I recently wrote an article explaining, from my experience, why I've found people cheat on their partners. It's a difficult topic to talk about, as my article covered - cheating can mean different things to different people within their relationships.
I explained that the one thing all cheating seems to have in common is there is never really one reason people cheat, but a mix of many. Another thing all cheating seems to have in common is that the act of cheating has the potential to (and often does) really, really hurt your partner.
Most people, unless they too are cheating (yes, it does happen!) are devastated when their partner is unfaithful. It often doesn’t matter if they know the relationship has issues, or even if they have decided to leave their partner.
Alongside this and sometimes the prompt ending of the relationship by either partner, cheating can cause the following:
- Feelings of betrayal, anger, guilt, loss of trust, despair, rage
- An increase and/or decrease in sexual desire for your partner
- Stronger feelings of disgust, embarrassment, loss of respect
- Questions around the whole relationship, not just the cheating
- Bringing up of the past, with things you thought you’d dealt with re-emerging
- Difficulties with children, extended family, cultural and/or religious values and norms
In contrast to this, it can also be an opportunity for both partners to take an open and honest look at the relationship, and themselves, and redefine how they want their relationship to be in the future.
This can be a complex situation, where you may simultaneously be processing any of the above, but also looking to make positive changes to come out the other side of it. Relationships which deal with the aftermath of cheating can be traumatic and lengthy.
So, what would be the best way to handle it?
Give Yourself Time
This is the number one first step. Cheating is a big deal and it causes a lot of hurt. Give yourselves time to process your individual responses to the cheating, which will be based on many things including your personal experiences, expectations and values.
Take some time to think about what you both want for yourselves, and the relationship, long term. When doing this, it may also be important to consider practicalities. For example; do you live together? Do you want to share a bed?
Work out what would be the best short-term solutions as you process what you’re going through. This would be particularly important if you have shared commitments such as children, or caring responsibilities, those you will want to minimise the impact on – especially before you’ve sorted it out.
Break It Up
I’m not talking about your relationship here (unless of course that’s what you decide). I mean break up the two processes you’re working with. As I said, you’re dealing with the aftermath of the cheating and looking at the future of the relationship. Although it’s not always easy, it can be helpful to boundary time for these. It might be useful to lean on different groups for support with this, alongside processing it on your own.
you may have a friend who is great at listening to you talk, having drinks, making you laugh and will help you “get it all out”. That’s your aftermath friend! Equally, you may have a friend or relative who has been through something similar, they may be helpful in looking at the future and talking out your options.
Ask Yourself - Who Am I Telling About This?
Whilst learning on others for support (as above) can be really useful, cheating can be an intense and dividing topic. Before you tell anyone else, think about who you want to know about this and what you want them to know. Everyone will have an opinion, dependant on their relationship to you and your partner, their experiences, beliefs and agenda.
Consider how helpful or unhelpful these might be for you, your partner and your future.
Ask Yourself - What Do I Want To Know?
Some people, when they find out they’ve been cheated on, demand to know every tiny detail. Others avoid it completely and are adamant they do not want any details. Sometimes people swing from one to another as they’re hurt and processing the situation. Equally, some people who have cheated feel they need to be completely transparent and tell their partner everything (sometimes to alleviate their guilt) and others will refuse to talk about the details for the same reasons, or for damage limitation to avoid further hurt to the other person.
This can be a complex dynamic to manage, especially if both of you are swinging from one to another. If you’ve been cheated on, try to have a sense of what would be enough detail for you to move on from. Ask for information that will help you, rather than collecting details to torment yourself further. If you’ve cheated on your partner, try to be open and honest with your answers.
Again, boundarying time for these conversations can be very helpful.
Make Some Decisions
Once you’ve tackled the above, you’ll be more prepared to decide on the future of your relationship.
If you choose to stay together, the first step is to rebuild the trust, which is done slowly and in small steps. It can be helpful to talk about what things may trigger mistrust, and what could be done to help alleviate this. Agreeing on specific behaviours, and then seeing them carried out, will help to rebuild the trust in the relationship.
Be mindful that this can be an extremely difficult time for both of you and considering getting some support. If you choose to separate and have shared property, finances or children, you may want to consider Mediation.
If you wish to stay together, or try to make your relationship work, couples counselling can be very helpful. Many shy away from this, but it can be invaluable for relationships, especially when cheating has occurred – it’s my bread and butter as a relationship therapist!
Couples counselling can help to:
- Look at all the factors involved & provide the space to express your emotions
- Find the best way forward for your relationship, whether that is together or apart
- Balance and consider both the ‘aftermath’ stuff with the ‘future’ stuff
- Improve communication and develop a deeper understanding of the situation
- Rebuild trust and hope, co-creating a stronger relationship
Equally, individual counselling can help you process your situation, experience and emotions around the cheating and can be incredibly helpful if you are going through a breakup as a result, or before you begin couples counselling. It can help you gain a sense of clarity, to enable you to work on your relationship moving forward.
When cheating has happened, some people say to me that they just want things to go back to how they were. This is understandable, it can turn your world upside down and you’ll want to establish a sense of normality. However, this would mean going back to a relationship where cheating occurred, which from my experience with clients… nobody wants.
Whether you’ve done the cheating, or been cheated on, try to consider the above and address it head on. Things won’t be the same, but if you tackle the situation, communicate and understand what you want and need, you can get through it.
If you've been cheated on, or you've cheated on your partner and would like some support either individually or as a couple, you can book in for an initial session with a qualified counsellor here.