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Illustration by Marta Pucci

How to Deal With Infidelity

Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Katherine Hertlein,
created by Blueheart
created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness
Date published:
8/11/2022
Last updated:
8/11/2022
Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Laura Vowels,
created by Blueheart
created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness
Date published:
8/11/2022
Last updated:
8/11/2022

TL;DR

  • Finding out your partner has cheated on you can be devastating, but it doesn’t have to mean the end if you don’t want it to.
  • Infidelity can happen for many reasons, though it’s thought that often it is due to a lack of satisfaction with the relationship or an inability to communicate effectively.
  • If you find out your partner has been unfaithful, it’s important to take some time to process and think about what you want.
  • In our practice as relationship therapists, we use a tried and tested process to help couples work through everything that’s happened and be in a position to make a decision about what comes next.

 

Finding out that your partner has been unfaithful can be utterly heartbreaking. In that moment, plans made for a lifetime are thrown into disarray and dreams turn to nightmares.

But your partner cheating on you doesn’t have to mean all is lost. As the dust settles and you have time to come to terms with what has happened, you may feel your romantic relationship is worth another shot, or at least not worth giving up on quite yet.

As experienced sex and relationship therapists we work with couples who have been impacted by extramarital affairs and sexual infidelity. We help them work through their feelings, process everything that has gone on, and decide whether they truly see a future together. And if it’s the choice they both want to make, we'll help set them on the path towards a more committed relationship, a stronger relationship. And a new start.

Why does infidelity happen?

Infidelity is not black and white. It can mean different things to different people. The dictionary definition of infidelity is “the action or state of being unfaithful to a spouse or other sexual partner", but it doesn’t specify how that unfaithfulness shows itself. Online infidelity or emotional infidelity, for example, may not even involve a physical relationship, but can be just as damaging to a marriage or partnership.

In a 2020 study in the Journal of Qualitative Research in Health Sciences, scientists identified that the “majority of male and female participants mentioned sexual dissatisfaction (low quantity and quality) and emotional dissatisfaction as the main reason for their unfaithfulness” but anecdotally we find that a lack of empathy and effective communication skills can be just as much of an issue.

When we are prepared to be open, honest and vulnerable with our partner about how we are feeling, very often small things can be resolved before they become bigger niggles.

How to cope if your partner cheats on you?

No matter how you find out, news that your partner has been unfaithful is bound to come as a shock. You’ll feel a mixture of intense emotions that will take some time to process. That’s why it’s important you take a step back and give yourself time and space to do just that.

Some tips:

  • Talk to a trusted friend or family member. Choose someone you know will listen without judgement or opinion.
  • Try some healthy ways to give you brain a break from the strain, think meditation or relaxation techniques rather than resorting to alcohol or narcotics. As tempting as it may be, they will rarely help the situation.
  • If children are old enough, don’t be afraid to be honest with them about the situation. This will help them process everything in a healthier way. But try to remain balanced and not let negative emotions cloud your message.
  • It’s important to consider the situation in its entirety. It may feel that nothing can excuse your cheating partner’s behavior, but were there cracks in the relationship that should or could have been addressed earlier? Are there reasons the offending partner may have felt dissatisfied?
  • Get clear in your own mind where your boundaries are, and if you surprise yourself by finding they are not as cut and dried as you thought they were, that’s OK. Don’t feel pressure from the outside to behave in a certain way. Other people have no idea about your relationship and all its complexities. What is right for them may not be right for you.
  • Don’t be afraid to be honest and ask for the same courtesy from your partner. If you are to get things back on track, the least you can expect is honesty and vulnerability. It goes both ways.
  • Consider whether counselling might be a useful way forward. Discussing things with a marriage counselor or other relationship expert can give you a different perspective and help you focus on what needs to be discussed.

The role of relationship counselling when one partner has been unfaithful

Relationship or marriage counseling really can be useful to take the heat out of the situation and allow a time and a place for productive discussions.

We have a tried and tested method that we use in practice thanks to years of experience working with infidelity and unfaithfulness issues. It’s a process we work through together and each of the steps is just as important as all the others:

1. The unfaithful partner should acknowledge the betrayal

No matter the reasons behind the infidelity, the fact of the matter is that one partner went against a written or unwritten commitment to a monogamous relationship. Denying or diminishing that with a “yes, but…” every time it is brought up won’t get anyone anywhere.

That’s why we ask that you both acknowledge the betrayal that has gone on.

2. Don’t skip to the end

We encourage you to set aside any thoughts as to the outcome of the work. Don’t predict the ending of the story, as that will come later. This is a process and it’s important to work through it with an open mind and without making any assumptions.

3. Learn how to manage the emotions

It’s natural for there to be a lot of negative emotions tied up in infidelity - anger, hurt and sadness, for example. And it’s likely they’ll be felt on both sides.

Both parties should have the opportunity to feel their feelings, express them honestly and be listened to. As a partnership moving forward you’ll find that these feelings don’t go away overnight, so having a plan or strategy for how to deal with them can make a huge difference.

4. Do you need to know everything?

If your partner cheated on you, do you feel you need to know all the sordid details? Do you want to know the whos, whens and how oftens? For some people, this information is vital to help them understand, accept and move past. Others would, quite frankly, rather not know.

There is no right or wrong answer here, but this is an important decision for you to make.

5. Agree support mechanisms

As you go forward and make your fresh start, don’t be fooled into thinking the whole infidelity thing will completely fade away. It won’t! There will be flashbacks, feelings of guilt, anxiety, panic etc, and they may come from the most unlikely of triggers at any time.

The best thing you can do is make some decisions up front about what you need from one another at the point this occurs. How will you support each other? It’s vital that any strong feelings in this area are dealt with swiftly and compassionately and you’re not tempted to re-engage in the blame game.

6. Agree on some healthy changes

If there are issues within your relationship or things that haven’t previously been addressed, now is the time for honesty. It is often the case that infidelity, however unforgivable, is an indicator of underlying issues, dissatisfaction and poor communication. Get to the bottom of those things while you have the opportunity and you’ll be setting yourself up for a much healthier future relationship.

7. Check in after completing the steps above

Take the time to put your new skills into practice and discuss how you’re feeling now, openly and honestly.

Then all that’s left is to make a decision. There is no right or wrong answer here. Do what’s best for both of you, consider any children or dependents you have. And if you commit to staying together, commit to also making those positive changes that you identified above. 

Whichever way you decide to go, it will take time and patience to heal completely. Make sure you give yourself the space you need, take care of yourselves and look after your mental health in the process.

(1) Fathi, M., Satar, P., Javadeyan, S., Javadeyan, S. (2020). 'Comparing the Causes of Infidelity in Marital Relationships among Men and Women: A Qualitative Research', Journal of Qualitative Research in Health Sciences, 5(4), pp. 401-418.
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