How do you deal with infidelity?
Cheating, infidelity, an affair… no matter what you call it, it is always a painful thing to experience and it’s more common than we might think. Maybe you have cheated yourself or been cheated on. You almost certainly know someone who has been affected in some way or another by an affair. Cheating is also one of the main reasons couples go to therapy, which is why I decided to explore this often taboo subject.
What is infidelity?
It’s not as simple as you may think. Cheating can range from having a person in your life that you do not want to tell your partner about to flirting with someone outside of your committed relationship; texting (or sexting) with someone; long and intimate talking; physical closeness including holding hands, kissing or sex; and / or watching porn without a partner’s knowledge. It can be physical, emotional or both. It can be a one-night affair or a long-term relationship.
In fact, scientists who study cheating haven’t agreed on one single definition of it, so, unsurprisingly, even two partners in a relationship might hold different opinions about it. In general, cheating means breaking a so-called contract or exclusivity between partners. According to one study, as many as 15 to 70 percent of people have cheated (across the broad scope of what was considered cheating) in marriages or other relationships.
Why does cheating happen?
The reasons vary from couple to couple. Very often, the cheating partners report problems in communication or understanding each other, not feeling loved or appreciated by the partner, feeling sexually incompatible or generally unsatisfied with the relationship. A partner may also cheat if they are struggling with internal challenges, such as insecurity or a need for affirmation.
Cheating may also reflect a desire for variety or experimentation, while others cheat out of revenge, anger or jealousy. For some, the partner’s affair seems to come out of blue; others, when looking back, may realise there were problems in the relationship they had not noticed or paid attention to before.
It happened… now what?
You cheated on your partner or your partner cheated on you. Whether it happened recently or some time ago, what’s most affected is the trust between you and your partner.
An affair shakes our perception of a relationship, so it’s only normal to feel a wide range of emotions, such as anger, sadness, betrayal, shame or grief. If you were cheated on, you might want to break up or get divorced and never see the cheating partner again, or you may be thinking of whether and how the relationship can be saved.
Should I stay or should I go?
This is one of the most difficult decisions, especially if you have children. For expats, who are far away from home or may now feel trapped in their relationship, the impact of infidelity is possibly even more painful. Neither decision is easy and you might need to take time for yourself to digest and reflect on what has happened. It might help to talk about it with someone you trust, either with a friend or with a professional counsellor.
If you decide to stay…
If you and your partner agree to keep the relationship going, here are a few things (among many) to keep in mind:
Talk, talk and talk with your partner
It is going to be painful, but only open communication can help you learn what led to the cheating.
Try not to blame
This is very hard, no doubt about it. But even though only one partner was unfaithful, it probably happened because there was too much or too little going on in your (shared) relationship. You are in the same boat here – it can either sink or sail.
Clarify the context of your relationship
Define what it means to you right now, what kinds of behaviour you can expect (or not). Go back to the basics, to the foundation, of your relationship.
Draw a clear line, after a sufficient period of healing
Start a new phase of your relationship and try not to get back to this topic or to bring it up in future challenges.
Consider relationship counselling
Consider relationship counselling, where a more neutral professional can support the process of healing.
And if you decide to leave…
Here are a few guidelines to take into account:
Take your time and be kind to yourself
Infidelity is painful, so having ups and downs in the following weeks, months or even years is normal. Take this time for you, your healing and growth.
Try to forgive
It might be tempting to seek revenge against, slander or threaten the person for cheating on you, but this will only lead to more pain.
Surround yourself with people you trust and love
Leaving a relationship can be followed by feelings of loneliness, so keep in touch with your friends or family, sharing your thoughts and emotions, but also having fun together. Avoid contacting your ex-partner, or limit contact to a necessary minimum, shortly after the break-up – even on social media – to help you gain emotional distance and a new perspective on your past relationship.
You are not alone
Cheating is challenging for everyone involved. It shakes our perception of a relationship and generates many strong emotions. Yet, surprisingly, it can lead to some positive outcomes as well, such as better communication, and increased assertiveness and self-care. Still, this might be hard to believe right now, and it usually takes some time to get to that point. Do reach out, in whatever way feels right to you, if you would like extra support during the healing process.
With thanks to Kristýna Maulenová for her contribution to this article.
Do you believe a relationship can heal after an affair? Do leave a comment below!