Being cheated on by someone you love and trust is one of the most painful betrayals that anyone can experience. In the middle of all that pain, it’s hard to know when to stay with your partner, or when to walk away after infidelity.
It is entirely possible to heal your heart and your relationship after cheating, as any good affair recovery counselor knows. It’s even possible to use this terrible experience to create a stronger relationship. Believe it or not, many couples emerge from the process of healing after infidelity feeling more committed, more in love, and more connected than ever before. Sometimes traumatic, painful experiences are a doorway to powerful growth — if you know how to use them.
But deciding whether to stay together or separate after infidelity is a monumental decision. It’s also a hard one to make when you’re emotionally wrecked. While this isn’t a choice that anyone can make for you, there is a process that will help you get clear about what you want, the path to healing your relationship after an affair, and whether or not you and your partner are both committed to walking that path.
In the United States, 78 percent of marriages survive infidelity (statistics on unmarried couples are harder to come by). But there’s surviving and then there’s thriving. Just because you don’t break up or file for divorce doesn’t mean you’ll rekindle all of the love, trust, and security in your relationship, and it definitely doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to transform your experience to build something better.
You deserve more than to limp along in an unhappy relationship after infidelity. You deserve true healing and growth, whether that’s with your partner, or without them. How the healing process unfolds for you will depend on some factors that are unique to you, your partner, and your relationship.
You know that it’s possible to stay with your partner after cheating. What you want to know is, is that the right choice for you? This article will help you learn what to expect so you can make the choice that’s right for your relationship.
Divorce after Infidelity
In the years after an affair is discovered, about a quarter of married couples divorce, and understandably so. As far as relationship injuries go, infidelity is pretty severe. Many couples simply don’t have the tools to heal and move forward together, and so they separate.
Sometimes this happens quickly, with the partner who was betrayed choosing to end the marriage soon after learning their spouse was unfaithful. But many couples remain married for a while, without taking the necessary steps to truly heal. It may even seem like things are returning to normal, but in reality there’s an open wound in the center of their relationship. If left untreated, it will create all kinds of pain and turmoil for both partners until someone eventually calls it quits in the marriage.
This outcome is much more likely when you don’t have the tools to navigate the affair recovery process in a healthy and productive way. Some strange things happen in a relationship after a betrayal (more on that later), and they can create a lot of misunderstanding, conflict, and blocks to reconnection. And if the partner who cheated isn’t able and willing to do some internal work on themselves, divorce is almost inevitable.
Unfortunately, ending the relationship doesn’t solve all the problems that infidelity creates. If the roots of infidelity aren’t addressed, it’s likely this problem will follow the partner who cheated into their next relationship. If the betrayed partner isn’t able to process their trauma and heal from it, they’ll likely carry trust issues forward into future relationships. Whether you do so together or apart, it’s important that you both get the support you need to heal and grow.
When Not to Walk Away after Infidelity
If you’re in a relationship that is fundamentally loving, strong, and healthy for you, you have many reasons to stay together and repair your relationship after infidelity.
First and foremost, many couples choose to stay together because infidelity is an injury that can be healed. It isn’t easy, and it’s understandable if you don’t know where to begin, but if you and your partner both commit to repairing your relationship, it can be done. It might not feel like it now, but if you both participate fully in the process of affair recovery, there will come a day when you once again feel safe and loved within your relationship.
Second, many couples choose to stay together after infidelity because they share a wonderful life and they don’t want to dismantle it. They don’t want to move out of their home, divide their possessions, and decide who will keep the dog. They don’t want to lose all the shared rituals of connection that they’ve built up over the years. If they have children, they especially don’t want to put their kids through a divorce. Leaving a partner doesn’t just mean losing that relationship. It means losing the life you’ve built together.
Finally, many people stay together after infidelity because they love each other. As painful as infidelity is, the heartbreak of losing their relationship would be worse, and so they stay.
Why It’s So Hard to Walk Away after Infidelity
How many times have you heard someone say they would never stay with someone who cheated on them? You may have even said this yourself…until it happened to you.
It’s easy to make judgments from the outside, but when you’re the one who’s been cheated on, you see that nothing about this experience is simple. Infidelity not only creates a lot of hurt, sadness, and anger, it creates a lot of confusion. On the one hand, you may have serious doubts about the future of your relationship. On the other, you may feel like you want to hold on to your partner more tightly than ever.
