About Our Guest
Jason* is a pseudonym as this topic is very sensitive and involves many other people’s stories. Jason wants to be mindful and avoid implicating the people involved in the past relationships, and thus an altered voice and pseudonym are used.
Welcome to the Handful of Leaves podcast. My name is Cheryl, and I’m your host today. We will be talking about the topic of cheating and can leopards ever change their spots? We have a very interesting guest who has courageously come up to share his experiences of being cheated on as well as cheating on his partners.
So I invite you to listen with an open mind as we delve into his past, to understand why people cheat, as well as to explore the question of whether someone who has cheated should be forgiven.
Can they be forgiven? Can they ever change? This episode will be enjoyed best with earphones because we will be altering the voice of this person and using a pseudonym*. So with that, let’s get started.
Hi Jason*, thanks for coming to this episode to speak to us today on the condition of anonymity. So I think first off, I would love to understand what’s your definition of cheating.
I think generally most people talk about cheating in two forms, emotional cheating, and physical cheating. Physical cheating would be engaging in sexual behaviour with someone else apart from my partner. To make it clear, in this case, it’s not just sexual behaviour, but nonconsensual sexual behaviour.
Thanks for clarifying that for us. And maybe you can also share with us your experiences of cheating.
For my experience of being cheated on, it’s very interesting. I think till today, I have no clarity on whether it actually happened. Before the time of smartphones and dating apps, we had to use IRC Chats to get to know people. I, later on, found out that even though we were together, he went out to the IRC channels to meet other people with the intent of dating. So that to me felt like it should be cheating already. But that was my first relationship. I went through many years trying to think whether that counts as cheating or not.
Well, it must have been very confusing for you because it’s also your first experience and what did you feel?
The initial reaction was shock, then came, is it true? Could it be someone else impersonating my boyfriend? So when I actually tried to clarify he gave many reasons. I was just like, am I being cheated on? What’s happening? What am I supposed to do? It’s just very overwhelming.
I see. And I think that is really inflicting a lot of pain inside you as well, where you have to doubt yourself, doubt whether your partner is lying to you or not, or are they actually telling the truth.
Putting into the context of Buddhism. So Buddhism doesn’t really have the connotation of sin or whether things are right or wrong, but rather, sexual misconduct where cheating is actually viewed as unskillful and unwholesome because it causes a lot of pain to other people. It harms other people. In the context of cause and effect, when you do something bad, you’re really planting the seeds for something bad to happen in the future whenever that ripens. I think you really brought out the point that it just causes a lot of unwholesome states of mind to arise within yourself as well.
Cheating as a behaviour itself causes a lot of harm. At the same time, I feel that it indicates that generally there’s a deeper issue at hand. This might be a precursor to even more unskillful behaviour that may happen later down the road. So some people may think that it seems like a very small, innocuous action but the effects are quite severe.
And tell us a little bit more. So how did that manifest in yourself? And in a way, how did that experience of cheating kind of lead you down this vicious cycle of hurt where you eventually then became someone who cheated on others at some point in your life?
My ex-partner and I, we both hurt each other a lot. At one point, I was threatened with suicide and a lot of emotional manipulation. It’s not unfair to say that I was traumatised by the first relationship, and I didn’t know how to recover from it. So I started dating very serially, rebound partner after partner. Even if I didn’t feel like I was in love with the person, I just kinda crave another person.
Eventually when I realised that I wanted to end the relationship, but I didn’t know how, subconsciously what happened was, I cheated in order to get out of the relationship. Yeah, in hindsight it’s really horrible, but I look back and I realised that at that point in time, I had no idea what I was doing. That sounds like I’m probably trying to find excuses for the cheating but that felt like what was happening.
And how do you come to that realisation then?
It took many years. It took a few relationships and very unfortunately, that was not the only time I cheated. After the death of a loved one, I decided that I wanted to see a therapist. With the therapist, I worked through a lot of different issues about grief, about relationships, about the cheating behaviour. At one point, there was a question that was always on my mind. Since I have cheated before, does that mean that I’m a cheater and I will always be a cheater? It took me many years of therapy and a lot of work on myself to discover that I cannot define myself by my behaviours.
Yeah, I think that’s a tricky one, right? I know people who have been cheated on before, and they will be in that dilemma where, can I trust my partner again? Or am I just being stupid? Because in a way, a leopard never changes its spots. Right? What can I do once this trust is broken?
But as you mentioned, a lot of things, the actions, the behaviours are really just the superficial layer and there are always underlying reasons or root causes behind them. Not to say that the behaviour is correct. I mean it causes harm, causes hurt. You can’t deny that. But if we go deeper, we can really see that there are a lot of root causes there.
