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?
Infidelity can kill a relationship or serve as a wake-up call.
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.
Understand that your situation is specific to the two of you.
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.
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?
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.
Sticking it to your partner by indulging in your own indiscretion will only drive you farther apart.
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.
If you truly want all communication sources to be shared, make it mutual and open yours, too, to avoid setting a double standard.
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.
For the cheating partner to apologize sincerely, the cheated-on partner must create a space for the apology.
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.”
Unless your partner is a serial cheater, you’re dealing with a relationship problem, not a character flaw.
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.
Of course, it affects you, but it may not be about you.
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.
Treat trust the way you would a treasured object made of porcelain or glass.
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.
When the chapter is over, close the book, but keep it on your shelf.
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.
This story has been republished to Medium.
It is so hurtful. My husband and I have been married for almost 3 years, been together for 4, and he abruptly mentions he’s been keeping secrets from his past from me (mind you we were just watching tv and he just says this randomly)! It would have never bothered me most likely but now he tells me this and I tell him it hurts me that he has no intention of disclosing them but most inform me he does and that he doesn’t care how it makes me feel. It makes you feel like you’re married to a stranger!… Read more »
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The burden of responsibility for the betrayed partner here is quite heavy. And I’d say this is a pretty-high level approach. It’s important to understand what type of affair was going on, among other things, before knowing whether the relationship is worth saving. It would be good to see a blended guide with the steps the cheater needs to follow to help the person they f*ed over recover.
You make some good points but most experts on healing from infidelity would strongly disagree with most of this article. It is crucial to differentiate between the state of the relationship and the infidelity. The betrayed partner is fully responsible for their part in the state of the relationship. But, they are never responsible in any way for their partner’s choice to cheat. To hint at that can severely damage the healing process for someone who is very likely quite traumatized by one of the most painful experiences anyone can go through in life. Betrayed spouses are almost always lied… Read more »
Lisa, No one is ever responsible for another person’s choices. I hope I didn’t seem to suggest that. In writing, “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,” I was not saying that the betrayed partner is any way responsible for the betrayer’s act of infidelity. I am saying that if, for example, the betrayer felt emotionally abandoned in the relationship (and please understand the difference between a reason and a justification), the betrayed partner needs to explore that for the relationship… Read more »
Yes, I agree that both people need to explore and take responsibility for their part in the state of the relationship. But, it is absolutely crucial that the betrayed partner not be given the impression by the unfaithful partner (nor a therapist, author, etc) that this provides justification for the decision to cheat. I believe that needs to be stated very clearly and I don’t feel your article did so. I have observed too many situations where a betrayed spouse, already broken down and traumatized, then in the “healing process” of trying to stay together, also starts bending over backwards… Read more »
I am living this as we speak 7 months and counting with a second disclosure 1 1/2 months ago, your perspective is pretty accurate, but the last sentence is so deadly accurate. This is coming from a betrayed spouse going through the bumpy journey.
I didn’t have to read the steps because I’d certainly disagree with all of them, for me cheating is a deal-breaker. This may sound harsh but I could never trust someone who cheats once…..there’ll always be the urge to do it again, especially since they believe they got away with the first indiscretion. That’s the simple truth about cheaters.
Sue, I respect your personal feelings, and it’s clear this article isn’t for you.
I’m sorry, but I disagree with almost everything you wrote here. Cheating is NOT ever to fall at the feet of the betrayed. The cheater cheated because there something is wrong with them. Not their significant other. Second, full transparancy is an absolute must. If it makes the betrayed spouse feel better to check the phone and email, they have every right to do until THEY feel it isn’t necessary any more. All the steps you described is called rug sweeping and will lead to repeat cheating because there weren’t any consequences. Third, exposure is the best way to end… Read more »
Lisa, The article is for couples who want to stay together after infidelity. If the betrayed partner maintains the position that something is “wrong” with the betrayer and isn’t willing to explore issues in the relationship, it’s unlikely the relationship will survive. Also, I advocated full transparency of communication for both partners, because if you apply it only to the betrayer, the betrayed becomes the probation officer. The whole point was not to simplify infidelity as a hurtful and unforgivable act perpetrated by a dreadful person and try to go deeper to the root causes to find the potential for… Read more »
Thomas, my reply was in relation to staying. I am staying. I live with the struggles of staying with my partner even though he CHOSE to cheat on me. It was HIS choice. I did NOTHING that perpetuated that choice. I did nothing that drove him to it nor was there anything going on in our relationship that drove him to do it, other than his own selfishness and greed. You can’t ever lay being cheated on at the betrayed spouses feet. Ever. It doesn’t belong there. It belongs solely to the one that chose to cheat. They concoct fallacies… Read more »
This is a really great article. A refreshing perspective. A little hard to digest at times since cheating can be so personal but well thought out and really intelligent. The last paragraph is a really nice way to wrap it up. I once heard the same belief described by putting reciprocol energy into your relationship vs putting wasted energy into outside sources. You can look at porn, fantasize about tons of other women (or men), tease yourself by going to strip clubs but you get no return for your investment by doing so. When you make the active choice to… Read more »
great article, although i don’t agree with it all. cheating happens for a myriad of reasons and sometimes the “innocent” one has not played a role in their partners decision to step out of the relationship. sometimes it’s as simple as this person wanted to cheat and they did…that simple.
overall, #1 dictates how one should respond/react to the situation. only those two people can determine what the next best steps should be. this list is good guide for those that want to try and rebuild their relationship.
thanks for this.
If you truly love your partner and want to make the effort it can work even though some cheating has occurred, especially with guys as they don’t get pregnant. My partner and I have been together for 52 years, married 10 years. In the early years of our relationship there were some bumpy times, but we worked it out and are living the American Dream.
Brillant Article, though Very Few might agree with this and follow the steps
Thank you. It’s challenging to present an intellectual approach to an emotional issue. The emotions have to be recognized first, then processed, then addressed.
Almost every objection I read about the article come from women. Can we agree that men and women cheat because of different reasons? (Not talking about coming from Mars or Venus, but our basic differences between gender roles). Being the cheater a “she”, I found totally acceptable the part on shared responsability – the way I see it, a cheating woman in a loving, fulfilling relationship is a VERY uncommon happening, and not the other way around. Maybe the woman’s age is a factor on these cases?
I think many people will agree with this article, but the reason I think many won’t follow the steps is because they won’t find their relationships worth the effort. Does that mean that these individuals will simply choose to walk away? No, but they’ll make the decision to lower the personal cost or mitigate the risk. Maybe I’ll demand one apology gift or access to your e-mail. Maybe I’ll take a month if no contact and while I’m doing personal healing / reflection, I can also get a grasp of your willingness to wait. Maybe I’ll want the license to… Read more »