This is because you’re deeply attached to your partner, and that powerful attachment bond has been threatened by your partner’s decision to cheat. When we’re attached to someone and that bond suddenly feels insecure, we experience intense anxiety and we feel compelled to draw our partners close. If you’re feeling like you can’t stand the sight of your partner right now, but also like you can’t stand to let them out of your sight, this is why. You might want more than anything to re-establish security in your relationship, while also wondering if you will ever be able to forgive your partner or trust them again.
The biggest question of all is this — if you stay with your partner and do the hard work of fixing your relationship after infidelity…will they cheat on you again?
Feeling conflicted is totally normal, and it’s ok not to have all the answers right now. As you begin to recover, you’ll gain more clarity about your own feelings, your partner’s level of commitment and trustworthiness, and your relationship’s potential.
As you make this difficult choice, here are a few things to consider:
How Strong Is Your Commitment?
Are you married? Do you have kids? Do you own a home together? How integrated are your finances?
The more you’ve tied your lives together, the harder it will be to disentangle them. It might feel like you should be able to make this choice on principle alone, but it’s wise to consider how ending your relationship would affect every part of your life, especially your children if you have them. If you share a home, a family, and other commitments, you may decide that “just walking away” after infidelity without first trying to repair your relationship isn’t an option for you.
If you’re married to someone who cheated on you, your commitment likely means something to you as well. Perhaps you no longer feel bound by your vows to stick by your husband or wife until death do you part, but perhaps you do. That’s a question you’ll have to answer, and either answer is valid.
The calculation is different if you’re less committed to the person who cheated on you, especially if it happens early in the relationship. When someone cheats once after 15 years of marriage, it may be a fluke that’s unlikely to happen again. If someone cheats within the first couple of years of dating, that could be a sign of a pattern that’s likely to continue.
Detaching from someone you love is always incredibly painful, whether you’re married or not. But a breakup likely won’t require you to dismantle your entire life. Envision the kind of relationship you want to be in, whether or not you can have that relationship with this person, and whether you are both willing to do the work in order to make it possible for you to move forward together.
Has Your Partner Cheated Before?
Sometimes cheating is a one-time mistake that happens for no deeper reason, aside from attraction and opportunity. But sometimes it’s part of a long-standing pattern that is fueled by a problem your partner has, or even by their attitudes about cheating (some people genuinely believe they’re entitled to cheat).
The first scenario is a lot easier to repair than the second. If your partner cheated because of a deeper issue within themselves, they’ll likely need to do some individual work in therapy to get to the root of the problem and to resolve it. If they aren’t willing or able to do that, it’s likely to happen again.
Of course, you might not know for sure whether your partner has ever cheated before, in your relationship or others. Even if they’re telling you it happened just this once, you might not believe them. A good infidelity counselor can help you flush all the information out into the open, so you can have a full picture of what happened. That’s what you need and deserve.
How Is Your Partner Responding to You?
When someone is caught cheating, they often don’t take accountability and make a meaningful apology right away. They may even make wild and hurtful excuses, blaming you, your relationship, and everyone but themselves for why they chose to cheat.
This defensiveness can be more hurtful and harder to forgive than the cheating itself. You will probably be in disbelief that your partner is trying to wiggle out of accountability when they’re so clearly in the wrong. But an experienced affair recovery counselor won’t be surprised at all. It’s a common dynamic after cheating that many couples need support to overcome.
After someone is caught cheating, they often respond this way because admitting fault is really hard when the mistake is so big. We all have a concept of who we are and what we stand for, and for most people, cheating is not in line with that self-concept. Especially when they’re first caught, your partner may justify, rationalize, make excuses, minimize, or blame you for their actions. This helps them to temporarily escape from the shame of admitting they made an awful mistake. Unfortunately, it’s emotionally invalidating and harmful to you.
If this is what your partner is doing, it can feel like there’s no path forward. But for most people who cheat, these defenses break down eventually and they begin to feel genuine remorse. A good affair recovery counselor will recognize what’s happening and will help your partner sit with their guilt and shame for long enough to take accountability. Then healing can begin.
Falling Out of Love after Infidelity
Even if you want to stay with your partner after you uncover an affair, you might feel like the emotional heart of your relationship has died and can’t be revived.
Many people who’ve been cheated on feel this way. When you’re wounded within a relationship, it’s natural to put some emotional distance between yourself and the person who hurt you. This distancing happens almost automatically on a level that’s outside your awareness. You may lose respect for your partner, develop negative narratives about their character, and even start to feel a little disgusted by them. This mental maneuver helps you salvage your self-esteem — because who cares if someone you don’t respect treated you like you weren’t enough? — but it also blocks out the feelings of love you have for your partner.
