If once, then always

Pub date September 12, 2006

› andrea@altsexcolumn.com
Dear Andrea:
I started dating this guy (I am a girl) about six months ago. I knew he had a girlfriend in another country. I knew it was wrong, but he was only going to be in town for a few months. We ended up really falling for each other.
So the time came for him to leave, and I thought that would be it. But then he told me that he broke up with his girlfriend as soon as he got home. He flew back to visit, and we started talking about the long term.
Then it all crashed. He told me he was having doubts, he was feeling very guilty, and he was really in love with me but was confused. At first I was angry — but I really care about him and want him to be happy. I told him to do whatever was right for him, that I still loved him, but he needed to figure out what he wanted, and I couldn’t be strung along forever.
Now he says he’s made up his mind. He’s coming back. I’m worried I won’t feel secure now. Not only did this whole thing start as a lie (he was cheating — he says he’d never cheated before, but still), but now I fear I’ll always worry that he’ll think he made a mistake. Is there any way this can be salvaged? Can honesty and communication eventually smooth things over, or was this relationship doomed from the start?
Dear Hope:
Just to be perverse, I’m going to take up against the legion of advice columnists (and friends and bartenders and busybody neighbors …) who nod sagely and intone, “If he’ll cheat with you, he’ll cheat on you.” Sure, a bounder is a bounder and a rat is a rat, but can people not change? If you prick a bounder, does he not bleed? (OK, that last bit didn’t make any sense, but it sounded good, didn’t it?). In most cases, sure, a cheater who doesn’t cheat again is merely a cheater who hasn’t been caught, but — surprise! — people aren’t perfect. Sometimes we make mistakes, like hooking up with the wrong person for the wrong reasons, and sometimes only more bad behavior will remedy the situation.
The smug fatalism of “once a cheater always a cheater” depresses me. It’s like when the HIV counselor insists that you can never be sure your partner is monogamous, you only know he says he’s monogamous. Oh, shut up, Cassandra. I do too know, so butt out. Sometimes it’s just necessary to take a leap of faith, although not, of course, without looking where you’re going. It’s entirely possible that, having extricated himself from the wrong relationship and inserted himself into the right one, our boy will never look back nor stray again. Don’t kid yourself, though, that there’s much you can do to ensure this. If he is the cheating kind or easily bored, there is no level of devotion, no intensity of attention, and no righteous excellence of blow job guaranteed to keep him home.
By the same token, don’t count on honesty and communication to smooth things out. As relationship guru John Gottman has persuasively demonstrated, it’s not the communication style that makes or breaks a relationship, it’s what is actually being communicated. The ratio of “positive interactions” (sharing jokes and happy memories, saying “thank you”) to negative ones — according to Gottman — can predict success or failure far more accurately than the use of “I” statements ever could. (“I want to leave you” is an I statement; “No sane person could live with you” is not.) Whether a couple can improve their relationship by upping their ratio of positive to negative interactions is still in question. Maybe happy couples simply have a high positivity ratio to begin with. Either way, though, it isn’t the honesty that predicts success, it’s the positivity.
If his adventure with you does represent his one and only episode of cheating, and if the ex is really ex and was never the right girlfriend for him in the first place, and if he not only knows how to make up his mind but keeps it made up, I’d be inclined to give you decent odds. It should go without saying, although I will say it anyway, that taking a chance on love is a pretty good song but don’t quit your day job or sell your house. And if by chance you have a farm, don’t bet that either.
Andrea Nemerson has spent the last 14 years as a sex educator and an instructor of sex educators. In her previous life, she was a prop designer. And she just gave birth to twins, so she’s one bad mother of a sex advisor. Visit www.altsexcolumn.com to view her previous columns.