Does 'Revenge Cheating' Work?

Turning the tables on an unfaithful partner may not be the best solution.


March 20, 2008— -- On Tuesday, one day after being sworn into office, New York Gov. David Paterson and his wife Michelle appeared before the press to defuse the issue of their past infidelity to one another.

"I betrayed a commitment to my wife several years ago, and I do not feel I've betrayed my commitment to the citizens of New York state," Paterson said during the press conference. "I haven't broken any laws, I don't think I've violated my oath of office, and I saw this as a private matter."

But Paterson also noted that his affairs occurred at a time when he "was jealous over Michelle," suggesting that her infidelity was part of the reason for his actions.

Paterson later backed off from this comment. However, if the pattern of behavior seen in the Paterson's marriage was indeed a case of retaliatory infidelity — also known as "revenge cheating" — it would not be the first high-profile example of this behavior.

In February, actress Valerie Bertinelli revealed on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" that she had cheated on rocker husband Eddie Van Halen during their marriage as revenge for his infidelity toward her. After a 21-year marriage, the couple split in 2002.

The phenomenon of revenge cheating was also recently parodied in the late-night television battle between comedienne Sarah Silverman and her talk-show host boyfriend Jimmy Kimmel. While Silverman "admitted" to an affair with actor Matt Damon in a music video on Kimmel's show, Kimmel later fired his own comedic salvo by presenting a star-studded production centered around his supposed tryst with actor Ben Affleck.

But in most cases, retaliatory infidelity is no laughing matter. And relationship experts agree that revenge cheating usually does much more harm to a relationship than good.

"There are no studies that I know of in this area," said William J. Doherty, director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at the University of Minnesota. "But my impression is that tit-for-tat affairs are not uncommon in conflicted, volatile relationships where spouses punish each other in a variety of ways, such as hitting, spending sprees, destroying each other's property, moving out, and affairs,"

"It is very common, although not always a conscious deliberate choice or action," agreed Patti Britton, Beverly Hills sex therapist and president of the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT).

While many affairs may be based on boredom with a current partner or legitimate attraction to another person, retaliatory infidelity is often something different. In these cases, the motive for the cheating may be an attempt to restore "balance" to the relationship.

But the question remains: is there any way that such a strategy can be beneficial to a relationship that is already in trouble?

"It seems to me that there are only a couple of ways you can consider it in any way beneficial — and I'm not saying that it's beneficial," said Dr. Jacqueline Olds, a psychiatrist at McLean Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, Mass.

"One is so the aggrieved party does not feel so aggrieved because they made things equal," she explained. "It may make them feel as if they have given a person a taste of their own medicine.

"Another is that sometimes it allows each person to get the sense of feeling wronged out of their system, and often they both find out that the grass is not always greener on the other side of the pasture."

And to the extent that it helps someone turn the tables on an unfaithful partner, revenge cheating may offer some perspective on the damage that can be caused to a relationship through infidelity.

"I think that the advantage — if you could put it this way — of retaliatory infidelity is that it has the potential to help the initially unfaithful person gain some empathy for the pain created by the sense of betrayal, and helps put some perspective on what might be lost otherwise," said Dave Greenfield, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine.

But in most cases, relationship experts said revenge cheating is a dangerous gamble that usually does far more harm than good.

"Pretty much not much net positive can occur," said Everett L. Worthington Jr., professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, and author of the book "Dimensions of Forgiveness: Psychological Research & Theological Perspectives."

"Basically, if my spouse hurts me and I hurt the spouse back in the same way, it tells the spouse, 'Your indiscretions will be met in kind,'" Worthington said. "That can make the spouses more careful not to tread on each other's toes. While that might seem positive, it is only positive in a limited sense."

Despite the fact that they may not be the best remedy for a damaged relationship, the pain and betrayal that goes along with being cheated on often makes retaliatory infidelity an attractive prospect.

But psychological experts say a more long-term approach, based on forgiveness, is the best bet for preserving the relationship.

"It takes coming clean completely with what has happened — no more secrets; taking full responsibility for one's affair — no blaming the partner; and a firm agreement on fidelity in the future," Doherty said.

"Many couples also need marital therapy to work through the grief and anger and to learn how to use this as a way to renew the relationship. Lots of couples recover."

Judging from their public confrontation of their past relationship problems, Olds said it appears that the Patersons may have come to this crucial reckoning.

"They seem to be saying, 'We each did it, we each made mistakes, and now we're moving on,'" she said.

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