When a Man Cheats

- by Tara Taylor Quinn

Elizabeth Edwards, wife of Presidential candidate John Edwards, died on Tuesday.  I’m not a politician by any means.  Until I somehow ended up with two of my closest friends being staunch – and opposing – political entities, I didn’t even know what an elephant and a donkey stood for, politically speaking.  I still can’t remember which is which.  But Elizabeth Edwards stuck with me.  I have no idea of her politics or what she stood for politically speaking.  I don’t even know the issues that were paramount when she and her husband campaigned. 

But I know about some of the things that happened in her life.  My husband and I were talking about her yesterday.  The woman lived what appeared to be a gifted life – all the money and success she could have wanted.  She was beautiful.  Had a beach home, four lovely children, a handsome successful husband.  She even got to live in the beautiful south.

And she had a life filled with major tragedy – the death of her sixteen year old son in a car accident, a cheating husband, and terminal illness. 

Tim and I were talking about the cheating husband part.  There’s very little we can do about unexpected, unforeseen death or terminal illness, short of living in a bubble and there’s probably something there that can get us, too, if it’s time.  So we do our best and take our chances.

A man who cheats, however, has choices.  He chooses to bring this particular tragedy into the life of the woman he swore to love and to cherish.  He chooses to bring the tragedy into the lives of his children.  I’ve heard many stories about men who were treated so poorly at home – by the woman who swore to love and cherish him – that having someone simply be kind was overwhelmingly tempting.  I even understand.  Sometimes people are trapped by circumstances (illness, financial burdens, familial obligations of some kind) and feel as though they can’t get out – yet are in such emotional isolation they feed their starving hearts elsewhere.  And it’s still cheating.  Lying.

As women, I guess it’s a bit of a crap shoot when we choose to tie ourselves, our lives, our hearts, to a man for life.  We don’t know what choices he’s going to make when temptation knocks at his door.  We hope we’ll be enough to hold him, but there’s no guarantee of that.   I’ve heard that for many men, sex is sex and love is love and the two don’t necessarily have to go hand in hand.  A man can love his wife and still want to have sex with another woman.  And if he does cheat, what then? 

That’s really the question that I posed to Tim.  Should Elizabeth have stood by her man?  Or should she have walked out?  There’s an old saying, ‘once a cheater, always a cheater.’  Is that true?  For some, but not others?  What would make one man cheat multiple times, even on different women, when other men don’t cheat at all?  Is it part of a man’s instinctive nature to seek sex in multiple places?  Or is a man’s heart strong enough to keep him in one place?  If a man has cheated once, is he inclined to do so again?  Does one cheat say something about him that’s forever?  Does it brand him?  Does it indicate an eternal flaw?

If a woman knows a man cheated, not on her, but in his past,  is she stupid to tie herself to him for life?  I think of all the stories I hear about men who had affairs, divorced wife one and married the woman he had the affair with.  Is that second woman an idiot to trust him?  If he cheated with her on his first wife, isn’t he more inclined to cheat on his second wife with a third woman when the going gets tough – as it always does at some point in a relationship.  Is she making a choice that has a high percentage of bringing her future heartache?

So if a man cheated once in his life, should he be alone for the rest of his life because he’s no good for a woman to marry?  If a man had too much to drink, and something just happened, and he regretted it the second it was over and came clean and promised never to do it again, can the wife really trust him?  What about the next time he’s out of town on business, out with clients, has a few drinks and something happens again?  What would prevent it from happening a second time?  If a man has the inability to stay faithful one time, does that inability stay with him forever?  Is it a lack in his character?  A lack in his self control or in his conscience?  Or was it really just a mistake that he didn’t prevent because he didn’t see it coming, didn’t think it was possible and was, in the end, a lesson he learned and a mistake he’ll never repeat? 

Once a man has murdered someone, is he likely to murder again?  (I tend to take questions to extremes to see if the extreme makes the answers more clear.  Tim, thankfully, has learned to travel right along with me!)

I wrote a book a few years ago called The Night We Met.  The hero in that book was unfaithful to his wife – the heroine.  They stayed together.  The books was an epic and took them through the entirety of their lives, ending ont he death bed of the husband.  They had a great marriage before the infidelity – and managed to grow even closer afterward.  Something had changed in their love – the bond between them wasn’t as…unbreached…as it had once been, but the love survived.  I had a woman so angry with me over that book that she wanted to throw it away.  She told me so.  She wanted to know why I’d written the book that way.  Well, in that case, the answer was easy – the book was based on my parents’ lives and my father was unfaithful to my mother.  Once.  Only once.  He never put himself in any kind of situation where she could or would ever doubt him again.  He spent the rest of his life keeping himself by her side and proving to her how much she meant to him.

