Look Into My Eyes …
Visit any number of infidelity support boards and you will find numerous claims of affair partners brainwashing cheaters. It might sound ridiculous, but it’s a tempting narrative for someone who wants to believe that their cheater is not fully conscious of, or responsible for, their terrible behavior.
The affair partner -particularly the other woman- is popularly painted as the main culprit for not only the cheater’s involvement in the affair to begin with, but also for their perceived out-of-character behavior.
Certainly there are affair partners who drip copious amounts of poison and caustic commentary into the mix of an affair in an attempt to erode the cheater’s connection to the faithful partner, but that’s not brainwashing.
There are some affair partners who use the threat of exposing the affair to the spouse in an attempt to keep the cheater involved in the affair, especially when it starts to fizzle out. When this is threatened the affair partner is often trying to
- leverage the cheater’s fear that their spouse will learn of the affair and end the marriage, resulting in financial, custodial, and lifestyle changes
- force the end of the marriage
However, not all threats to expose the affair are threats to tell the spouse. Some statistics cite that approximately 35% of all affairs take place in the workplace and this exposes the affair couple to the risks of sexual harassment claims, disciplinary action, strained relationships with work colleagues, and even losing their job.
Clearly, a threat to expose an affair is not brainwashing - it’s manipulation to achieve a desired outcome. This kind of threat by the affair partner is met with outrage and moral opprobrium by faithful spouses in support forums, decrying a disregard for the financial impact this could have on the family and children. It’s interesting to note though that the same forums often advocate that the spouse should expose the affair as an attempt to end it.
It’s hypocritical to say that it is cunning, cowardly, and unethical for the affair partner to threaten to expose the affair in an attempt to continue it, but that it is brave, righteous, and ethical for the faithful spouse to do (or threaten) the same thing in order to end the affair.
2) Use of Sexual Power
It’s common to hear things on infidelity support sites such as, “She’s got his balls in her pocket” or, “If he doesn’t do what she wants, he’s not getting any tonight.” These kinds of statements are intended to dismiss, demean, and downplay the nature of the affair and the issues of conscious choice, and suggest that the cheater is only in the affair because they are helplessly drowning in their biochemistry.
Male cheaters are often painted as being slaves to their sexual desires, and female cheaters as being emotionally needy with Daddy issues. The other woman in these stories is often a caricature of a sexual temptress, relentlessly pursuing the cheater, wearing them down until they eventually and reluctantly succumb to the onslaught, their right minded morals unwittingly confused or eroded.
There are many affairs that do have a strong sexual component to the relationship, and it’s understandable that the faithful spouse would feel bitter and jealous about it.
However, having a sexual relationship is not brainwashing - it is unlikely that faithful spouses would agree that they themselves were ‘brainwashed’ by the sexual component of their marriage to the cheater. Similarly, it’s unlikely that faithful spouses would characterize any sexual withholding within their marriage (following arguments etc) as THEM brainwashing their spouse, therefore invalidating the marriage.
It’s also interesting that it’s often considered the mark of a ‘good partner’ to want to please in a relationship, to have a shared outlook, and to create a tone of solidarity, and yet when these things are seen in affair relationships, faithful spouses characterize them as ‘affair brainwashing’.
3) Substance Use
We do hear affair stories where the use of alcohol and/or drugs have been part of the affair relationship, and it’s understandable that a faithful spouse could be concerned by this. Drugs and alcohol can impair cognitive function and reduce inhibitions, and the drunken one night stand, for example, is not uncommon.
Substance addiction aside, the social use of substances is not brainwashing, nor is it evidence that a cheater’s general thinking is compromised or ‘foggy‘. Many dating and marital relationships also include the use of alcohol, whether that’s a bottle of wine with dinner, nights out at the bar, or attending weddings and parties, and the use of recreational drugs is also becoming increasingly common. If the social use of these substances doesn’t invalidate people’s choices in a non-affair relationship it’s unreasonable to say that it somehow invalidates the choices in an affair relationship.
Problems With the Brainwashing Claim
If we were to accept that affair brainwashing is valid (which we clearly don’t) the concept does open up some questions:
- Why was the faithful spouse’s influence on the cheater different from what they deem ‘brainwashing’ in the affair?
- If the cheater is so weak-minded that they are susceptible to ‘sexual/emotional brainwashing’, does it follow that:
- they have no ability to fight the ‘brainwashing’ or to walk away and remove themselves from the situation?
- they are a sure thing to anyone who chooses to pursue them?
- they are chameleons, changing their true character to blend in and dupe others?
- they are entirely directed by the affair partner’s whims and wishes and not responsible for their actions?
- they are easily likely to be similarly brainwashed by others in the future?
- If the cheater is so easily ‘brainwashed’ by another, why would the faithful spouse want to continue a relationship with someone so easily controlled by random strangers?
- If a cheater can be brainwashed into an affair, it follows that infidelity will always be a factor in a marriage with that cheater.
- Is the truth really that the faithful spouse wants their cheater under their own influence, and not anyone else’s?
Social Influence vs Brainwashing
Social persuasion and influence is not the same as brainwashing. Brainwashing is coercive, it happens against one’s will, involves the brutal assault on and breakdown of one’s core identity (more commonly called torture), and requires total isolation from the normal social and environmental references. These conditions are seen in prison camps and totalist cults, not in affairs. Those in heinously abusive situations are often similarly isolated, manipulated and controlled under the threat or use of physical violence, and can even experience the systematic denial or withholding of their basic human rights/needs. Control, abuse and torture in these circumstances are real issues, but that is not what is normally claimed as ‘affair brainwashing’. What faithful spouses typically call ‘brainwashing’ is actually normal social influence and choices of which they disapprove.
We are all exposed to persuasion and influences that change our perspectives and beliefs: Education, propaganda, advertising, other people, and life events all contribute to the sum total of our beliefs, values, and behaviors. But that is not to say that those factors mean that we act without consciously choosing our path or that others’ thinking mindlessly supplants our own.
A cheater may well be influenced -both positively and negatively- by their affair partner, but it’s absurd to suggest that influence in an affair relationship is ‘fog’ or ‘brainwashing’ but that influence in a marital relationship is normal and valid. To legitimately dismiss the cheater’s choices and behaviors in an affair as nothing more than affair fog caused by the wielding of sexual power, we must similarly dismiss the both the cheater’s and the faithful spouse’s choices in the MARITAL relationship.
Your cheater is neither affair brainwashed nor controlled by the affair partner into behaving badly. They are choosing the affair and are deliberately and consciously targeting you with their bad behavior. You disapprove - and that’s entirely understandable and valid. However, your objection to your cheater being influenced by the affair partner is perhaps more honestly described as an objection that the influence is a) not coming from you and that it is b) to your detriment.
Your cheater’s hideous choices and behavior towards you are not the result of affair brainwashing - they are the result of a fundamental character flaw. It’s a product of the way they view the world, what they believe they are entitled to, and how they expect life to fit in with their desires and frustrations. Accepting that the cheater is deliberately making these choices of their own free will can make the idea of reconciliation difficult - and perhaps that’s why so many prefer to see their cheater as some form of victim of the affair partner.