Are you trying to repair a relationship after one of you has cheated?
Is it proving to be difficult to forgive and forget?
Can a relationship be fixed after cheating?
After an affair, it’s natural to wonder if your broken relationship is beyond repair. But if you’re committed to addressing the underlying issues in your relationship, you can rebuild together.
Table of Contents
In order to address infidelity in your relationship, you need to understand what constitutes cheating for you. Cheating is any action that betrays your relationship. Some people define cheating as inherently sexual. Others are more hurt by emotional infidelity.
In broad strokes, sexual infidelity is any sexual act done outside of your relationship. Men and women tend to define sexual infidelity in similar terms as a whole1, but comfort levels differ. Some people think that a kiss counts as infidelity. Others think the activities only count if they involve genital contact.
Emotional infidelity, on the other hand, is a bit more difficult to define. When working with my clients, I define it as non-sexual intimacy and vulnerability with someone instead of one's partner. Emotional cheating involves closing one’s partner out while inviting another person in.
As you can imagine, emotional infidelity can often include sexual aspects. But that’s not always the case. Both types can happen independently of each other. Cheating might be an emotionless one-night stand. It could also be a completely nonsexual emotional affair with someone who is more than a close friend.
It’s crucial to understand that everyone’s definition of cheating is unique to them. It’s important for partners to discuss what they define as cheating, and why. Knowing what intimacy is reserved for the relationship can help you build trust and avoid trouble in the future.
If you’re reading this, you are probably dealing with the aftermath of infidelity. Whether you’re the betrayed partner or you’re the one who cheated, there are differences in your relationship.
According to Drs. John and Julie Gottman, trust and commitment are the foundations of a happy relationship2.
Cheating is a direct breach of trust. Trust is easy to break and difficult to regain. After a betrayal, it’s common to question every aspect of the relationship. This breach of trust can lead to a decline in mental health, for both the betrayed and the cheating partner3.
With the emotional connection damaged, commitment often wavers. Is the relationship worth saving? Is cheating a deal-breaker? It takes effort for a relationship to survive infidelity. For some, the pain is too much to forgive.
Infidelity is one of the leading causes of divorce in the US. A study by the American Psychological Association reports that between 20% and 40% of divorces mention cheating as the main reason for ending a marriage4. This impacts more than just the couple, especially if they have children.
While cheating does often lead to divorce, that’s not always the case. About 50% of marriages where cheating happened are able to recover.
Most people would agree that after an affair, there is a healing process that couples need to work on if they want to rebuild their relationship. Trust building is essential. It’s an uphill fight, but if you are truly partners, there are a few ways to work toward staying together after cheating.
If you’ve broken your partner’s trust, you have to be upfront and honest with them. It’s not necessary that they hear all of the gritty details, but they deserve to know the reality of the situation.
In the case of sexual infidelity, this is not only a trust issue but one of health. Your partner can only make informed decisions about the risks of sexually transmitted infections if you are honest.
You also need to apologize, sincerely, for this significant violation of your partner’s trust. Your actions have damaged the relationship, and you need to acknowledge your full responsibility for that. And you need to make sure that your apology addresses your partner’s needs.
Acknowledge your spouse's hurt feelings. You may not know exactly how it feels, but you need to accept that you were wrong and understand their feelings. Validate their feelings by acknowledging the specific reasons your partner feels the way they do. Phrases like 'I hurt you’, and ‘I let you down,’ are a good start.
It’s not enough to apologize. You need to genuinely be remorseful for the impact of your actions. It’s important that you be actively motivated to avoid hurting your partner in the future. This isn’t for your partner, so don’t go crying to them about how sad you are. This is for you to hold yourself accountable and renew your commitment.
Negative emotions are inevitable in the face of betrayal. For the one discovering their partner cheated, there’s probably intense anger, anxiety, and deep sadness. For the person who cheated, guilt and shame are often present, which can easily lead to anger.
It’s important not to suppress these emotions. They’re important indicators that something is wrong, and motivate you to address the issue5. At the same time, these emotions are often too intense for anyone to have a productive conversation.
At this point, separate from each other so that you can experience and process your emotions without making the situation worse. Avoid social media, because emotional posting has a way of creating an unhelpful feedback loop6. Instead, reach out to a trusted confidant or a therapist.
When you do talk, be gentle and fair. Take a deep breath and carefully choose your words. Think before you speak and anticipate the effects of your words. Besides, do not play the blame game. Do not be defensive, either.
Don’t push your partner to get over their emotions. Try to listen to understand, not respond. You may not approve of your partner’s feelings, but it’s important to try to understand each other. When we feel heard, it improves our ability to connect7.
In order to move forward, the cheating partner needs to end the affair. When possible, completely sever all contact. This isn’t just about soothing the betrayed partner’s feelings. It’s about a full commitment to improving the relationship after cheating.
When confronting an affair partner, acknowledge your role in the affair, and accept the consequences of your actions. State clearly that you understand that you have hurt them as well as your partner. Validate their emotions without getting too close.
It’s important to separate from this person, completely. End any online connections. Delete the affair partner’s phone number. If you work together, do what you can to avoid working with one another, especially alone.
As a general rule, people don’t cheat for no reason. For most people, cheating is a result of dissatisfaction in the relationship. A lack of affection and emotional intimacy in a committed relationship can have one or both partners looking outside of the marriage to fill the gap8.
As a therapist, I understand that infidelity is often an attempt at relationship stabilization. When a partner cheats, they are trying to meet one need without disrupting the relationship that meets most of their needs.
This isn’t an excuse - cheating is a series of choices, not an accident. But when I look at it from this lens, I can help couples stay together by focusing on solutions.
It’s going to be a long time before you can trust each other to meet these needs. But they do need to be acknowledged. If the two of you are truly committed, you will eventually look at these needs as something you can address together.
