Conservative estimates suggest that cheating occurs in about half of all relationships. Being cheated on can be a profoundly painful experience, and it can be hard to know what to do after the initial discovery. Here's a comprehensive, mapped-out guide to deciding whether to stay or go.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby
First: Get Your Facts Straight
If your relationship is on the line, make sure you have the correct information about what happened. If you suspect that cheating occurred, or if you heard the information second-hand, don't jump to conclusions just yet. You need to have a conversation. It will be horribly painful, there's no way around that -- but you should find out:
- What exactly happened. Are we talking an online flirtation or an in-person tryst? Are there emotions involved, or was it just physical?
- The circumstances around it happening. Was this a planned affair, or something that "just happened"? There's a big difference between someone signing up for an Ashley Madison account and kissing someone in a drunken haze at a party.
- When the infidelity occurred.
- How many times it happened.
- The status of your partner's relationship with the other person. Has your partner told the other person that it's over?
- If your partner wants to stay in your relationship or not. The question of what to do next may already be answered.
- If your partner used protection. This won't help you decide what to do in terms of the relationship, but it's important for you to know if you need to get tested for STIs.
A word of warning: don't ask for all the gory details of the affair. As much as the masochistic devil on your shoulder wants to know if the other person was better in bed than you were, that type of information really won't help you in any way.
Give Yourself a Time Out to Take Care of Yourself
Your emotions are going to be all over the place after finding out about your partner cheating. You're going to need time to figure out up-from-down, much less figure out your next steps. After you've heard your partner out, tell them that you need some time alone to think about what you're going to do. Ask them to respect your boundaries and not contact you until you reach out. You can give your partner a rough time frame (like two to four weeks), or just let them know you'll get in touch when you're ready.
Be aware that your immediate reaction may be to take drastic measures in either direction. Some people want to repair the relationship right away. After experiencing such a powerful threat to your relationship, it's natural to feel drawn to your partner. Others may want to leave and never look back. Try to resist these urges, and give yourself the opportunity to make as clear-headed a decision as possible.
During this break, try your best to treat yourself well. Call in sick to work for a week. Reach out to your most trusted friends and talk it over with them. Try to eat and sleep. Go outside for fresh air and the opportunity to move your body. Write down all of your tortured thoughts in a journal. Meditate. Cook. Nap. Sing. Whatever makes you feel even the tiniest little bit better. Keep doing all of these things for as long as possible. Most of us struggle with self care, even when things are good, so it's likely that you'll find this step incredibly challenging. That doesn't mean it's not worth making an effort.
I'm obviously biased, but I think seeing a therapist is an excellent idea. Even your best, most compassionate friends will reach a limit where they're a little tired of hearing you rehash all the same details. It's nice to talk it all out with without having to worry about annoying anyone. And, you know, therapy will actually help you process the feelings instead of just rehash them.
Decide What to Do
You're never going to get to a point where making this decision is easy, but some time and good self care should make this process feel a little bit clearer. Here are some other variables to consider:
- How severe was this betrayal? As I said before, there's a big difference between getting caught up in a moment and having a months-long affair. Motivations are important.
- Has your partner cheated in the past? If your partner has cheated on you before, it's time to move on. You may also want to consider whether your partner has cheated in past relationships.
- What's your relationship history? If you're relatively early in your relationship, it may be best to cut your losses. On the other hand, if you've been with your partner for a decade, you may want to ask yourself if it's worth throwing away all of that history for one moment of horrible judgment.
- Is this relationship worth salvaging? Sometimes cheating is a sign that the relationship is long over. If you've been fighting or if you've been tempted to cheat yourself, it may be time to throw in the towel. If you're with someone with whom you've never been able to visualise a future, this may be the opportunity to end things before they become even more complicated.
- Does your partner understand the impacts of their behaviour? If they're not immensely apologetic, they don't deserve your consideration. How you found out about the infidelity also matters. Did they fess up of their own accord, or did they get caught?
- Is your partner willing to work through this with you? Is your partner is offering to make concrete steps to repair your relationship, like going to couples counseling?
- Can you see yourself eventually forgiving? In order for a relationship to survive infidelity, you have to be willing to forgive. You can't lord it over their heads in order to get what you want, or break it out as a trump card during arguments.
It's unbelievably difficult to decide whether or not to end a relationship, but it's important for you to make a concrete decision instead of letting yourself get caught up in the tide of emotions.
