Trying Again With A Partner Who Has Behaved Poorly In The Past Doesn’t Make You A Sucker

Many of my clients are in the difficult position of being married to someone with a history of dishonesty and/or other bad behavior.  The dishonesty generally occurs alongside infidelity and/or addiction (to substances, gambling, and/or sex).  Other bad behavior can include verbal or physical abuse.  If you are with a partner who has behaved in these ways and has changed for the better, it can be hard to believe that they have really changed. But, whether it is via therapy, medication, AA, finding religion, or any sort of personal epiphany, some people really do change (my clients show me the human capacity for deep personal growth and change every day, which is why I love my job). 

Still, most partners at least initially (meaning, for the first few YEARS, yes, years, post-change) find themselves suspicious of this change.  They have two main questions that prevent them from moving forward with their partner in a healthy and trusting way: (1) Am I a pathetic sucker or fool (or codependent, in today’s terms) for loving someone who has treated me so poorly? (2) If it turns out that they are currently lying about how much they have changed (e.g., they are currently cheating) or will revert to their bad behavior in the future, will I regret having trusted and loved them now?

It can be very difficult to trust someone who has hurt you in the past.  It feels safer to retreat into a protective shell and end a relationship either physically or emotionally (by retreating and staying closed-off) than open yourself up again to potential hurt.  And if you decide to do this, you will find a lot of support in the popular media.  There are many coaches and even therapists who make a career out of telling people that, for example, narcissists or addicts or cheaters “can’t change” (I disagree and have seen change in clients of all those types throughout my career).  But, if you truly love your partner and especially if you have a family together, you may want to embark on the more challenging path of trying to be vulnerable with them and close to them again.

I have seen many couples recover from deep empathic ruptures and massive breaches of honesty.  It is very difficult, and should only be attempted if your partner understands how they have hurt you and is actively attempting to understand WHY they did what they did and HOW to prevent themselves from doing it again in the future.  Again, this can be through therapy or any other method that resonates with both you and your partner.  But you are not a fool or sucker for trying again with your partner; this makes you brave, kind, and honest.  Honest because you still love them and you can picture a life with them where your love is stronger after your breach has been repaired. You are not pretending to yourself that you don’t love them anymore.

Taking back and loving a partner who has done bad things in the past is in no way incompatible with setting firm boundaries for what will be tolerable in the future.  For example, if your partner has cheated in the past, a couple may make a rule that this person will not hang out alone with people of the opposite (or same, if applicable) sex.  Or if hidden porn addiction has been an issue, there may be a policy of checking browser histories.  Some people look down their nose at “policing” a partner, but for people who go this route, it may feel to both people that they are both on the same team; they have accepted that X behavior is an issue, and they both feel more secure when there are rules in place around X.  There also may be an agreement that if the partner engages in “bad” behavior in future, the marriage will end.  

I believe that no love goes wasted.  Let’s say you decide to be vulnerable, and truly and unconditionally love your “badly behaving” partner.  Then you also set firm boundaries and limits on what will be tolerated.  In this case, your partner would likely feel lucky and grateful that you have given them another chance and are really trying to forgive them and move forward, and often quite honestly are relieved about the boundaries, which help them stay on the straight and narrow (when coupled with therapy, or group support, or whatever else). Then, your love is putting your partner in the best possible position to succeed and creating deep and lasting change.

Incidentally, your children will also see you loving one another and learn how to be a loving partner.  If they are old enough to have a sense of what’s transpired, they will learn about forgiveness and second chances.  Nobody wants their child to forgive a partner who has wronged them, but everyone hopes their child’s partner would give their child a second chance if their child was the one who did something wrong.  Isn’t this hypocritical?

Now to address the question of whether your kids and everyone else will think you’re a fool if it turns out your partner reverts or never changed to begin with and lied about having done so.  This will not happen if you have set boundaries with your partner and if you respect yourself and your decision enough to continue to evaluate it in real time and to change your decision if it turns out that your partner does not stick to the agreed boundaries. 

If you let your kids or anyone else see you get treated poorly in real time, that is being a fool (not really, but it speaks to poor self-esteem, codependency, and a lack of protective impulse toward your children, and means you should get yourself into therapy).  But trying to trust and deeply love a person that you originally chose to spend your life with, and who is showing a commitment to change coupled with open remorse is not self-destructive and is in fact a loving path forward.

Keep in mind that people who engage in the sorts of “bad” behaviors I’ve mentioned invariably have a history of deep childhood wounds and low self-worth.  The genuine forgiveness and acceptance of their partner may impact them in the most meaningful and transformational of ways. Knowing that you love them despite what they have done may give them the unconditional love they never experienced as a child, and allow them to mature and heal into a responsible and healthier adult.

On your end, the type of love given to you by someone who did not expect to be given a second chance may heal some of your own childhood issues, especially of childhood emotional neglect.  When people’s childhood issues interlock with one another in this way, they can truly reparent one another.

Note that if your partner’s bad behavior really did stop you from loving them entirely, which does certainly happen, then this post is not directed at you.  In this case, it is best to go to therapy and explore whether you are experiencing a lasting and genuine change of heart or a trauma response.  If it is the former, the healthiest choice is likely to work toward separation and/or divorce.  Raising kids in a loveless and embittered marriage helps nobody, as any child who has grown up in one can attest to.

Think about this deeply if you are in this position. Discuss this post with your partner and talk about what it would look like if you took the leap of faith to try to genuinely love and trust them again.  What sorts of boundaries would need to be in place for you to feel safe enough to take this emotional risk?  And till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Says, Love Is Patient, Love Is Kind… And Love Also Sets Boundaries.

Order Dr. Rodman Whiten’s books, 52 Emails to Transform Your Marriage and How to Talk to Your Kids about Your Divorce: Healthy, Effective Communication Techniques for Your Changing Family, and listen to The Dr. Psych Mom Show on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or anywhere else you listen to podcasts. If you need therapy, check out her online group practice Best Life Behavioral Health.

This blog is not intended as medical advice or diagnosis and should in no way replace consultation with a medical professional. If you try this advice and it does not work for you, you cannot sue me. This is only my opinion, based on my background, training, and experience as a therapist and person.

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