My wife is one of those women who spend a lot of time in front of the mirror. She loves to look amazing, and I love for her to look amazing too (obviously).
Nights before we go out, she comes out of the bathroom after an hour-long makeup/hair/clothes/whatever-women-do-in-there session and asks me how she looks. She’s usually gorgeous. Every once in a while, though, she looks bad. Maybe she tried to do something new with her hair, or decided to wear a pair of boots that some flamboyant fashion designer from Milan thought were avant-garde. Whatever the reason—it just doesn’t work.
When I tell her this, she usually gets pissed off. As she marches back into the closet or the bathroom to redo everything and make us thirty minutes late, she spouts a bunch of four-letter words and sometimes even slings a few of them in my direction.
Men stereotypically lie in this situation to make their girlfriends/wives happy. But I don’t. Why? Because honesty in my relationship is more important to me than feeling good all the time. The last person I should ever have to censor myself with is the woman I love.
Fortunately, I’m married to a woman who agrees and is willing to hear my uncensored thoughts. She calls me out on my bullshit too, of course, which is one of the most important traits she offers me as a partner. Sure, my ego gets bruised sometimes, and I bitch and complain and try to argue, but a few hours later I come sulking back and admit that she was right. And holy crap she makes me a better person, even though I hate hearing it at the time.
When our highest priority is to always make ourselves feel good, or to always make our partner feel good, then nobody ends up feeling good. And our relationship falls apart without our even knowing it.
Without conflict, there can be no trust. Conflict exists to show us who is there for us unconditionally and who is just there for the benefits. No one trusts a yes-man. If Disappointment Panda were here, he’d tell you that the pain in our relationship is necessary to cement our trust in each other and produce greater intimacy.
For a relationship to be healthy, both people must be willing and able to both say no and hear no. Without that negation, without that occasional rejection, boundaries break down and one person’s problems and values come to dominate the other’s. Conflict is not only normal, then; it’s absolutely necessary for the maintenance of a healthy relationship. If two people who are close are not able to hash out their differences openly and vocally, then the relationship is based on manipulation and misrepresentation, and it will slowly become toxic.
Trust is the most important ingredient in any relationship, for the simple reason that without trust, the relationship doesn’t actually mean anything. A person could tell you that she loves you, wants to be with you, would give up everything for you, but if you don’t trust her, you get no benefit from those statements. You don’t feel loved until you trust that the love being expressed toward you comes without any special conditions or baggage attached to it.
This is what’s so destructive about cheating. It’s not about the sex. It’s about the trust that has been destroyed as a result of the sex. Without trust, the relationship can no longer function. So it’s either rebuild the trust or say your goodbyes.
I often get emails from people who have been cheated on by their significant other but want to stay with that partner and are wondering how they can trust him or her again. Without trust, they tell me, the relationship has begun to feel like a burden, like a threat that must be monitored and questioned rather than enjoyed.
The problem here is that most people who get caught cheating apologize and give the “It will never happen again” spiel and that’s that, as if penises fell into various orifices completely by accident. Many cheatees accept this response at face value, and don’t question the values and fucks given by their partner (pun totally intended); they don’t ask themselves whether those values and fucks make their partner a good person to stay with. They’re so concerned with holding on to their relationship that they fail to recognize that it’s become a black hole consuming their self-respect.
If people cheat, it’s because something other than the relationship is more important to them. It may be power over others. It may be validation through sex. It may be giving in to their own impulses. Whatever it is, it’s clear that the cheater’s values are not aligned in a way to support a healthy relationship. And if the cheater doesn’t admit this or come to terms with it, if he just gives the old “I don’t know what I was thinking; I was stressed out and drunk and she was there” response, then he lacks the serious self-awareness necessary to solve any relationship problems.
What needs to happen is that cheaters have to start peeling away at their self-awareness onion and figure out what fucked-up values caused them to break the trust of the relationship (and whether they actually still value the relationship). They need to be able to say, “You know what: I am selfish. I care about myself more than the relationship; to be honest, I don’t really respect the relationship much at all.” If cheaters can’t express their shitty values, and show that those values have been overridden, then there’s no reason to believe that they can be trusted. And if they can’t be trusted, then the relationship is not going to get better or change.
The other factor in regaining trust after it’s been broken is a practical one: a track record. If someone breaks your trust, words are nice; but you then need to see a consistent track record of improved behavior. Only then can you begin trusting that the cheater’s values are now aligned properly and the person really will change.
Unfortunately, building a track record for trust takes time—certainly a lot more time than it takes to break trust. And during that trust-building period, things are likely to be pretty shitty. So both people in the relationship must be conscious of the struggle they’re choosing to undertake.
I use the example of cheating in a romantic relationship, but this process applies to a breach in any relationship. When trust is destroyed, it can be rebuilt only if the following two steps happen: 1) the trust-breaker admits the true values that caused the breach and owns up to them, and 2) the trust-breaker builds a solid track record of improved behavior over time. Without the first step, there should be no attempt at reconciliation in the first place.
Trust is like a china plate. If you break it once, with some care and attention you can put it back together again. But if you break it again, it splits into even more pieces and it takes far longer to piece together again. If you break it more and more times, eventually it shatters to the point where it’s impossible to restore. There are too many broken pieces, and too much dust.