For most people who come to counselling after having admitted to, been caught, or been accused of cheating, the question I hear most often is, “is there hope for our relationship?” The answer is up to you and to your partner. There is hope if you both decide you are willing to try and work through it. Like any issue you agree to work on as a couple, there is hope, but the outcome is not guaranteed.
NOTE: This article assumes that both partners are aware of the cheating and that whatever behavior is identified as cheating has stopped.
When you don’t think you’ve cheated and your partner does
What is cheating and how do you know when you’ve done it? For many people, the assumption, when going into a monogamous relationship, is that cheating simply means having sexual intercourse with another person. But, in my experience as a couples’ counsellor, cheating may mean anything from texting another person to having a long term sexual relationship with another person.
In essence, “cheating” is when you breach the boundaries of the relationship which have been agreed upon implicitly or explicitly.
Ideally a couple would define this explicitly from the outset. This seems to rarely happen, unless there has been an indication that someone has breached it already. If you’ve been accused of cheating, the fact that you don’t agree that the situation your partner described counts as cheating will do nothing to repair the relationship. Your partner is expressing that they feel trust has been breached. This is their experience. It is a fact that they feel this way. Simply repeating the fact that you do not feel this way will not resolve this conflict. Your task is to hear and understand your partner’s feelings, and then, together, come to an agreement about how to resolve what happened and how to move forward.
Cheating and open relationships
Cheating is not the same thing as an open relationship. Some people might think that opening up their relationship will resolve issues of infidelity. This is not likely to be the case. An open relationship with any chance of success needs to be founded on trust, excellent communication, collaborative decision making, and good skills in emotional regulation and empathy.
Cheating can and does happen in open relationships. Whatever agreement has been made between people within an open relationship has the potential to be violated. There might be an agreement to be up front with all sexual encounters or an agreement to keep information about a primary couples’ relationships private. Obviously, one might choose not to be up front or honest about their sexual encounters or they might decide to reveal information about a primary relationship to someone else, at some point, hence, violating their agreement.
Again, cheating is about a violation of trust, not necessarily a specific action.
When you feel that cheating was justified
Every situation, in every relationship, has a context. It is normal to look for reasons that situations occurred. Looking for reasons is a helpful and necessary process if you are to move forward in your relationship. Assigning blame is not always so helpful. It is important to understand what leads you make certain decisions and to act on specific impulses or situations. If you conclude that your partner’s actions are wholly responsible, you have essentially placed the situation outside of your control. This means that, if you feel your actions are not your fault, in any way, then you have left the resolution of the situation with your partner. Unless your partner agrees with your conclusions, you will likely be at a standstill, at best, and possibly, at the end of the relationship. Even if your partner agrees with your analysis, it is not likely that you were literally, physically forced to cheat on your partner and therefore, you are still responsible for your actions.
What is more likely to be true, is that circumstances and/or your partners words and actions combined with your own way of interacting and your own interpretation of those words and actions influenced your decision to act in the way that you did.
You will need to do a careful assessment of your ways of engaging with the issues that you feel have led you to this point. Have you brought these concerns to your partner in the past? Have you sought outside, non-biased advice? Are these issues you’ve faced in previous relationships? Have you sought help to make sense of why these issues are re-occurring in your relationships? These may be things within your control and worth acting on if you have not already.
If you cheated in response to a partners cheating, then you will have the pain of the first situation to work through and may need to do this before you can look at what part of your actions are your responsibility alone. Check out When You’ve Been Accused.
When you know you’ve crossed a line, the guilt can be overwhelming. Sometimes people have thoughts to harm themselves in some way or to kill themselves. These thoughts can be overwhelming. If you are having thoughts like this, contact mental health services immediately In Manitoba go to Crisis Services or go to the nearest hospital or call 911.
Guilt can actually be a useful thing when it points you towards something that you need to repair or something you need to do differently in the future. After that, it may be better characterized as shame. Shame is about believing that the problem is not just in your actions but that the problem is you. If you believe that the problem is who you are, that you are inherently flawed as a person, then you may feel there is nothing you can do about it. This kind of thinking can lead to despair. If you suspect that guilt has become shame, you will need to challenge those negative thoughts, recognizing that they will not help those you may have hurt by your actions and, in fact, moves you away from making things right. You may need to talk to a professional to help move past shame, if it has taken hold of you. For more on this see 5 Steps to Recovering from Failure.
Supporting your partner
If you are hoping to remain in the relationship, you will need patience. The impact of your actions on your partner, on an emotional level, no matter what the context of the relationship at the time that this happened, will likely be the primary focus.
