation, but I would think it goes beyond, oh, she was attractive, and she was willing to have sex with me. The motivation goes deeper than that because it’s such a negative. To be unfaithful, you’re putting such a big grenade into your relationship. There must be or there seem to be deeper things going on that led to help you make that choice to be unfaithful in the first place. Again, beyond it was just available, I could have sex with her, and so I did. Is there a deeper motivation for why it would take that path?


Dr. Rivka Edery Speaking:

When I ask the cheaters why they did it, some men talk about having been sexually abused as children. It was something they kept locked in a vault, in a black box, somewhere fireproof and floodproof inside their psyches. It’s not until they are so desperate to repair what happened that they were willing to talk about it. In those cases, there was a lot of pain, a massive amount of pain, that just tumbled out because they were so willing to dig deep. That is something I’ve uncovered in my practice: how many men were sexually abused as children. Without doing the healing work, without talking about it, without having a safe person they can cry with, sexual acting out and betrayal of their loved ones is a mirroring of how they were betrayed. It’s the betrayal of something pure and innocent. It’s much easier to go out and have an affair and stay in chronic avoidance than face that pain and fear and rage that bubbles up and tries to come to the surface with what happened.


There are times when men will say, you know, I was bored, or I’m not attracted to her, or just superficial, shallow reasons. Most often, when I continue to curiously inquire, I hear tales of an alcoholic home, a mother who was too drunk to notice their existence, an abandoning father, or a drug-addict father who was abusive. There’s some core betrayal of the child that often manifests in the cheating adult.


Not always is this the case. I’ve had men who’ve told me, well, I feel that men should have multiple partners and have no remorse. So, if they have no remorse and no empathy, I just accept that.


But for the men who really want to work on it and are able and willing to be vulnerable and talk about what they might be running from and avoiding, there’s usually a tale of grief and ruptured trust in some way, in some form.


I would agree with you that, for the most part, they’re not just doing it for no reason. I hope that answers your question.


Vince Speaking:

Yeah, I think it would be really key to building trust to be able to dig deeper into that and then probably even more important to dig deeper into this stuff before you’ve been unfaithful. So, before it becomes a motivation, before it becomes a driver for behavior that you likely regret later on. Maybe you can be more empathetic to your partner if you’re understanding better what your motivations are.


Dr. Rivka Edery Speaking:

That’s fantastic advice. I’m glad you’re including that. It’s 100% the case because if you can talk about these things and feel safe enough to cry, you’re not going to be attracted, or you’re not going to have the need to throw a major grenade because that’s all avoidance. That’s in the chronic avoidance choice, if that makes sense.


Vince Speaking:

All right. Well, thank you so much. Another big topic we could probably talk forever on. I really appreciate you giving us this time to record the season. This has been fascinating. I have learned so much. Again, I really appreciate it, and I hope we’ll record some other things with you because you have such a wealth of knowledge and insights to share.


So, thank you again, Rivka, for your time.


Dr. Rivka Edery Speaking:

Thank you. It’s been my pleasure, Vince. I look forward to talking with you again soon. Thanks again.

Dr. Rivka Edery is a highly respected psychologist deeply committed to advancing mental wellness and guiding individuals through the intricate journey of trauma recovery. With over 15 years of hands-on experience, Dr. Edery is a steadfast beacon of support for those on the path to healing from trauma. Her unwavering dedication to the field of psychology is underscored by her remarkable accomplishments, clinical expertise, and profound philosophical perspective.

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