Out of the many perils that couples face over the course of their relationships, the specter of being cheated on is one of the most common – and most anxiety-producing.
Infidelity within a relationship is one of the few sins that almost everybody agrees as being always wrong – upwards of 80% of people will tell you so. And yet cheating and being cheated on happens far more frequently than one might expect. Exact numbers are hard to gather – as you might imagine, cheaters are unlikely to self-report, especially if friends or family members are around – but the estimated numbers range from 30% to a mind-boggling 70%.
But while being cheated on may be seen as a universal negative, the question of what to do when your partner’s been unfaithful is a tough one. It’s very easy to decide what to do in the abstract – drop them like a bad habit, destroy their shit, stand by your man, forgive and forget, etc – and to armchair quarterback other people’s marriages (see Clinton, Hillary). But when it’s your relationship… suddenly what seems clear-cut and simple is actually a lot more complicated.
So what’s the right choice when it comes to dealing with being cheated on? What is the best way to heal afterwards? If your partner cheats on you, is it better to adopt a zero-tolerance policy or to put it all behind you?
You Don’t Want The Gory Details
The first and most important thing about handling the aftermath of being cheated on is self care. Discovering that your partner was cheating on you is incredibly painful. We frequently define ourselves by our relationships and make our partners the center of our world; they become our best friends, our primary source of emotional support and intimacy. It becomes a part of who we are – we are not just ourselves but part of a gestalt entity like the world’s squishiest Transformers.
When we find out that we’ve been cheated on, there’s a sense of betrayal – not just in the relationship, but in your sense of self. Suddenly this core part of of who we are has been called into question. In fact, one of the most common things people who discover their partner’s infidelity say is “I thought I knew you.” The unspoken part of that sentence is that in not knowing their partner, they also no longer know who or what their relationship is and – by extension – who they are now. It throws everything into question and damages your soul and self-esteem.
You want to surround yourself with people who care for you and support you – people who can help ease the pain and salve your wounds.
What you don’t want to do is make things worse by asking for the details. That desire to know more is completely natural; it’s part of the urge to understand, as though knowing more might make the act more comprehensible.
Knowing who it was, when it started, what they did and where, why that person… there is almost no answer that your partner can give you that won’t gouge out parts of your soul. Everyone who’s discovered their partner’s indiscretions almost always says the same thing: “I wish I’d never found out.” Processing the fact that your partner has been banging someone else is painful enough. All asking for the details will do is give you things to torture yourself with and images that will never leave your head. Ignorance isn’t exactly bliss in this case but it’s a hell of a lot less painful.
If you want to understand, then you don’t want the “whats” or “hows”, you want the “whys” – the motivation behind the affair. Why? Well that’s because…
Most Affairs Aren’t About Sex
Despite the seeming obviousness of it, most infidelities aren’t about sex. Cheat-proofing your relationship isn’t as simple as constantly upping the crazy sex you’re into or fucking your partner into a coma; in fact, this belief tends to end up assigning part of the blame to the other partner who’s been cheated on. Similarly, being cheated on isn’t a sign that there’s something wrong with your relationship. There are many, many people out there who consider themselves monogamous and in happy relationships that end up crossing a line they never imagined that they’d encounter in the first place.
For some, it’s a desire for novelty or to recapture the spark and excitement that defines a new relationship. Some people strike up affairs because they want to feel desirable, to know that others want them. For others it’s about the rush of doing something forbidden, the thrill of risk and being caught. For still others, it’s about boredom and wanting to shake things up – even if it ends up hurting themselves and others. Some have affairs because they’re rebelling against a belief about themselves or the values they grew up with, while others may be reacting to the pain of previous relationships. Some are trying to recapture a lost sense of self while others are making up for opportunities they believe they’d missed.
