Of all the things someone can do to ruin a relationship, cheating is usually considered to be the most unforgivable. But if statistics are true, then nearly half of us will encounter infidelity at some point in our lives — either our partner’s or our own.
Reactions to infidelity depend on many factors. Evidence suggests that, in the context of heterosexual relationships, men find it more difficult to forgive a sexual affair while women take emotional infidelity much harder. It is also much easier to move beyond an affair that’s voluntarily disclosed by the cheating partner than one that’s unexpectedly discovered.
Yet under the right conditions, it is not only possible for a relationship to survive infidelity, but to continue with a stronger foundation than before. The path of recovery is not an easy one, but if you do choose to follow it, knowing these things could help keep you on track.
- Let yourself feel.
While you need to recognize that repairing the relationship is possible in the first place, it’s also important not to rush the process. Feelings relating to betrayal and jealousy are extremely powerful, and attempting to repress them may backfire.
If you are the betrayed party, you should allow yourself to experience the full gamut of negative emotions — sadness, anger, fear — before you make any major decisions. Find a nondestructive outlet for them. Write about how you feel, reach out to your friends and family, or speak to a therapist. Step back from the relationship for a while if necessary, to gather your thoughts and work your feelings through.
- Show true remorse.
At the same time, it is important for the unfaithful partner to commit to the process of repentance. They need to accept their partner’s anger, without defensiveness or self-justification.
The betrayed partner may demand to hear every intimate detail of the encounter, over and over, or to read all correspondence between their partner and the other person. While there is a belief that these requests are unhealthy or will aggravate the situation, they can actually be an integral part of the healing process, allowing the betrayed party to purge and exhaust their anger and sexual jealousy before taking the first steps back to trust. Unresolved questions tend to linger and make it all but impossible to move on.
- Address root causes.
Once the initial storm has subsided, it is time to think about moving forward. While affairs can affect even the healthiest relationships, it is crucial to identify any issues that may have contributed to the affair. The unfaithful partner may be reluctant to reveal precisely what led him or her to cheat, but candid discussion is a vital part of restoring trust, painful as the details may be.
It may also be difficult to discuss these reasons objectively, without seeming defensive. Therefore, approach this step not as a competition to place blame, but as a collaborative effort to discover what might have gone wrong so that you can try to fix it together. If necessary, formalize the process by having each partner write out their thoughts, or by taking turns speaking and listening without interrupting.
Above all, avoid the temptation to pretend the affair never happened. The truth is that while an affair does not have to ruin your relationship, it does permanently change it, and you both need to understand why it happened in the first place.
In cases where one partner’s substance abuse, sexual addiction, or intimacy issues have played a role, seek professional help for these issues immediately.
- Commit to healing together.
The sense that you are working to together to heal and move on can be very reassuring for the betrayed partner, and encouraging for the unfaithful partner. It builds an excellent foundation for rebuilding trust and intimacy, however long that may take.
Of course, both partners have to be fully committed and willing for it to work. It makes no sense for one partner to continue to have affairs, or go through the motions of seeking forgiveness while privately believing he or she has done nothing wrong. And then there is the less obvious danger that the betrayed partner hangs on to resentment, keeping a dormant spark of it alive to be reignited at a later time.
Bringing up your partner’s infidelity during completely unrelated arguments long after the fact, or continuing to demand gestures of repentance are in fact ways of maintaining power in a struggling relationship. They are signs that you have not really addressed the root of the problem.
Affairs don’t have to be the end. With time, patience and lots of work, they can even herald a new beginning. It can be difficult, however, for even the most willing couple to handle this delicate communication effectively. Relationship counseling is therefore recommended for nearly all couples attempting to recover from infidelity.