Don’t Pet the Snakes

Don't Pet the SnakesSo, you discovered your spouse’s affair and the world has been turned on its head. You are devastated, furious, confused, and clingy all at the same time, desperately trying to make sense of a) how it happened b) why it happened c) if it’s still happening and d) what you can do to stop it happening now and/or again.

All of that ‘trying to make sense’ of things is addling your brain and making you swing from sobbing your way through a box of tissues, to wanting to slash their clothes to shreds, to feverishly trying to analyze everything they say and do. In fact, Cheater Analysis is probably your new hobby.

Hobby? Nay! That’s for lightweights - Cheater Analysis has become your new lifestyle! Heck, you could probably take your vivas and get your Cheater Analysis doctorate, right?!

If this is you, you’re not alone. Unless you tossed your cheater into the trash en route to your divorce lawyer, dusting off your hands as a job well done, you’re likely to be very concerned about their behavior towards you. It’s normal if you are scrutinizing your cheater’s behavior, hoping for clues and insight into their thinking - but is it useful, or are you getting sucked into something else?

The Nature of Snakes

Most faithful spouses face the issue of a cheater’s quick-changing attitudes towards them. Emotions can run understandably high immediately post-discovery, but it can be completely baffling to see your cheater zip between blame → guilt → anger → upset → pleading → cruelty etc.

These seemingly inexplicable and bizarre behavioral changes are why so many faithful spouses assert that their cheater is ‘insane’, but cheaters are not insane - in fact, this misguided and hyperbolic characterization couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s worth remembering that manipulation, power, and control are mainstays in cheaters but it is not confused, ‘foggy‘, or insane for anyone to a) have their own agenda b) want what they want and c) set out to get it on their timescale, for their own ends - the affair simply released the Kraken.

It can really help to put their post-discovery behavior in context if you understand from the outset that your cheater is both willing and able to manipulate and hurt you, and take substantial risks in the pursuit of their self-interest.

Sidewinding: the cheater’s mood swings

So why all the ‘mood swings’? Well, in truth, the changes in the tone of their interaction with you are not ‘mood swings’ (or confusion/insanity) at all: they are an attempt to regain some power over you and the situation.

The discovery of an affair understandably changes the faithful spouse’s world - and also your thinking and behavior towards your cheater. Where you were previously compliant, trusting, and accommodating, you might now be constantly policing, or seething with angry resentment, or even taking steps to engage an aggressive divorce lawyer. Even if your response is as non-threatening as non-stop sobbing, it’s safe to assume that your new attitude is one your cheater wants to avoid, even if they have left/intend to leave the marriage. A cheater wants what makes their life easier, and you behaving as Pre-Affair-You is ideal because it’s the you your cheater understands and knows how to handle.

When the Post-Affair-You comes along the cheater might find you uncooperative/mulish/snarky/distant. You might ignore them/police them/live your life without reference to them, and they could be anxious that you might even be filing for divorce. The tone of Post-Affair-You often results in the cheater feeling out of control, aggrieved, weakened, unwanted, disrespected.

Your cheater feels entitled to a different reaction from you- one that they like, that better suits their agenda, and that makes their life easier. The only way for your cheater to return things to a more comfortable situation for themselves is for them to find a way to get inside your defenses and resume control from the inside.

Sidewinding: manipulative zig-zagging

The cheater’s primary goal is unilaterally beneficial - most prefer zero consequences to their affair, prefer to do zero work after the affair, and prefer that you would just give them a pass.

Post-Affair-You is a new challenge for a cheater because you are likely not responding on cue and in familiar ways. However, your cheater has intimate knowledge of you and your soft spots and will, without hesitation, use that knowledge to press the buttons they think will work to reclaim some of their power over you and the situation.

Their initial button push might not yield the desired result but they are happy to erode your resolve by cycling through different emotional approaches, testing the waters until they get a bite that will allow them inside your defenses. The emotional zig-zagging is intended to throw you off balance and return them to a more powerful, influential position with you.

Sidewinding: the New Nice experience

Unfortunately, the New Nice experience from a sidewinding cheater is a particularly insidious but highly effective go-to strategy. It plays into your hopes for reconciliation but exposes you to further upset and damage because of your natural inclination to reciprocate and re-engage, seeing these things as positive steps towards marital repair. Because of this it’s worth spending some time looking at this particular approach in some depth.

It can be difficult to maintain your equilibrium in the face of a cheater’s onslaught and this is particularly true if the onslaught is remorse and charm after a period of callous, distant, or abusive behavior. The cheater being kind and nice can be a welcome relief and it can be easy to embrace that without questioning it - you want your nice spouse back and this New Nice feels good.

This strategy is usually the first one that the cheater tries out. It’s the calm-and-balm after the affair, the sweet and romantic stuff: declarations of remorse and of undying love, promises to fight for you, their realization that they want you and only you etc. It’s often coupled with ‘effort’ from the cheater in terms of romantic gestures of flowers, date nights, proposing for a second time, new wedding rings, spending time with you, and rekindling your sex life. They might even suggest that you both attend marital therapy.