You can solve this problem, but not by thinking your way out of it. It’s an emotional problem that requires an emotionally-focused solution. Falling out of love after infidelity happens when you rush to put things back together without fully processing everything that happened and all the pain you experienced, and then repairing that injury together. A form of therapy called Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy can help you heal the unresolved pain so you can grow back together again. Once that pain has been tended to properly, you’ll probably feel your love for your partner come rushing back.
If you’re feeling this way and your goal is to repair your relationship, it’s important that you get help fast. It’s possible to reach an emotional “point of no return” when it won’t be possible to fall back in love with your partner.
Is Your Partner Willing to Do the Work?
Is your partner committed to fixing your relationship? Or do they just not want you to leave?
It’s possible for your partner to feel intense remorse, love you dearly, and desperately want to save your relationship…and still not know how to do it.
This is because restoring your emotional bond and repairing trust is a delicate process that has to be approached with intention. It takes thought and care and, often, professional support.
The partner who cheated will also need to do some work on themselves, possibly with an individual counselor. They need to get clear about why they cheated so they can get those needs met in the future without turning to another affair. If they had a significant attachment to the affair partner, they need to grieve that relationship and put it behind them. I know that’s really hard to hear, but if they don’t have the time and space to release their attachment to the affair partner, they can’t clear that space for your relationship.
You will need to move through your own healing process as well. You’ll feel waves of pain, anxiety, anger and confusion for quite a while, and things that never bothered you before will begin to trigger you in unexpected ways. Even a few years down the road when things feel mostly normal again, you may have a feeling of panic when your partner comes home late or forgets to call. You may think you’ve forgiven your partner and moved on, but still find yourself getting angry about things that never bothered you before. If you have PTSD symptoms (as many people who were betrayed in this way do) you may need to work with an individual counselor to resolve those symptoms.
Healing after infidelity is a long and sometimes repetitive process, where the same conversations need to be had multiple times and the same wounds need to be attended to over and over. It’s very common for the person who cheated to get impatient with this process, since it reminds them of a shameful mistake that they’d rather forget. They may begin to feel frustrated with you and start to believe you’ll never stop holding the affair against them.
Of course, you can’t be expected to “just get over it.” That’s not how healing after infidelity works. If your relationship is going to survive, your partner will need to understand that and be willing to stand by your side while you grapple with these feelings.
Are they up for it? Are they willing to commit to working with a professional who can help you both heal and grow from this experience? Are they going to participate actively in the process, and not just show up so they can say they “tried counseling?” If not, it’s unlikely this injury will heal properly.
Fixing Your Relationship after Infidelity
Infidelity is a make or break experience for your relationship. Many couples are able to repair their bonds and move forward stronger than before. But the truth is, you have a much better shot if you get professional help from someone who really knows what they’re doing. There are simply too many emotional landmines to navigate without a caring, experienced guide who can help you sidestep them.
Here are some of the steps you’ll need to walk through to fix your relationship after infidelity:
- Stop cheating — It might sound obvious, but you cannot begin to repair your relationship and move forward until the cheating has stopped. Unfortunately, affairs don’t always end the moment they’re uncovered. The longer your partner stays in communication with the affair partner, the harder it will be to heal your relationship.
- Learn what to expect — A lot of weird things happen in your relationship after infidelity. It will be easier to understand each other and move forward if you both know what to expect. Read articles, listen to podcasts, and better yet, speak with a professional who can help guide you.
- Process the events — You’ll have to process what happened during the affair, both together and on your own. If you were cheated on, you deserve to have all the information you want about what happened. But there is such a thing as knowing too much when it comes to the details of the affair. A good affair recovery counselor will help you have these conversations in a way that doesn’t make things worse.
- Share your feelings — Your partner needs to hear the full scope of how their actions affected you. If you’re lying awake all night thinking about them sleeping with someone else, they need to know that. If you’re finding it hard to focus at work or be present with your kids, they need to know that too. You also need a window into their emotional experience. This is what allows you to reconnect.
- Respond to each other with validation & empathy — When your partner acknowledges your pain, validates it, and offers empathy, that paves the way to forgiveness. You will need to remain empathetic and validating for them as well.
