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Advice: Can cheaters change?

The old saying goes, "once a cheater, always a cheater." I have the opportunity to date someone I'm really, really into and who is really, really into me. Trouble is, he was in a long-distance relationship several years ago in which he cheated on his girlfriend multiple times. Mutual friends of ours informed me of this, even though he's never confirmed it himself. The same mutual friends, however, assure me that they don't think he'll cheat on me. I'm torn. On the one hand, I want to trust my friends’ judgment, and I really like this guy. On the other, I'll feel like a fool if I ignore the conventional wisdom and get burned. I'm all for communication, but I'm afraid to broach the subject with him, because if I imply that I think he might cheat on me then that might destroy any resolve that he had not to cheat. The question is, can people change?--Cautiously Optimistic

Like all common sayings, there is a certain degree of truth to the adage “once a cheater, always a cheater.” Like all common sayings, however, it’s far too simplistic to describe the complexity of human behavior, nor is it an accurate predictor of whether someone will commit an infidelity again. It’s easy to dismiss a past cheater as “bad” and write them off forever--I don’t blame you for having the impulse--but it won’t do a lick to address your insecurities and doubts.

In this case, you’re going on hearsay, which I (hopefully) don’t have to tell you is a dangerous way to assess a person’s character. Ask him what happened. Simply having a conversation with him about his past indiscretion isn’t going to “destroy any resolve” he may have not to cheat. It’s just a conversation. And an important one at that. Get talking and I bet your fears will start to dissolve immediately. Also, not to justify his behavior or anything, but long-distance relationships are really hard, and not the best indicators of someone’s future faithfulness.

Once you’ve done that, here’s another adage to ponder: “You can’t make an omelet without cracking a few eggs.” Love is inherently risky (or intense, like in your case). The potential to get hurt or hurt someone else is always there, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying simply because we might get hurt down the line. We can’t know how the cards are gonna play out, but given the choice, wouldn’t you rather live your life now than worry about something that hasn’t occurred? I’m not saying you have to swish about your life blindly hoping that everything will work out OK--by all means, be cautious, keep your eyes open--but don’t let fear run the show. “Fear is an asshole,” as the adage I just made up goes (let’s make it happen, people!).

As to your last question, I’ll tell you that I’ve cheated on people in the past, and that I don’t anymore. I’ve also been cheated on a fair amount too. It’s a painfully common problem in many monogamous (and sometimes non-monogamous) relationships. Trying to safeguard yourself from the pain of infidelity before things have even begun is understandable, but it’s an illusory safeguard. You can’t run from hurt; it’s always there, like joy, waiting to burst out from nowhere and change everything. The question shouldn’t be, “Can people change?” But rather, “Will you allow yourself the courage to find out?”

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