Anthony Weiner and the Way We Talk About Cheating

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One of America’s most notorious cheaters has come clean. Anthony Weiner has bared his soul for the New York Times magazine, in an 8,000-word (seriously — it’s long) tome that leaves no lecherous tweet or subsequent lie undiscussed. The disgraced congressman gets pretty into it, even bringing himself to tears when he mentions how much his actions hurt his wife.

Weiner isn’t the only public figure that’s seeking redemption in the public eye (and in relationships) after a cheating scandal. A couple weeks ago we had the carefully-curated announcement that Tiger Woods was dating Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn. The 37-year-old golf champ has been uber-careful to stay out of the spotlight ever since his reputation was burned — actually, make that napalmed — in 2009. And now here he is, posing in engagement-esque photos with his lovely and talented new girlfriend.

When famous men cheat and get caught, the response follows a formula that’s familiar to pretty much everyone who reads the internet: first there’s a denial (or, if he’s smart, a total admission of guilt), then comes a stint in rehab, then a recoup period where he and his family retreat from the public eye and nurse their wounds, and then the big public redemption. A huge component of this, of course, is the wife. Some, like Huma Abedin, choose to stay in the marriage. Others like, Tiger’s ex Elin Nordegren, bail. There’s been all kinds of discussion of the various feminist/antifeminist ramifications of doing both. And whenever a scandal breaks, a zillion articles and blog posts will sink their teeth into the woman involved, analyzing whether she has forgiven, how she could forgive, and whether she should have.

But what no one seems to talk about is what happens on the man’s end — specifically, how the cheater rehabilitates so he can be in a functional relationship again, either with his wife or with someone new (think about it — Tiger’s past is GUARANTEED to come up with anyone he dates).

Infidelity is discussed as a bilateral matter  — we focus as much on the cheated-upon as we do on the cheater. The focus becomes “What does she need to do to trust him again?” And so we neglect the other, equally important question: “What is he doing to make her trust him again?”

According to infidelity expert Janis Abrahms Spring, author of After the Affair: Healing the Pain and Rebuilding Trust When a Partner Has Been Unfaithful, the second issue is crucial to figuring out whether an affair is something that wrecks bonds forever, or just a wakeup call: “The saying once a cheat always a cheat is true for some and not true for others. Affairs can challenge people to learn important lessons and go on to have meaningful relationships.”

The part we’re overlooking, according to Spring, is that the responsibility lies not only on the wronged party to forgive — it also falls on the wrongdoer to actively change his or her behavior. “Trust is a transaction,” she says. “It’s not something the partner does in her head or mind. Trust must be earned by the unfaithful partner, and not with words of reassurance, but with concrete behavior.”

Like what? Well, in Weiner’s case, giving his wife full access to all his email, Twitter, and other digital accounts would be a start. Regular weekly therapy would be another. And anything else that she needs to make her feel secure in the relationship. Maybe he gives her access to his phone GPS so she can see where he is at all times. Maybe he hires a dour bodyguard who follows him everywhere and reports back to Huma if he’s approached by women. Regardless of what these “concrete acts” are, the important parts are that 1) she ask for them; 2) he be willing to do them; and 3) the rest of us keep our judgmental noses out of it.

No matter what happens with the Weiners, it’s time for the rest of us to move away from the notion that trust in a relationship is something that happens in our heads. After a loss of trust, it’s not up to the wronged party to “work on regaining her trust for him.” Rather, it’s a matter of taking actions to demonstrate that the same behavior that wrecked trust in the first place won’t happen again. If we keep classifying trust as something a woman does in her own head, we’re setting countless women (and men) up for misery.

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