If You Decide to Go
It's perfectly understandable it you don't think you can move past the infidelity. The best thing you can do is try to preserve your dignity as you make your exit. Don't try to hurt your ex, don't try to get revenge, and don't try to get in contact with the "other person". These things might feel good in the moment, but they will just prolong your pain. Make a clean break, and focus on rebuilding your life without them.
If You Decide to Stay
Being cheated on is a horrifically painful experience. You're going to be reeling for quite some time, but here's what you can do to help the healing process
Get Couples Counseling
This is really not something that the two of you should try to get through together. I'm biased, of course, but I truly think that intensive therapy is necessary to helping you process the experience, rebuild your relationship, and learn how to create an even stronger connection.
Expect to Be Triggered by Mundane Events
Psychological pain like this has the ability to worm its way into every fibre of your existence and keep popping up when you least expect it to. Seemingly mundane things, like seeing another couple hand in hand, may evoke a flood of unexpected emotions. Be prepared to cry over your cereal, during your haircut, and in your car. You're going to be having a lot of big feelings in the upcoming weeks and months.
As we therapists are fond of saying, the only way out is through. As painful as it may be, try to allow yourself to feel all of your feelings. Keeping a journal and writing free-form (without editing yourself) is a great way to do this. If you try to bury your feelings, the healing process will just take longer.
Try Not to Obsess Over It
After experiencing trauma, our brains work overtime to try to understand what happened. It's usually a feeble attempt to prevent pain like this from ever happening again. Unfortunately, you can't just rationalize why someone whom you love so deeply would betray you, so these ruminations don't bring any relief. Over-analysing is going to be unavoidable at all times, but it's worth trying to stop your thoughts from running away from you. If you feel yourself obsessing, take a deep breath and see if you can slow down your thoughts. If it helps, remind yourself of the ways that obsessing actually hurts you, for example, "all I'm doing with this train of thought is punishing myself."
With all the rumination going on in your brain, you may be tempted to ask your partner for details about the affair. I talked about this last time, but don't pressure your partner into giving you the downlow on their infidelity. Seriously, it won't help.
Expect Big Changes to Your Sex Life
Your sex life is undoubtedly going to be different for a while. The partner who has been cheated in is bound to compare themselves to the "other person", and may feel crippling performance pressure. It might be helpful to take your usual forms of sex off the table for a while, and try to focus on reconnecting through simple touch.
Don't Punish Them by Violating Their Privacy
Something horribly painful happened to you that was out of your control, so it's natural to want to regain control. It's understandable that you want to ensure your partner won't cheat again, but some people go way overboard, doing things like demanding access to their partner's email, phone, credit cards, and other private information. Some don't even bother asking for permission, and just snoop on their own accord.
Unfortunately, this is a terrible tactic. Snooping through your partner's accounts (with their permission or without) won't guarantee that they won't cheat again. It doesn't help rebuild trust, and it will create a lot of ill will between the two of you at a time where you desperately need some good interactions. No one wants to be in a relationship where one person is constantly monitoring the other, and it can even lead to abuse in some instances. It also won't help you heal, since you'll find yourself increasingly paranoid. Every time you grab their phone or open their email, you'll keep yourself stuck in a horrible, unending anxiety spiral.
Repair Your Relationship with What You've Learned
Sometimes cheating is just a spur-of-the-moment terrible decision, but sometimes it's a sign that there are deeper issues in the relationship. Once you've moved past the initial crisis stage of discovery, you may want to have some conversations about what was going on in your relationship before the infidelity occurred (this is another step best taken with a competent therapist!) For example, some partners cheat because their partner has been withholding or uninterested in sex, affection, or attention..
Infidelity may also be the opportunity for the two of you to have some (undoubtedly tricky) conversations about the relationship model that works best for the two of you. Most people default to serial monogamy, but that isn't an arrangement that works for everyone. There's no point in recommitting yourselves to a closed, monogamous relationship if it's not working for the two of you.
Let it Go
Cheating can feel unforgivable at first, but you are eventually going to have to forgive your partner. Your partner has a lot of work to do to regain your trust and rebuild your relationship, but they can't keep making it up to you for the rest of your lives. You can't pull it out as a trump card in every argument. If you can't forgive and try to move on, it may be a sign that staying in the relationship isn't a doable option for you.
It's probably not going to feel like things are improving steadily or linearly, but trust that time will do it's thing. With patience, hard work, and dedication, you can bring your relationship back from the brink.