Just as relationships are hard, so is repairing them after trust is broken. But moving forward starts with taking the first steps of honesty, followed-up with intimacy habits and seeking professional support.
Mistakes were made, you cheated on your partner, and now the health of your relationship has taken a huge hit. The first question to ask yourself is, do you want this relationship to recover?
If you do, a good combination of honesty, patience, and support may help you to repair trust — and in time, your partnership as well.
But it can definitely be tough to know where and how to start, especially if your partner isn’t in the space to be communicative with you right away. Outside of the obvious apology, it’s important to understand some of what may have fueled your decision, the impact your decision may have had on everyone, and the type of work that will need to be done moving forward.
Not sure if your misstep actually qualifies as cheating? It can get a little murky. Individuals in relationships have their own nuanced expectations for loyalty — such as flirting is okay as long as things don’t get physical. Or, dating other people may be fine as long as your partner knows about it and they can do the same.
However, the American Psychological Association gives this basic definition of infidelity: when one partner in a marriage or intimate relationship becomes sexually or emotionally involved with someone outside the partnership, usually in secret.
Some research says that 25 percent of men and 15 percent of women have had sex outside their primary relationship, and those stats don’t even account for emotional infidelity.
Another 2011 study, which surveyed 506 men and 412 women, showed that nearly one quarter of the men (23.2 percent) and 19.2 percent of the women participants indicated that they had cheated while in a relationship.
How can you tell if your flirty activity has crossed the line into emotional infidelity? Look for these signs:
- You have more emotional intimacy with someone outside the relationship than with your partner.
- You use secrecy and deception to hide your actions.
- You have sexual chemistry with someone other than your partner.
So, with that in mind, the cheating barometer may ultimately come down to the level of physical or emotional connection you’ve established with someone other than your partner, and if you feel the need to keep that connection secret.
Common reasons for cheating
These are some of the general reasons a person might cheat on their partner, according to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy:
- dissatisfaction in the relationship (This may include sexual dissatisfaction or other causes.)
- dissatisfaction with yourself
- low self-esteem
- lack of affection in the relationship
- addiction to sex, love, or romance
- major life changes like having children or children moving away from home
A 2017 study of 484 adults showed that those who cheated in their first relationship during the study were 3 times as likely to cheat again in a subsequent relationship. However, that shouldn’t be used as definitive evidence that cheating will be a repeat occurrence for everyone who has done so.
It’s understandable why you may want to keep your cheating a secret from your partner. Any guilt that you feel might make you want to spare them any pain. You also may be tempted to justify the secrecy by saying, “it was only one time.”
The truth is, dishonesty that’s not dealt with can eat you alive, and it can eventually damage your relationship anyway.
Healing from infidelity begins with honesty and taking responsibility. And while everyone processes things differently, you should at least be prepared for your partner to react negatively to the truth.
Your partner may experience the following reactions:
- suicidal thoughts
- a sense of loss
- stress leading to post-traumatic stress disorder
- an obsession with details of the affair
- vigilance for more signs of betrayal
- physical hyperarousal
- intrusive images
While you’re obligated to be honest if you want to repair the relationship, sharing details of your cheating could further upset your partner. This is a big reason why having some form of support — preferably professional — is vital to the recovery process.
Some hopeful news: Many relationships do survive infidelity. How do you go from damaged trust to a healed and renewed relationship with your partner? Some type of intervention that includes working with a professional counselor is a good path to success.
Couples therapists are trained to help people communicate better, identify their goals for the relationship, and take steps toward those goals. After one or more partners have cheated in a relationship, counselors may use experiential therapy, emotion-focused therapy, or other therapeutic processes to help.
Systematic Affair Recovery Therapy (SART) is a therapy process developed by Dr. Talal Alsaleem to help partners recover from infidelity. Stages of the process include:
- setting the stage for healing
- getting the full story
- acknowledging the impact
- choosing a path forward
- creating a plan of action
- implementation and healing pains
The Gottman Institute uses three phases to help couples navigate infidelity.
- Atone. Full disclosure of the cheating. Take responsibility without defensiveness.
- Attune. Learn to handle conflict. Recommit and work toward building trust.
- Attach. Rebuild physical intimacy in the relationship.
Therapy practices are important to help those in relationships deal with the problems that led to cheating in the first place and establish healthier habits.
Here are 14 things therapists recommend doing to rebuild trust after cheating:
- Cut off contact with the person you cheated with.
- Emphasize safety for the harmed partner and forgiveness for the cheating partner.
- Journal to share feelings back and forth.
- Write an apology letter.
- Express remorse.
- Be willing to answer questions about your cheating.
- Apologize sincerely and promise not to do it again.
- Be transparent to restore trust. That may require daily check ins and reassurance.
- Apologize repeatedly.
- Show empathy and that you understand how you harmed your partner.
- Talk about intense feelings with respect. Don’t use blame, pass judgment, criticize, or express contempt.
- Connect emotionally and sexually.
- Both partners should practice self-care and self-compassion while they recover.
- Spend regular time together.
Therapist Terry Gaspard recommends these “rituals of connection” as quality ways to spend time with your partner daily:
- Eat meals together without the distraction of screens or devices.
- Spend 30 minutes in stress-reducing conversation.
- Exercise together.
- Enjoy a 6-second kiss.
- Keep going on dates, no matter how long you’ve been together.
Cheating can be harmful to everyone in a relationship, but there are ways to bounce back. If you and your partner want to work toward healing, you can take steps by being honest about your infidelity, open to acknowledging issues, and seeking professional support to help you rebuild trust.
You and your partner will likely experience a lot of emotions during the rebuilding process, but that’s to be expected. Seek professional support, like therapy, and lean on simple intimacy habits to get you to the next day.