In the first stages of response, after infidelity has been exposed, your partner may be in shock. They may not want you around for a while. If they are asking for space, and you are afraid that they might end the relationship, your best hope for keeping the relationship is to respect their request. Your anxiety and need for comfort is going to have to be found elsewhere. They may not be able to reassure you at this time and you will need to look for healthy ways to care for yourself which do not involve their help.
Talking to others about your situation
Many people feel ashamed of their actions and afraid to tell anyone. But you will need a larger network of support than your partner. Of course, you will want to protect your partner’s privacy and will need to be cautious about who you share your situation with. Ideally you would check with your partner about who they are comfortable with you talking to. If they say, no one, consider seeing a professional so that you are not alone in this situation. Your partner may need to talk to others about the situation. You may need to let them know explicitly that you support this and let them decide who they want to speak to. Trying to limit your partner in this will not build trust between you, even if you don’t like the person they choose to speak to or fear that they will get advice to leave you.
Being emotionally available
You will need to let your partner know that you are available to talk or listen to them. IN this context, being available means active listening. This means listening for content and emotion. For example, if your partner were to talk about how they found out about the cheating, you might respond by saying, “so when you saw those messages, it sounds like you had trouble believing that they were real.” Check to be sure you are hearing and understanding your partner correctly.
Your partner may need to share different parts of their response and experience at different times. This may happen over the course of months or longer. This is because it takes a long time to process the effects of a betrayal. You may be tempted to lash out by saying, “I already said sorry, what more do you want from me!” or “can’t you get over this, do we have to go through this again?” But really, your best move is to respond with the same active listening.
Explaining your side
Your partner may demand explanations and then tell you that they don’t believe you. They may refuse to hear any explanations, saying that “there is no excuse” or that your reasons are irrelevant. Explanations are not excuses. You will need to have done your own work to determine your responsibility in the situation, clearly. You will need to take responsibility for that part. When discussing the aspects of the relationship that you feel led you to this situation and that you feel your partner is responsible for is something that will need to be navigated carefully. Maybe you have tried to bring these issues up in the past and you felt that they were ignored, minimized or dismissed. Focusing on how you might have communicated more clearly or set strongly boundaries around that issue might be a good starting place. Give your partner opportunity to take responsibility for anything they could have done differently, themselves instead of trying to point it out to them.
Over time, your work, as a couple will be to determine what aspects of this situation you can each work on, learn from and take responsibility for in order to build a better future together. If your partner does not feel they had a role to play in this situation and you feel they do, then the two of you will need to decide if you can live with these different perspectives, going forward, or not.
Your ability to respond respectfully, to the requests of your partner, after infidelity has been revealed, will play a big role in whether trust can be rebuilt. They may request your passwords, for you to delete social media, cut certain people out of your life or change jobs, to name just a few. You will need to be very honest with yourself about which requests you are willing to wholeheartedly respond positively to. If you are willing to do something when requested, only because you don’t want the other person to leave, you need to consider if this is something you might hold against them in the future, or backtrack on, in the future. You will need a long lens to weigh out the variables in these requests. The variables will include, how fragile the relationship is versus, you own self-respect versus how important this request is, on a practical level to ensuring trust can be rebuilt.
Being emotionally available and non-defensive will help to build trust.
Working through the aspects of responsibility by both partners, in the situation will also serve to improve trust. Identifying any warning signs, based on this experience will help with knowing when things are going well or not going well in the future and allow both parties to feel better equipped to understand what is happening in the relationship.
Some couples find that, over time, no matter how positively requests are responded to, how emotionally available a partner is, despite taking responsibility as best as they can, trust is just not there. If you haven’t already done so, couples counselling would probably be warranted at this time.
Not all couples will recover their relationship from infidelity, despite their best efforts. In these cases, you should know that your efforts have not been wasted. What led you to this situation is no longer where you are. You will have grown in understanding of yourself and your relationship. Your relationship with this person may change in form, but your decision to work hard on this will be something that you can carry forward, in your life, in any relationship with friends, family or future intimate relationships.
For more on infidelity see “The State of Affairs” By Esther Perel*
*Please note: I have signed on as an affiliate sales person for McNally Robinson which means that if you click on the above link, and decide to purchase the book I’ve recommended, I will receive an affiliate’s fee. I only recommend books I have read and believe to be worth recommending.
Also check out “I’m Sorry” 8 Steps to a Good Apology
Also seeNot Finding ‘The One”