Other times it’s a matter of one partner simply panicking and lashing out. For some people, cheating on their partners is a way of punishing them or getting revenge for some slight; even if the other partner never learns about the affair, that secret knowledge serves as a sort of reprisal, a trump card that can be dealt at any time. Then there are those who use affairs to get out of relationships that were otherwise dead or dying. Many people who’ve had affairs were actually slamming their hands on the relationship self-destruct button – as acts of self-sabotage, as weapons of last resort, or even just because they’re afraid and hitting the eject button rather than facing their fears.
It’s important to remember this because…
Not All Affairs Are Created Equal
One of the things that needs to be considered in the wake of discovering that you’ve been cheated on is the circumstances of the affair itself.
It’s very easy to assume that being cheated on is a black-or-white issue – either your partner betrayed you or they didn’t. We have a mental image of what a cheater looks like and why they do what they do – they’re selfish, they’re predatory, they’re egotistical, they don’t “really” care about their partner, etc. But while the cartoon villain in our heads is easy to rail against, in practice however, there tend to be levels of nuance that can take easy, obvious answers and make them incredibly complicated after all.
For example, there’s a significant difference between someone who slipped up in a moment of weakness versus a serial cheater. One of the things that we don’t like to talk about when it comes to relationships is that monogamy is very difficult, but culturally we’re expected to perform it perfectly. Being in a monogamous relationship means that you’ve chosen not to sleep with other people; it doesn’t mean that you don’t want to and that can be tricky to manage at times. The tale of someone slipping up after their inhibitions and judgement are lowered by a few drinks while out with friends is one of the most common stories out there. So, too, are moments of weakness during times of conflict in the relationship and office flirtations that crossed a line.
These all tend to be affairs of circumstance – once in a lifetime events where everything aligned just so and led to an infidelity and are unlikely to ever be repeated. They also tend to be moments that the participants regret having happened at all. Contrast this with the serial adulterer who regularly cheats on his or her partner with no real regard for their feelings; the crimes are similar but the circumstances and motivations are entirely different. Yes, it’s easy to talk about willpower or morals or avoiding temptation in the first place, but humans are fallible. We all fall to temptation or impulse or poor judgement at one point or another; frequently, it’s how we learn.
Another frequent case is the individual in a sexless relationship, either due to circumstance or by one partner’s choice. They may have any number of reasons why they don’t just leave – ranging from financial ties to the fact that they may still love their partner – but they still have needs that aren’t being met. Someone who’s caring for a sick or handicapped partner, for example, may not want to leave; at this point, a discrete affair often can be part of how they’re able to stay in the relationship and keep taking care of their loved ones.
This isn’t to say that being cheated on doesn’t hurt less if it were a one-off affair of poor judgement… but it’s hardly the same as discovering that your partner just saw commitment as an inconvenience to be overcome. This then asks the next question…
Is It Worth Ending Your Relationship Over?
One of the most important things you need to do in the wake of discovering that your partner has cheated on you is to get some time and distance. You’re going to have some decisions to make and you need time to process (and grieve and heal). In the immediate moment, things are incredibly painful and raw; your emotions are likely riding pretty high and you’re more apt to respond out of pain and anger and sadness. This is, needless to say, not the greatest headspace to be in when you’re trying to make significant decisions.
It’s understandable then that we almost automatically assume that an infidelity is a relationship extinction event; that betrayal of both the intimacy and identity is the crime that can never be forgiven.
But should it be? While the betrayal hurts, is that crime so great that it’s worth ending a relationship over it?
This isn’t an idle or rhetorical question; it’s something that you need to ask yourself. Considering the circumstances of how and when you were cheated on, is the crime so great that it outweighs everything – every happy memory you have together, your emotional intimacy, your friendship, your relationship with your children (if you have them). Or is it something that – while painful – you are willing and able to forgive? Is it possible for your partner to make amends?
