A 12-step guide to surviving infidelity.
When tears come down
Like falling rain
You’ll toss around
And call my name
You’ll walk the floor
The way I do
Your cheatin’ heart will tell on you…
Your Cheatin’ Heart—Hank Williams
So you’ve caught your partner cheating, or he or she has come forward and confessed. Now what?
Is the relationship over?
The answer to this question depends on whether you want it to be over or not. For some, infidelity—sexual or emotional—is a deal-breaker. Trust is shattered, healing is impossible, and walking away is the only choice. For others, it’s a devastating but not deathly blow. Infidelity can kill a relationship or serve as a wake-up call and provide an opportunity to make healthy changes that will sustain it for the long term. If you love your partner and want to stay committed, it’s crucial to realize this: you get to choose how you feel and react. You can be angry, mean, and vengeful. You can add to the pain and widen the wound. Or you can acknowledge your hurt and approach the problem with the goal of healing. The choice—and there’s no right or wrong one—is yours. If you want to try to survive infidelity, the 12 steps below can serve as guideposts to help you navigate back from the abyss.
1. Forget about the statistics, stereotypes, and generalizations—and don’t allow them to define your response. If you default to the programmed reaction of anger and the assumption of intentional betrayal, you’ll quickly destroy each other and the relationship. Understand that your situation is specific to the two of you, focus on the relevant details, and liberate yourself from the prescribed script. The underlying cause and meaning of infidelity doesn’t come from a study on hormones or brain chemistry, a self-help book, or all the novels, movies, and magazine articles we’ve ever read. It’s up to you and your partner to figure out why it happened and formulate a plan for healing.
2. Replace blame with understanding. This sounds easy, but it’s hard. “He or she did something,” you say, “and I’m the innocent victim.” That may be the case, but cheating—whether a one-night stand or a long-term affair—is almost always more complicated, and the non-cheating partner plays a role in the drama. A successful repair is contingent on shared responsibility for healing, and you can’t share responsibility for healing unless you share responsibility for the injury as well.
3. Resist the urge to punish. You hurt. Badly. And you want your partner to hurt, too. And that’s not all, you want to make your partner pay. Now is your moment of ultimate leverage, the time to present your list of demands, right? A bigger apartment or house? That vacation you’ve been talking about? A super-expensive apology gift? A year of apology gifts? Maybe even a lifetime? “If you love me and you want to make it right, you owe me.” But all this does is perpetuate a power imbalance in the relationship and turn you into a permanent victim. Healing doesn’t result from punishment. Healing results from forgiveness and change.
4. Avoid revenge sex. It’s not just that two wrongs don’t make a right. It’s also that sticking it to your partner by indulging in your own indiscretion will only drive you farther apart. It doesn’t make things equal. It only makes things more broken. The key here is to understand the distinction between what may be in your self interest and what is in your best interest or more accurately, the best interest of the relationship. And hurting your partner deliberately won’t feel good. The high road is a hard road, but it’s the only road that leads towards healing.
5. Don’t tell the whole world. You will need support, so you may want to confide in a close friend or family member with discretion or take the problem to a therapist. But if there’s a good chance you’ll be staying with your partner, you don’t want to compromise him or her with your entire social circle, then later have everyone question your motives for staying. You and your partner will be learning a delicate dance—a version of the two-step—with one step back for every two-steps forward, and many complicated moves to get back to solid footing. The last thing you need is advice from the audience or the pull of public opinion on your heart. Conversely, not telling anyone at all is probably unwise. Go ahead and get perspective, but don’t publicize.
6. Don’t become the police. It’s tempting after you learn you’ve been cheated on to demand access to your partner’s email, voicemail, text, calendar, and other personal communication sources, and to insist on checking in so you know where he or she is at all times. This is not a healthy or sustainable practice in a relationship, and it will only encourage your partner to seek secret ways to maintain privacy. If you truly want all communication sources to be shared, make it mutual and open yours, too, to avoid setting a double standard in which you play the part of the probation officer with the power to put your partner back in jail.
