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Once a Cheater Always a Cheater?


Dear Suzie, I want to forgive my boyfriend, but everyone is telling me, “once a cheater, always a cheater.” Is it true that once a man cheats on you, he will always cheat on you?

A Nobel Prize-winning scientist once recommended to his fellow scientists that they discard at least one cherished notion every day before breakfast. I’d like to make the recommendation to you. You see, the cliché, “Once a cheater, always a cheater,” is (in my opinion) one of the most destructive stereotypes about infidelity within our society — and yet, it’s also one of the most cherished. The only time “Once a cheater, always a cheater” even makes sense is when you’re referring to a large cat that lives on the African plains. But if you’re talking about a human being, this type of generalization can’t (and shouldn’t) be treated as fact.

Let me ask you a question.

Have you ever heard of a “meme” (rhymes with dream)? This term was first coined by biologist and evolutionary theorist, Richard Dawkins in 1976, as a unit of cultural information (such as a practice, idea, belief, or pattern of behavior) that’s transmitted from one person to another. Examples of memes include tunes, limericks, catch phrases, urban legends, myths, beliefs, and clichés.

Three things to know about memes

  1. They self-replicate, which is why they’re also referred to as mind viruses.
  2. Memes are especially contagious to children and the impressionable.
  3. Just like physical viruses, memes can either be benign or harmful.

How they work:

Memes (mind viruses) are subtly designed to influence thinking and behavior. They are spread throughout a culture either vertically by cultural inheritance (as from parents to children), or horizontally (as by peers, media, and books).

The Evolution of a Meme

Let’s take a closer look at the cliché, “Once a cheater, always a cheater.”

The idea must have started with one person, then was retold time and time again, and ended up traveling around the world, repeated over and over again. In so doing, the cliché (meme) behaves much like a virus.

Why did this particular cliché replicate and evolve into a persuasive meme?

For the same reason that superstitions and urban legends replicate — because there’s usually some element of truth in it. Of course, there are some people who are pathological cheaters. So chances are, the first person to coin that cliché did so out of the truth of their experience.

But why did it survive so long and become so contagious?

My theory is that it survived because like so many superstitions, propaganda, and conspiracy theories, this meme is laced with fear, and that fear is often what makes a meme contagious. This is because fear is one of the most easily communicable and transferable states of mind. And once people become afraid, they lose the ability to think rationally.

Fear vs. Rational Thinking

Fear can be recognized by its negative expectations. To live in fear is to be in chronic state of negative expectancy. Once a mind is infected with this kind of irrational fear, it loses its ability to evaluate reality objectively.

What is rational thinking?  (critical thinking)

This describes the mind’s capacity to evaluate reality accurately. It’s the discipline to seek the truth of confirmable facts and put reason, logic, and critical thinking above wishes, fantasies, or feelings. 

To think rationally, one must be able to deal honestly with reality, rather than succumbing to fear. Both fear and rational thinking are ways of coping with the uncertainties of life. So let’s look at your situation through each of these lenses.

If you look at your boyfriend from a state of negative expectancy, then you would assume his future will be exactly like his past.

The question to ask yourself is this.


Can you absolutely say, beyond a shadow of doubt, that you know his future will be an EXACT replica of his past? If you’re being honest (a wise choice), then the answer must be no. You can’t know this for sure. None of us can. We can’t describe the future with any real accuracy, because it hasn’t happened yet. (Fact.) Therefore, if you assume that “Once a cheater, always a cheater” is an immutable fact, then you’re choosing to deny the reality… there’s no way you can know this for sure.

When you look at your partner from a rational point of view…

You must focus on the facts of this situation.

And what is that?

Well, we know for a fact that he’s cheated. We know this because it’s a confirmed truth. What else do we know for sure about what he’ll do in the future? Nothing. (That’s a fact.) Anything else would basically be a psychic prediction. Unfortunately, because it can be so painful to admit that you don’ t know what’s going to happen next — most people would rather make it up or predict doom and gloom than admit that they just don’t know.

Knowledge vs. Superstition

Albert Einstein once said, knowledge that doesn’t rest on facts is superstition. What are superstitions? They’re placeholders for knowledge. So if your friends are going to predict your boyfriend’s future behavior, they are doing so based on superstition, not knowledge. Here’s another way to think about it: If you were to take him into a court of law, would the judge convict him of a future crime? No, because that would be irrational. No court would ever convict someone for something they haven’t done yet. But if you think about it, isn’t that what your friends are doing? Aren’t they passing judgment and convicting your boyfriend for future affairs he hasn’t even had?

Think this through with me.

Your friends seem to have arrived at the conclusion that any man who cheats — even once — is destined to become a lifetime cheater. This is the equivalent of saying anyone who gets drunk (even once) is compelled to become a lifetime drunk. Are there some men who are habitual liars and cheaters? Of course there are. Are there some men who are habitual truth tellers and loyal to a fault? Yes! And I can tell you (after a decade of doing this work), there are plenty of men who have cheated once and never offended again. How can you tell the difference between the pathological offender and the one-time mistake maker? This requires you to be discerning… not judgmental.

Being Discerning vs. Being Judgmental

It’s important to recognize these two aren’t the same. Let’s take a look at the differences. Being judgmental creates a pecking order of you versus the rest of the world — because the act of being judgmental instantly puts you in a superior position over those whom you have judged. Once the judgmental mind reaches a verdict, it shuts the door on any evidence to the contrary. This tells you that the judgmental mind is not  open to learning. Discernment, on the other hand, means staying open to new information and evaluating things based on current evidence. It’s important to note that being discerning doesn’t mean that you ignore evidence that points to habitual patterns of deceptive or destructive behaviors. To be discerning, one must be aware and alert to changes in the environment.

Bottom line

The judgmental mind is closed to learning, and the discerning mind stays open.

Therefore, judgments are the end of knowledge, not the beginning. Once you’ve passed a judgment based on a stereotype like “Once a cheater, always a cheater,” all cats look the same — you can’t tell a cheetah from a house cat. This means you won’t be able to discern the differences between those men who are redeemable from those who are pathological.

Key Insight:

The ability to be discerning rather than judgmental is one of the secrets to making wise choices. Unfortunately, it appears that your friends seem to have fallen into the judgmental category. But that doesn’t mean that YOU have to, so long as you understand how to maintain healthy boundaries. Those secrets are coming up next.

Let’s go over a few ways to help maintain healthy boundaries…