It’s also worth examining whether your ending things is what you want or what you’re supposed to want. The cultural narrative is that if someone cheats on you, then that’s it, you kick them to the curb. Once a cheater, always a cheater, etc. There’s a surprising amount of stigma towards people who forgive their partners for having cheated on them. People judge others who stay with a cheater as being weak, as being afraid or stupid or just plain naive. It’s hard for many people to imagine that someone can still love their partner, even though they’ve hurt them or even that being cheated on is simply not something bad enough to end a relationship over.
That’s not to say that there’s a right or wrong answer here; everyone has to judge their relationship’s worth against the affair. Many relationships simply can’t survive afterwards. Some of them frankly shouldn’t.
But if you do decide to stay…
Are You Able To Actually Forgive Them?
One of the hardest parts of staying together after discovering that you’ve been cheated on is to learn to trust them again. There is an entirely understandable tendency to become hypervigilant, looking for any signs that your partner is about to slip up again and either catch them in the act or somehow head the affair off at the pass.
The problem is that this behavior is more likely to end a relationship than to save it – and in doing so, cause even more pain in the process.
A relationship without trust isn’t a relationship; it’s just one person trying to regulate another’s behavior. While it’s perfectly justified to be less trusting in the aftermath of an affair, part of repairing the relationship is rebuilding that trust. This is a two-sided undertaking; your partner earns that trust back by demonstrating that they’re worthy of that trust while you allow them to do so and learn to let yourself trust them again. This is, of course, predicated on the idea that both parties are acting in good faith. After all, someone who’s only going through the motions of being trustworthy is someone you should kick to the curb at the first available opportunity. At the same time, though, it’s unfair – even needlessly cruel – to allow someone to try and try to re-earn your trust if you can’t or won’t ever give it back to them. If you are always going to be looking for signs that they’re cheating, or about to cheat, or might be thinking of cheating, then you simply don’t trust them.
At this point, it’s better just to end things instead of prolonging both of your misery.
Similarly, part of forgiving your partner is to actually forgive them and let the wound heal over rather than continually picking at the scab. Constantly holding their mistakes over their heads (again, assuming a good faith effort at fixing things on their part) isn’t forgiveness, it’s just needless cruelty. If they’re working to make amends and you pull out their past deeds like a weapon, then all that’s happened is that is that you’ve thrown their love and effort back in their face. A healthy relationship can’t survive that sort of behavior. Yes, they hurt you, perhaps badly; that doesn’t justify shitty behavior in return on your part, especially if they’re trying to repair the damage they caused. Either actually forgive them or end it cleanly.
What Is It Going to Take to Fix Things?
The last question that needs to be asked: if you’re willing to try to give your relationship another chance, then what do you need from your partner to fix things?
Obviously, the affair needs to end. That goes without saying. But the healing can’t start until the injury is observed and addressed; until then, it’s just a wound that will fester over time. As such, the first thing that they need to take ownership of is that they have wronged you and to express their remorse for causing you pain. The next thing they need to do is to show their willingness to fix things by being proactive in earning back your trust. It’s almost impossible to learn to trust a cheating partner again if you are the one constantly having to monitor them. They have to be the ones maintaining boundaries, demonstrating their trustworthiness of their own free will. If it’s imposed upon them from the outside, it’s all too common to become “what do I have to do to not get in trouble”; being proactive, on the other hand, shows genuine desire to change.
But the final step in repairing a relationship takes the two of you to work in tandem. Those questions I said you should ask earlier: what did this mean for you, what did they feel they lacked or needed that they weren’t finding here, what do they value in your relationship… those are ones you need to ask and to resolve together, because they will define what changes between the two of you. An affair does mean that the relationship is over, in a way, even if you don’t end things; your relationship has irrevocably changed. It’s no longer what it once was and now you have to decide what it will be going forward.
Things won’t be the way they were, but that doesn’t mean that the relationship is damaged or inferior, just different. There will be hurt. There will be sadness. But if you decide it’s worth working through it all, sometimes that difference is what makes things stronger.