We frequently see the New Nice lull the faithful spouse into the old familiarity of their relationship. The relief of a cheater being kind (or even simply courteous) can easily fuel your confidence about reconciliation, but shouldn’t kind be the minimal standard of behavior from anyone in your life? Yes. Is kind evidence of changed thinking? No. Is it sufficient as a robust foundation for your marriage to continue after the affair? No. Yet reconciliation boards are filled with stories where the New Nice experience alone marks the start of a supposed reconciliation, prompting the faithful spouse to:

  • relent on certain issues in an effort to meet the cheater half-way
  • abandon new ventures in favor of spending more ‘couple time’ with the cheater
  • stop participating in individual counseling or on support forums that ‘poison them against the cheater’
  • attend marital therapy to learn how to prevent another affair in the future
  • redouble their efforts to correct the personal issues that drove the cheater to the affair
  • discontinue divorce proceedings

Incredibly, these very things are frequently advised on reconciliation boards as necessary parts of the ‘shared effort’ required of reconciliation that will ultimately rebuild the relationship. The problem of course is that with little to no effort from the cheater, the faithful spouse’s cooperative and cheater-beneficial behavior is secured. When the cheater’s real agenda or lack of change/effort eventually becomes apparent, the faithful spouse’s distress at having been so readily duped can cause long-lasting damage.

Sidewinding: victimhood

If ‘loving remorse’ doesn’t work (or when the soporific effects of that lulling, enticing promise wears thin) they try the old switcheroo and turn the tables on you and make the situation all your fault (you didn’t really love them, you didn’t meet their needs, you refuse to get over it, you won’t let them forget it etc). They can become childish and petulant, throwing a temper tantrum and taking their toys away (affection, sex, finances, kindness, general cooperation). They don’t like not getting their way and this approach is intended to create fear and distance so that you return to pursuing them, pleading, being cooperative, and doing what it takes to keep them.

Sidewinding: anger

When those tactics don’t work though, they can become downright outraged. How DARE you make this so difficult for them? How DARE you behave in ways that are not to their liking? How dare YOU try exert power over THEM by trying to regain some semblance of control over your life? This is a very common manipulative behavior intended to keep you in place and frighten you into submission i.e. put up and shut up or things could get rocky. This is often characterized by threats about custody, a war instead of a divorce, and even threats to cheat again or re-establish contact with the affair partner. Yep, any dissent or hint that the faithful spouse might have other ideas can prompt a very angry cheater-response indeed.

Sidewinding: the cycle

Remember: The cheater’s focus is on themselves, not on you. Their focus is on what works for them, NOT what works for you. Their affair is evidence of their willingness to manipulate you for their own satisfaction, and unless they change their own mindset they will continue to feel entitled to do the same. When they do get a rise out of you using one strategy they stick to that particular formula until it weakens, at which point they pick another approach and test it to see if it works on you.

It’s typical for a cheater to keep testing the faithful spouse with these tactics - they might dial some up, some down, try new emotional triggers, get meaner, switch it to physical violence, dial it down to sullen silent treatment etc - they are testing you, trying to find the ‘in’.

They will keep at it until they sense it is working and then they throw themselves into that particular approach (hence escalating anger and abuse in many cases), grasping to regain control of the situation. If the effects wear off? Well, back to finding another way in.

Petting the Snakes: confusing changeability with change

You want to believe that your cheater has learned from your devastation and the potential loss of your marriage, and you want to believe their new niceness is evidence that they are a changed person and are no longer a dangerously venomous cheater-snake. Don’t be fooled. Meaningful change requires work, time, and a lot of self-introspection - a cheater being nice to you is NOT evidence of that, but it sure feels better than the alternatives, right?

Remember: snake charming is a con. Snake charmers aren’t really mesmerizing their snakes with music - the snake is reacting to the movement of the charmer and the instrument itself. The snake isn’t tame nor is it trained - the charmer is simply triggering its natural defensive behavior.

Similarly, your sidewinding cheater is not changed or thinking differently. Whatever change you think you’re seeing in your sidewinding cheater is little more than them responding defensively to your behavior without any fundamental change to their nature or thinking.

Responding to sidewinding is risky business. However tame you think a snake is, however much you think you understand it and can dodge out of the way if it strikes out at you, remember that even petting a snake can give you a severe dose of the nasties.

Even if you think that your cheater is different, that the New Nice experience YOU are having is not a manipulation or a lack of internally driven motivation to change, be cautious. Cheater-think doesn’t appear overnight - your cheater has had a long time to concrete their brand of thinking into who they are. Remember that who they are allowed them to justify, orchestrate, and conduct an affair right under your nose - all while you thought they were harmless. Jumping straight back in to more of the same because they were nice to you for a while isn’t an intelligent, rational way forward.

Even if you chop off a snake’s head it can still bite you up to 36 hours later. Waiting, observing from a safe distance, and being sure that it is no longer dangerous is a really good strategy.

Don’t think of a decapitated snake head as harmless - see it as a really short snake just waiting to bite if you pet it. And if you do see a sidewinder, let it wriggle away like the snake in the grass it really is and consider stocking up on some anti-venom.

Seriously - don’t pet the damn snakes!


“I'm not a teacher, only a fellow traveler of whom you asked the way. I pointed ahead - ahead of myself as well as you.” ~ George Bernard Shaw

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