trust after infidelity Illustration by Sophi Gullbrants

No one gets into a longterm partnership with the expectation that they will have to deal with infidelity at some point. However, at rates somewhere between 6% and 25%, infidelity is a real part of our relationships. For some people, it’s the last gasp of an already failing partnership. But many other people decide there’s something worth saving. If you do find yourself coping with infidelity, the good news is that there is a path towards healing.

Switch Out Blame For Accountability

One of the things that gets in the way of relationship recovery is the misattribution of blame. When a partner steps outside of the relationship’s exclusivity rules—whatever they might be—for physical connection or deep emotional support, it’s almost second-nature to place the blame of the relationship problems on that one person. However, the reality is more complicated. In my experience as a therapist, an honest relationship assessment will illuminate how infidelity is often a manifestation (or symptom) of problems rather than the problem itself.

Let me be clear: There is no excuse for violating a partner’s trust. It’s wrong, plain and simple. But there are many reasons why people cheat. They could be using physical connection as a means to resolve past trauma or simply needing novelty that isn’t otherwise provided. Maybe there were times in your relationship when you weren’t having your needs met and started to build resentment against your partner. Perhaps your partner didn’t assert themselves in the bedroom so they could feel more satisfied sexually. Perhaps you both haven’t been managing stress and have forgotten how to work together on life’s challenges. 

Again, none of these reasons excuse the trust violation, but finding a healthier path forward (either individually or collectively) requires looking beyond the choice itself and exploring the “why.” This is, of course, easier said than done and understandably so. But if you and your partner are committed to staying together, it is imperative to explore what the relationship problems actually are.

Some questions you may want to ask yourself:

  • Had I been feeling happy and fulfilled in the relationship before the infidelity occurred (or before I became aware of the infidelity of my partner)?
  • Have my needs been met throughout the relationship?
  • Have I asserted my needs?
  • Have my partner’s needs been adequately addressed and fulfilled?
  • Have I been listening to and been curious about their wants and desires?

Whatever the reasons for infidelity, it’s essential to forgo blame and focus instead on accountability if you decide to stay together. Blame only seeks to punish and humiliate, whereas accountability helps create a path forward towards healing. How can you both be accountable for the ways that you failed each other? How will you both act in better ways towards one another moving forward?

Be Prepared For an Emotional Rollercoaster

Cheating, or being cheating on, is relationship hell. This experience is not just about how your partner (or you) crossed a relationship boundary, but also about all the hurt and resentment that’s been a part of the relationship for some time, or in the aftermath. The process of healing and recovering from infidelity is arduous enough to bring any person to their emotional breaking point.

If you and your partner are committed to staying together, it is imperative to explore what the relationship problems actually are.

Most often when we think about infidelity, we think about the anger and sorrow of the person who has been cheated on, and rightfully so. But going through that experience can bring about a host of emotions for both parties in ways they may not expect. I’ve worked with many clients who have cheated, fantasized about cheating, or been cheated on (or some combination of the three). The feelings that come with this experience are about as complex as it gets and reminds me that infidelity is often also about grieving.

When we enter a relationship, we are full to the brim with hope, excitement, and infatuation. It’s an incredibly thrilling time. If betrayal enters the picture, our image of a healthy relationship becomes tarnished with lost hopes and unfulfilled dreams. Infidelity forces us to grieve for ourselves, the ideas we had for the relationship, and even for our partner.

We hope for full honesty and transparency from our partners, but that is not always the case. When that line is crossed, it can leave us in a process similar to the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, and finally acceptance. 

Each person has to go through their own process of mourning the relationship and what came to be. It’s a painful, non-linear process without a neat and clean resolution. Be kind to yourself and consider seeking out professional support.

Seek Out Support

Both individual therapy and couples therapy can prove incredibly helpful for partners who have experienced infidelity. Couples therapy, of course, is more challenging as it requires a commitment by both parties to work on things together intentionally. That may mean working towards healing and reconciliation, or finding a healthy path out of the relationship that minimizes further damage.

Individual therapy can also be invaluable, whether or not reconciliation is on the table. That healing space can provide a non-judgmental format to work through your relationship grief and hold yourself accountable for your individual emotional health and your part of relationship wellness. While challenging, it can be just what you need to walk out on the other side of infidelity much healthier.

Much like grief, the process of forgiveness is not often pretty or linear.

But these more formal spaces aren’t the only options available to you. Community and social support can help. Support groups (in person and online) and religious support are options. Support from friends is a god-send for most. Just be mindful that no spaces other than therapy guarantee your confidentiality. If you’re looking for a high level of discretion, social support may not be able to give you that. Consider what your needs are, where the current gaps in your support system lie, and take steps to honor those missing parts by reaching out appropriately.

Understand What Forgiveness Really Means

Recovering from infidelity is incredibly hard and if you’re the one who was cheated on, the question of whether or not to forgive is challenging. I’ve talked with more than one client that believed forgiveness was akin to approving (or minimizing) their partner’s violation of trust, but this isn’t true. Forgiveness is about accepting what has happened and making a conscious choice to move forward.

Saying “I forgive you” also doesn’t mean that you absolve you or your partner of negative emotions moving forward. Forgiveness doesn’t mean there is no longer space for anger, hurt, jealousy, or sadness. Acceptance of a transgression allows you to forge a path forward, while not forgetting where the relationship has been. Most often, forgiveness starts the process of reconciliation. Much like grief, the process of forgiveness is not often pretty or linear. For the person who has been cheated on, it is incredibly important to have time to process, emote, and make an informed decision about their next steps with the relationship.

Be Cautiously Optimistic

The hard truth is that while your goal after infidelity may be to keep the relationship together, that may not be realistic. As a therapist, I’ve seen many relationships terminate even after a successful course in therapy.

Sometimes infidelity highlights inherent incompatibilities or a lack of motivation towards true healing. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to work on the relationship. Infidelity is a traumatic relationship experience. Without that trauma being treated with the respect and depth it deserves, a relationship can easily crumble. 

There is no guarantee that any time spent in therapy, a course, or a retreat will save your relationship. Rebuilding trust and establishing healthier relationship norms is ongoing, difficult work. It requires a ton of effort, energy, and honest communication. The breakdown of good relationship principles are often the factors that lead to relationships falling apart, more so than any individual circumstance or event like infidelity. But with commitment to the work and these ideals, you can create a new relationship that might even be healthier than before.

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