The Aftermath of Cheating on Your Partner
You've made a horrible mistake. For whatever reason and on however many occasions, you've cheated on your partner and are experiencing regrets.
Cheating in a relationship is not something you can undo. However, if both parties—yes, both parties—are willing to make the effort, reconciliation and moving on are achievable.
The lowdown on cheating
There's no singular definition of "cheating." Every relationship has different parameters.
"It depends on what the couple agreed to upon commitment," said Larry Ford, Ph.D., founder and CEO of Hands to Guide You, a behavioral healthcare provider based in Oklahoma City. "Some couples require exclusivity at the start and others accept open relationships, which by definition are marriages or relationships in which both partners agree that each may have sexual relations with others."
According to Emily Simonian, L.M.F.T., head of clinical learning at Thriveworks Counseling, a nationwide therapy practice, cheating can involve either an emotional or a physical connection that is hidden or lied about. Some people consider any contact (including through social media) with an ex cheating, whereas others may be OK with anything other than physical contact (even cybersex), and even more relationships fall somewhere in between.
The pivotal factors are the breach of the relationship agreement and its subsequent negative consequences.
Baby, come back
After cheating occurs—and the culprit has been caught—you may be at a loss for what to do.
"For reconciliation to work, especially when cheating has been discovered, the cheater must acknowledge wrongdoing, show remorse and be empathetic," said Sam Holmes, editor at Feel & Thrive, which focuses on relationships and personal development. "Taking full responsibility usually creates an environment where repairing the relationship is possible."
All three experts recommended establishing a foundation of honesty, forgiveness, patience and respect when entering a discussion about the indiscretion.
"Don't lie in order to spare the feelings of a partner. The lying already happened when the agreement was broken," Ford explained. "Be honest. Ask your partner where to go from this point moving forward."
Both Holmes and Simonian advised avoiding shifting the blame as a defense mechanism. This will only make your partner more upset and that would be counterproductive.
Regardless of how delicately you approach the issue, it's going to be a heavy conversation.
"Recognize that emotions are likely going to be high due to the nature of the topic," Simonian said. "You may make efforts to prevent an argument from escalating, but the subject is one that elicits anger, sadness, shock, and is many people's worst fear realized."
All part of the process
According to Holmes, your partner will likely experience hurt, betrayal and anger following acknowledgment of your cheating. These emotions can lead to mistrust and contemptuous behaviors. It's up to the cheating partner to be patient while their significant other processes the events. This stage should proceed at the offended partner's discretion, even if they demand space.
"Respecting their wishes and any other boundaries they put in place tends to work in the cheater's favor," Holmes added. "Answering their partner's questions and validating their feelings tends to work well, too."
However, it has to be acknowledged that these behaviors aren't a one-time fix. Simonian advised having regular check-ins to discuss the state of the relationship, with the option of engaging in logistic trust repair behaviors such as sharing locations via smartphone, granted you both agree it is the right step for everyone involved.
Focus on repair attempts geared toward rebuilding the loss of emotional safety that occurs along with cheating. If mediation is required, Simonian recommended therapy as a good source for an outside opinion.
"Consistent communication, valued time and therapy need to take place undoubtedly," Ford said, defining "valued time" as time spent together that has merit for both partners.
"Therapy is important because a skilled therapist can hone in on whatever insights come to light that cause that shift in understanding and subsequently, hopefully, behavior," he said.
In his practice, Ford likes to reference what is called a Communication Map, which serves as a guide for navigating sensitive conversations constructively.
Only if you're prepared to commit
Both parties must be fully committed to repairing the broken trust for this to work.
"It isn't only the offended partner who has to work on forgiveness," Holmes said. "Most cheaters justify their behavior by referring to perceived or actual relationship hurts or issues. So they need to let go, too, for true reconciliation to take place."
He noted that introspection, active listening and personal growth are key components of dismantling destructive patterns of behavior and discovering unmet needs. The complexity of this process often necessitates the aforementioned professional guidance.
Unfortunately, reconciliation isn't always possible.
"When both parties aren't willing to make the necessary changes to move on in the relationship, it's over—it can't be on one party's shoulders," Ford explained. "Both must take responsibility for each of their roles in the relationship and the cheating. Moving on without the partner, while sad, can also be good. Being in a toxic relationship isn't good for anyone."
Simonian said gauging whether or not a relationship is inadvisable is a case-by-case question, as emotions and human behavior aren't simple or absolute.
"Signs that a relationship is heading toward being irreparable are persistent and repeated harmful behaviors—like cheating—that can cause emotional harm, a consistent lack of effort from one or both partners to make improvements or repairs to the relationship, and much more negative interactions than positive ones over a long course of time," she said.
Don't perpetuate a relationship you consider done. You should only invest the requisite time and effort into repairing a relationship if you're willing to fully commit.
"If love is there, try," Ford said. "Even if it doesn't work out, you can leave the relationship for what it was, be grateful for what you did have with the other person and move on to something better."