When people cheat, they are making a choice that will hurt their partner. So it makes sense that the wronged party set expectations to improve the relationship.
This could be physical, emotional, or any other thing. Understand that a partner's requests or demands may sometimes appear unreasonable or hard to do. The partner who cheated needs to make a reasonable effort, anyways.
Sometimes, the demands are unreasonable or damaging, or one partner does what the other wants but there is still a lot of anger and hurt. A lack of trust may be the source of frustration. The betrayed partner thinks that they can’t be upfront about their needs, so those needs can’t be met. In those cases, it may be time to seek professional guidance.
This step is all about communication - open, honest, and accountable communication. There can’t be any trust without building trust. In the fragile beginning stages of recovering from infidelity, transparency is important.
Trust is at an all-time low after cheating has occurred. Rebuilding trust requires both partners to choose to be vulnerable with each other. But how can anyone open up when they don’t know what’s true and what isn’t?
Partners being completely transparent is a starting point. This might mean permission to go into each other’s phones or social media accounts. It might be check-in calls to confirm that the person who cheated is telling the truth. Often, full transparency can feel invasive, but establishing trust often requires this step.
In order for things to go back to normal after cheating, however, total transparency has to end. Over time, constant surveillance puts more pressure on both partners and doesn’t actually help to build trust further in the relationship’s recovery.
In order to build trust, partners need to choose to believe each other. That means respecting each other’s privacy. A person might need reassurance during this time, but demanding utter transparency is not helpful forever.
Trust isn’t just about what is said, it’s about keeping your word. If someone promises to work on behaviors that build trust, their partner needs to see change. Small gradual changes tend to be more sustainable over time than large, grand gestures.
If there is an issue or hindrance, partners should immediately communicate. An apology and an explanation confirm for both parties that the promise hasn’t been forgotten. Over time, partners can trust each other’s consistency and reliability.
Setground rules and boundaries. Promise each other that you will stick together no matter how challenging it seems. For example, you can both set a particular day aside for a special couples' activity. Every time that time is prioritized by a couple, they are reaffirming their commitment to each other.
As a Marriage and Family Therapist, I believe love has two forms: emotion, and action. The emotion of love is what brings people together, but it’s choosing to act out of love that keeps relationships going.
An affair can often make couples feel like strangers. The love between them isn’t gone, or they wouldn’t be trying to stay together. In order to approach each other, they must choose to act in a loving way.
This can include spending time together in their preferred places. Sometimes it’s agreeing to do what the other person enjoys - even if it’s not personally interesting. By exploring love languages, couples can learn to show their affection to each other more effectively.
If you’re reading this, you’re most likely in need of support. In recovering from infidelity, know that you are a team and it’s okay to ask for help on this journey. The value of support cannot be underestimated as the road to restoration and recovery is long and hard. Often, the stabilization of the relationship can take almost two years9.
One source of support can be your family. You can both seek help from people you trust and draw strength from their wealth of experience. They can give you insights into what has happened and how to process it. You can be vulnerable before them as you can trust them with your fears.
Religious couples can seek the wisdom and guidance of their belief system by talking to trusted leaders. A moral perspective on issues can assist people in developing coping mechanisms.
Couples therapy is also an option. With most couples, one person is usually keener on therapy than the other. This resistance is normal. No one wants to think that their relationship is in trouble.
I can confirm, however, that counseling can be valuable to both individuals. With an outside perspective comes a measured and in-depth understanding of the actions, thoughts, feelings, and emotions of people who cheat, and those who have been hurt by cheating.
Therapy can give you access to a rich source of information that will help you both deal with your issues in healthy and productive ways.
Whenever I recommend couples counseling, I also recommend individual therapy for both partners. Therapy can give a person space to process negative feelings like guilt, anger and anxiety.
If you've seen progress in your couples therapy, then fear not, the rebuild and restoration process is firmly on track. The focus can start to shift from anger to forgiveness.
Forgiveness cannot be forced. The process of releasing anger and resentment is an individual experience. This goes for the person who was cheated on, as well as the person who cheated.
At this point, some couples separate from each other, temporarily. This can be an important part of relationship recovery: truly exploring the option to stay or go. For those who feel they can forgive (or forgive eventually), the choice to return can help them feel in control of their own actions.
As you move forward, it’s important to be mindful of the now. Explore your relationship, how you both feel as partners and as people, as well as the effects on you both. Attempts to revert back to normal should be present and future-oriented.
Being in the present can be very difficult if you’re constantly thinking about past betrayals and worried about future ones. Mindfulness exercises can help you to interrupt cycles of overthinking.
In the present, acceptance is crucial. Acceptance is not approval or even forgiveness. It’s recognizing the present moment as it is. It’s recognizing that infidelity has impacted your relationship, and choosing to move forward.
The past is a lesson for the future. You’ve both learned a hard lesson on the value of trust and commitment. From this space, couples have the opportunity to open up to one another.
The breach of trust that comes from cheating can be devastating. Rebuilding trust and recovery is not a quick process. On average, couples take 18 months9 to completely stabilize their relationship.
The exact percentages are hard to identify, but studies suggest that 50% of marriages survive after infidelity. Those who seek couples counseling are significantly more likely to stay together than those who do not.
It’s important to focus on the present in order to move forward. Mindfulness exercises can help counter anxious thought patterns and redirect your focus.
Some people do take a break. The separation can be an opportunity to process independently and decide whether or not to commit to the relationship.
Cheating is a choice with real consequences. Taking responsibility and working towards change can help to rebuild trust in a relationship. I hope you enjoyed reading this and learned a few tips (or more) to recover and revert your relationship to normal. I would love to hear your views and questions in the comment section. Also, like and share if this has made an impact.