I’m just curious, for yourself it was because you experienced a hurt very deep from all the trauma from your first relationship, and it was kind of like your defense mechanism to then hurt your future partners, is it?
Yes. I think you put it very well. It was a defense mechanism, to hurt before I get hurt. It’s quite sad and looking back the amount of hurt I inflicted on my ex-partner was very unfortunate. The person had no hand in whatever trauma I received. But looking back, this behaviour caused so much hurt to my ex-partner, an innocent party, for no good reason.
I see. Because it’s very complicated, right? When you were in the moment, you really didn’t know what you want. I guess all you felt was just a desire to go on the app to find someone else, but you can’t really pinpoint what’s happening as well. So how can we avoid even putting ourselves in these situations where we may lose control? How can we better create conditions to not hurt other people so much?
That’s a difficult question and I’m glad I’ve gone through sufficient therapy and worked on myself and I have my spiritual practice to support me on that. How to stop? Should I not put myself in situations where it is likely that this behaviour will happen? If it’s subconscious, are you sure that you can stop it? Cheating is never just that one spur-of-the-moment decision. What we see is that action. What we don’t see is what happens behind that led to that action. Maybe there’s some unhappiness in the relationship or there is something that the person doesn’t want to handle within themselves.
So for me, I didn’t want to handle the hurt from the previous relationship. So, I just diverted my attention outwards. And when some additional trauma comes in internally, then I think it spills over, and whatever external measures I put in, it’ll all be pointless. So what I realized is that we must always work on ourselves. Whether you’re in a relationship or not, make sure that you’re a person who can live a wholesome life so that you don’t bring your personal problems into a relationship, or you don’t cause the relationship problems to be unable to be resolved because your own personal issues are standing in the way.
Yeah, it does make sense and it really gives me a different light because a lot of times people are very quick to judge or condemn people who cheat, and straight away criticize and judge and put a lot of labels. But then as you share, I realize that there’s so much suffering within one person to bring them to that action of cheating and of course all the steps that it takes to reach that behavior. They cannot contain it anymore and then it just spills over. Sadly, with this spilling over, it burns them as well.
Any practical tips that you think could be helpful? Maybe stop using the apps when you’re in a relationship or don’t look at people who walk around with blinders.
Practical tips? My response to what you said about not installing the apps. I thought that would work. I honestly tell you, I’ve tried it. But the horrifying thing is that, when the intention is there, whatever you want to make happen, you probably can. So, a practical tip I would say is to get in touch with your inner self whether it’s through meditation, or through other means available for you. Find out what are the areas of your life that may cause you problems when you’re in a relationship. A lot of people like to use this term, oh I’ve already found my better half, or my other half. My own personal belief is that we need to be whole before we go and meet another person so that we are two people who are whole that come together in a relationship that is healthy and they both grow.
You’ve brought up a very important point that the mind is the forerunner of all things. If you don’t take care of your mind, you don’t prioritize mental hygiene, then you know that uncleanliness will spill out one form or the other, and no external thing, no people will be able to fix you for you, you gotta fix you for yourself. But of course, we can always lean on others but not a hundred percent, and throw our problems at them.
To allow my mind to be less likely to tend towards such things, the Buddhist principle of morality is very important. And it’s something for us to practice on a daily basis. Tend your mind towards wholesome thoughts, wholesome behaviours, and actions, so that the imprint on your mind will be more wholesome and that it slowly grows with time, and we let go of the more unwholesome behaviour, which goes back to the Noble Eightfold Path, Right Effort in this case.
Indeed. Really plus one to that because I feel like the undercurrents of greed, hatred, ill-will or delusion is very, very strong. And for me, sometimes I find it very fascinating that it can come out so strongly. Generally, I’m a normal person. I don’t have very crazy thoughts. I don’t indulge too much in violence, but when I feel either very hurt or I feel betrayed or if I don’t get something that I really want, the thoughts of anger, of wanting to hurt people can come up very strongly. As you said, if we practice inclining our minds towards wholesome states, towards skillfulness, then that restraint really helps to protect us to actually turn all of those thoughts into action.
I think we can also segue into moving beyond the identity of both being cheated on and all the connotations that you may hold about that, as well as someone who has done these actions. What was your journey in forgiving others and forgiving yourself?
Forgiving others turns out to be easier than forgiving myself.
I think what helped was realizing that this person was very hurt and therefore might have acted without being fully conscious about what he was doing.
It feels like cheating is like trauma and like how intergenerational trauma works. If a person has been hurt so much and is unable to process that hurt and let go of that hurt, that person will go on to hurt other people.