- Repair trust – Your trust in your partner has been shattered, and it will have to be repaired. Repairing trust can be a long process, and it will require changing some behaviors. Many couples need to share passwords, call each other to check in more frequently, and even use GPS locators to re-establish trust after infidelity.
- Restore intimacy — Betrayal can block out the love and care you have for your partner. Sex after infidelity can also be a fraught area. A good affair recovery counselor can help you restore emotional and physical intimacy in your relationship.
- Address PTSD symptoms — If you’re constantly on edge, irritable, worrying about your partner cheating again, and often feeling “triggered,” you might have symptoms of PTSD, which is not uncommon after you’ve been cheating on. Resolving these symptoms may require professional support.
- Understand contributing factors — At some point in this process, you’ll need to develop an understanding of why this happened and address the factors that contributed to your partner cheating. There are so many things that can make infidelity more likely, including problematic drinking, excessive stress, and even childhood experiences. If you and your partner can understand what led to the affair you can work on those issues.
- Address issues in your relationship — The notion that people cheat because there’s something wrong with their partner or their relationship is a harmful myth. But every relationship has its problems. Working through them together will help you restore hope and confidence in your future.
As you can see, there’s a lot to do. Repairing your relationship after infidelity is a long process, and it’s so easy to get reactive, triggered, defensive, and hopeless at any stage. That’s why it’s so valuable to have an experienced guide by your side as you move through these steps.
Affair Recovery Counseling
If this is a relationship you value and cherish, we do not recommend walking away after infidelity without first trying affair recovery counseling. You just can’t know whether your relationship is salvageable until you’ve made an effort to salvage it. Especially if you are married and/or have children together, this is too important a decision to make without exploring all of your options. The pain of infidelity will pass, whether you remain together or separate. Once you’re feeling better, you don’t want to look back and wish that you’d tried to save your relationship.
When you’re looking for an affair recovery counselor, be sure you choose someone who is trained and experienced in couples work specifically. A frightening and under-discussed fact about couples counseling is that most of the clinicians who offer it are not really qualified. They are individual counselors who also accept couples. When this kind of “couples counseling” fails, many people believe they’ve tried everything to repair their relationships and it just wasn’t possible. In reality, they were never connected with someone who was truly qualified to help them.
Only Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists, or LMFTs, actually have the extensive training and education that’s needed to heal relationship systems. Learn more about how to find a marriage counselor.
If you’re truly ambivalent about whether or not you want to repair your relationship or end it, there’s still a form of counseling that can be helpful to you: discernment counseling.
Traditional couples counseling is designed to help you repair your relationship. Discernment counseling is geared toward couples who are on the brink, unsure about whether they’re committed to the process of fixing their relationship, or if they want to end it.
If this is the mindset that either you or your partner are in, it’s important that you don’t attempt couples counseling until you have some clarity. Couples counseling fails when one or both partners are ambivalent about engaging with it. Discernment counseling helps you get clear about the problems in your relationship, what you need to do to fix them, and how committed you both are to that process. Once you know that, then couples counseling can be successful.
Most couples who do discernment counseling emerge with a lot of hope for their relationship, and choose to transition into couples counseling where they can do the work of improving it. But some couples do decide to separate. Even if that is the outcome, discernment counseling can still be incredibly helpful for you. Having a clear picture of what happened in your relationship will help you make peace with its ending, so you can begin to heal and move forward.
Affair Recovery at Growing Self
All of the affair recovery counselors and discernment counselors on our team at Growing Self are Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists who have received extensive training specifically in helping couples move forward after infidelity. They understand the complexities of the healing process, and can help you make the right choice for yourself and for your family.
If you choose a Growing Self counselor, you can expect a safe, non-judgmental space where you can both be open about your experiences in your relationship. Your counselor will take a balanced approach to guiding you through this work, and will never “take sides” or label one of you “the problem.”
It’s really important that you find someone that you both feel comfortable with and trust. That’s why we offer free consultations, so you can meet potential counselors before you make a decision about who you want to work with. You’ll have an opportunity to meet with your counselor and ask any questions you may have about their background and approach before you get started.
We offer in-person couples counseling at our Denver offices, as well as online couples counseling and relationship coaching services available anywhere. While some couples prefer to see their counselor in person, many appreciate the ease, intimacy, and privacy of doing couples counseling from home.
We know how painful infidelity is, and how difficult this decision can be. It will take time to work through the feelings and the confusion, and to find clarity about whether you want to fix your relationship or end it. As you navigate this process, we’re here for you every step of the way.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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