I’m not purporting that men – or women – should stay married to someone that makes them miserable.  Or that people should stay in abusive or emotionally isolating situations.  But in my mind, if a man wants to cheat, if he’s tempted to cheat, if he needs to cheat, he needs to tell his wife first.  If he is a decent man.  That’s the conclusion my husband and I reached.  And then I told him that if he was ever going to cheat, he needed to just disappear and never come back because there’s no way I could handle the heartache of hearing him tell me that we were over!  But neither did I want him around if it wasn’t just him and me.  I don’t think I’m like Elizabeth Edwards or my mom.  I don’t think I could take him back.  I know one thing for sure, I pray that I don’t ever have to find out.

My heart goes out to Elizabeth’s children.  And I hope that she has a glorious next life.  She deserves it.


  1. A friend of mine summed of the gist of this dilemma succinctly: “It’s not the sex, it’s the LYING that I wouldn’t be able to forgive.”

    Or, as Jack Nicholson’s character puts it to his wife in WOLF, after he discovers she’s been having an affair, and she assures him the other man means nothing to her: “Do you think it makes it BETTER that you’re telling me you lied to me again and again… over a person who means NOTHING to you?”

    However, IMO American political marriages are very old-fashioned. Whatever they might start out as, by the time we become familiar with such couples, their marriages are primarily about power, position, appearance, influence. Whether they’re monogamous or not, whether they’re intimate and compatible behind closed doors, or full of strife, resentment, and chill… =outside= the master bedroom, most of them have a great deal in common.

    They’re a contemporary (note that I don’t say “modern,” because I think however they began, such marriages often -become- anything BUT modern) equivalent to the royal marriages of the medieval world, or to the marriages of dynastic families and landed aristocracy in another century: there’s a lot of property, political influence, wealth or potential wealth, power or quest for political (and, with it, military) power, celebrity, etc., tied up in these marriages. Because the American public insists (or, at least, our media and politicians believe we insist) on a CERTAIN KIND of idealized person in higher political office, a LOT more is at stake if these high profile couples split up than “what’ll we do about the children” and “how will we divide the property.” Political power for their parties and constitutents, the years of image-building and pursuit of higher office, the work of the hundreds of thousands of people that helped them get this far, the expectations of people who funded their ambitions, the reality or potential future promise of places in the world stage and a place in history…

    These are all things that a local banker and his spouse, or a local advertising executive and his spouse, or a local bartender and his spouse don’t discuss and presumably don’t think about if the wife discovers he’s an adulterer. They discuss the kids, the house, child support, alimony, their families, their mutual friends, etc.

    But those are all things that surely political couples -do- discuss and/or think about when they’re confronting serious marital problems. Their lives have become about their mutual ambitions for power in public life, and their lives have also become about the many people fulfilling or attempting to fulfill various plans and ambitions -through- them as a couple. Which, IMO, has a lot to do with why political wives are so much less like than women in my community to leave a man who’s repeatedly cheated on her and lied to her, and whose affairs and lies wind up publicly humiliating her.

  2. I’m of the opinion…you cheat, your gone!

  3. Wow, hard question! My students joke that my favorite answer to give them is “It depends…,” and I think I have to default to that here. There are so many variables to this type of situation…. The choice in The Night We Met to stay in the marriage after a single act of infidelity worked and was understandable, empathetic. Conversely, the reveal of a longer-term affair in your work, Sara’s Son, made no one want to forgive the guy for that (among other things…)!

    For me, I think that issue would be critical — was it a one-time moment, or had the lying/cheating been going on much longer? That situation would be far harder for me to forgive! (And then, I’d also be mad at myself for not catching on sooner….)

    When Patrick and I have chatted about this, we reached a similar conclusion as you two — tell the other about it, before or after, but talk it out, talk through it! I’d like to think I could handle it and move on, past it. But then again, I do have a temper –doesn’t come out often, but when it does, I’ve been told I could freeze the devil in his tracks– and lying/cheating just might be that proverbial last straw…. Like you, that’s a question I hope I never have to find out what my answer really is.

    Thanks for the very thought provoking post! I sense an interesting conversation at dinner tonight! :)

  4. What a great discussion. It presents all kinds of plot ideas, and FREEZE THE DEVIL would make a wonderfully provocative title.
    If a woman were the cynical sort, she might believe all men cheat and at least the guy pays the bills. I overheard a woman say she didn’t realize how important that was until the guy was gone.

  5. I guess it would boil down to “habit” or ” single occurance” and as with everything the future relationship would need to be re-evaluated! Peace