I think forgiving that person came a lot easier when I realised to have compassion for the other person, knowing that this person doesn’t have the intent to hurt. And to be fair, I think nobody on Earth has a true intention to hurt. I believe that. But if somebody is hurting, there must be some reason that the person is unaware of.
But forgiving myself, that was a whole different ball game. The question about, will I always be a cheater? haunted my mind so much. I had a friend who told me, my principle is I’ll never make friends with cheaters. But you, Jason, you’re my good friend and I understand what happened. Her forgiveness might have helped me to also see that she hates the behaviour, but she doesn’t hate the person. That made me realize that at some point, I need to separate the behaviour from the sense of me. I cannot keep latching on to that behaviour, identifying with that behaviour.
Where you’re able to see the entirety of yourself as bigger than the acts that you have committed.
I think that was why the first time I encountered a teaching by Ajahn Brahm, one of his famous stories, it’s about the two bad bricks in the wall. He misaligned two bricks and all he could see was that these two bricks were just so horrible that they ruin the whole wall. Until one day he realized that there are so many other beautiful bricks there.
He used that story to explain that when he went to a prison to teach, he didn’t see prisoners, he didn’t see rapists. He saw people who murdered, people who raped. But apart from looking at just this behaviour, there’re so many other aspects of this person that we can look at. That teaching touched me deeply. It made me realize that there are so many other aspects of myself. Even though, yes, I made a mistake, it’s a really horrible mistake, I made it more than once. But that doesn’t mean that I’m a person who is incorrigible.
Yeah, Sadhu. Very good to see that you’ve come around to this. I think it’s important to not let yourself be burdened by all of this guilt as well because if you keep carrying that burden of I’m not a good person and berating yourself, it just causes you to be in a very unwholesome mindset state. When you’re in an unwholesome mindset state, when you’re not thinking clearly, habitual tendencies can arise more quickly. So when you are moving away into a lighter mind state where you are at least abiding in forgiveness, in self-love, in mettā, unconditional loving kindness, then the clarity of mind is there to inform you to make wiser decisions the next time you’re in difficult situations as well.
Yeah, and it feels like common sense but it actually took me a while to grasp the fact that I need metta for myself, so that once I can sort out all the hurt from the past, then I can have the capacity to go and stop harming others, be kind to others. If I want to be kind to others, I must first start with myself. By being kind to myself, I stop holding on to the past and let the past hold me back.
Very beautiful. I’m just curious, I don’t know if you have had any closure with that person. But if he were to listen in and you were able to share with him something, what would you say?
I would say, thank you for the good times we had. As much as we’ve both hurt each other a lot, I think now looking back, I’ve tried to find things I’m thankful for, things that I’ve learned in the relationship. And I forgive you because it’s what is not easy to do. Made me realize that we all are hurting in this world. I hope that you’re having a good life and that all of us can take good care of ourselves and stop hurting others.
That’s a great question. I feel like I’m in some therapy session. That was an amazing question.
I’m sure a lot of our listeners will feel deeply touched by you really acknowledging the suffering and the capacity for us to continue to love, and continue to be kind. And what would you say to Jason in the past?
I would say, you tried your best. There were times when you didn’t know what you were doing. You were hurt so deeply, by so many things in life. Maybe you hope that you could have done better, that you shouldn’t have done all this and you’re probably scolding yourself for being such a messed up person, for hurting other people and everything.
I just wanna tell you, it’s okay. Let go of all these. Don’t have to hold on to it. It really hurts a lot to hold on to all these. It may cause you to hurt even more people later on. If you can just let that go, I assure you that you’ll become a really beautiful person down the road.
Wow. I think that was not just for Jason. It really goes into all of our hearts because we’ve all done things that we’re not very proud of, big or small. I’m sure there are some things that we still hold against ourselves, but allowing ourselves to let go and forgive. That’s a very, very beautiful way to end our episode today.
We covered a little bit about cheating, the experiences of Jason being cheated on, and how that hurt propelled him into a really dark place in life, where hurting others and cheating multiple times was almost his only way of finding happiness at that point. We talked about how we forgive ourselves and not define ourselves as just the bad acts that we do, but also look into all the 98 other beautiful bricks that we have within ourselves. That gives us more confidence, gives us more strength to love others, love ourselves, and create less harm in this world.
Wow. What a beautiful way to end this and I just want to say thank you for making this podcast a lot less difficult than I thought. I’m very thankful to you for all the really great questions. Going through this podcast has helped me to learn a lot and to reinforce the message for me to be even kinder to myself.
Sadhu Sadhu. I hope all of our listeners will also take away something and continue to stay happy and wise and see you in the next episode.
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Editor and transcriber of this episode: Tee Ke Hui, Cheryl Cheah, Koh Kai Xin