7. Don’t desert. Walking away, cutting off all communication, and making your partner abase him or herself and beg for forgiveness is not a recipe for recovery. You may very well need time to yourself and space for your feelings. But unless you keep communicating, even if only in the presence of a counselor or therapist, there’s no hope of reconciliation. For the cheating partner to apologize sincerely, the cheated-on partner must create a space for the apology to be not only heard but also accepted. Otherwise, the cheater becomes the masochist, the cheated-on the sadist, and the dialogue goes like this: “Whip me.” “Crack.” “Whip me.” “Crack.”
8. Come together around the unmet need. Unless your partner is a serial cheater, you’re dealing with a relationship problem, not a character flaw. Somewhere there’s an unmet need—for affection, attention, validation of worth or attractiveness, or simply being listened to and understood. Acknowledging the unmet need can be painful, because it means acknowledging your own contribution. It may also unearth a larger problem—that you’ve been withholding from your partner because your own needs are not being satisfied. Joining together to explore and address the unmet need or needs in your relationship will point you in the direction of recovery and stop you from pointing fingers at each other.
9. Try not to take it personally. Come on! Get off it! What could be more personal than my partner having intimate relations with someone else? Well, here’s the rub. Of course, it affects you, but it may not be about you. And whether it is or it isn’t, the only way to survive the wound, repair the damage, and try to restore trust is to make it about the relationship. To personalize is to internalize and make separate. To depersonalize is to externalize and share. And if you can accept that as a 50/50 partner in steering the ship, you’re at least partly responsible for it running aground, the next step is to accept your share of responsibility for righting the ship and getting it back on course. This is a bitter pill to swallow, because blaming, in the short term, tastes so sweet. But blaming blows a bigger hole in the hull and makes the ship sink faster, while sharing responsibility mends the breach so you can start bailing.
10. Separate how you feel about the cheating from how you feel about your partner. If you’ve raised kids, you’ll recognize this stance as, “I hate what you did but I don’t hate—and still love—you.” It’s simple in principle but often wrenchingly hard in practice, and it requires mastering your emotions and making conscious choices when it comes to your actions. This is probably the part you’ll need the most help with, either from a trained professional or a friend who’s been there.
11. Always remember that trust is fragile. You may have survived the cheating, but chances are it almost broke you. Trust requires commitment, communication, vigilance, and a measure of faith. Treat trust the way you would a treasured object made of porcelain or glass. Stay closely in touch with your feelings and your partner’s, particularly how your partner feels when he or she is with you. If your partner feels ignored, alienated, detached, or devalued, trust is in danger of being breached. How you feel when you’re with each other is the crucial barometer of relationship survival. If both sets of needs are being met, there’s little chance cheating will happen again.
12. Forgive but don’t forget. Forgiveness is tricky. You let go of the hurt but remember the pain. You don’t give those who hurt you carte blanche or set yourself up for it to happen again. Holding a grudge will destroy your relationship (you might as well leave), but denying the pain or erasing the event precludes learning and leaves you open to repetition. So when the chapter is over, close the book, but keep it on your shelf. Notice it when you walk past, finger it from time to time, and embrace it as part of your relationship’s narrative. And unpleasant as it was, it’s something the two of you got through together.
Epilogue: The curtain. Women I’ve dated have often asked me how I can promise I won’t cheat. I describe a curtain that comes down and blocks the openings where cheating can take place. When the curtain is down, you don’t put yourself in certain situations—a late night drink with a colleague on a business trip, a private lunch with someone you find attractive, a Facebook chat with a former lover, a massage parlor known for happy endings. What can cause that curtain to rise? It’s not as simple as sexual desire. It’s more like a feeling of emptiness inside, or an infected wound that’s been ignored and aggravated. Keeping the curtain down is a choice—a choice made easier by the fulfillment derived from a healthy, supportive, functional relationship. In most cases, it isn’t the mind or the body parts that cheat. It’s an injured heart, starving for oxygen, struggling to survive.