A recent study by the US Journal of Marital and Family Therapy showed that 57% of men and 54% of women admit to cheating at least once. We just need to look to the recent Ashley Madison hack—a website that facilitates 'discrete' affairs—and the bevy of celebrity divorces spurred by another incident with a nanny (hiring a hot nanny—never a good idea!) to know this to be true.
You scan the headlines and think one of two things: "If this ever happened to me, I'd leave my partner faster than you can say 'child support'", or, "Thank God that would never happen in my relationship." Until one day, out of nowhere, it does. You read a mysterious text, stumble on a suspicious Facebook conversation, or worse yet, walk into a horrible naked situation where you're the only one with clothes on.
No matter how it happens, finding out your partner has cheated on you is a devastating, earth-shattering, life-changing event. Your emotional state is like a blizzard: seemingly calm one moment, then wanting to throw the contents of the closet over the balcony and burn them in the yard the next. You battle anger, betrayal, sadness and deep, excruciating pain. And then more anger. The bottom has dropped out of your life as you know it. And you have a decision to make:
Should I stay, or should I go? Despite the broken trust, and even though you swore you'd never stay with a cheater, you realize you still love your partner, who admits to the atrocities, promises to end it immediately and wants to work it out. And so do you.
So what happens next? How do you start to forgive and move down the long road of rebuilding trust? Is it possible to ever go back to how things were? The truth is, it isn't. If you make the decision to stay with your partner, you can never get back to the pre-affair innocence. But the good news is that it IS possible to recover and come back stronger than ever.
First, talk it out. You're going to have a lot of questions. Write them down if you have to. You're allowed to ask about any detail you want to know, and your partner should be willing to answer every one. This may seem counterintuitive—how are you ever going to get the painfully specific image of him and his mistress on a beach in St. Tropez out of your mind? But honesty heals. In one study of 1,083 betrayed husbands and wives, those whose partners were the most honest felt better emotionally and reconciled more completely. But before asking your questions, ask yourself: do you really want to know her dress size? If she's got different colored hair to you? How many orgasms she had? If the answer is yes, ask away. But be wary of using details to cause yourself more pain. It's best to set a limit on the time you spend talking about the affair each time, usually 15 to 30 minutes at most.
Then, work on it. You've raged. You've cried. You've thrown things. Now it's time to heal. With the help of a professional, try to address the core issues that led to cheating. Couples and individual therapy for both parties is recommended. This isn't something you want to think about in the early days after finding out, but when you're ready, go there. It's likely that one or both of you had a breakdown in communication long before the affair. If you've decided to stay, you'll want to know the answer to why. Learning to communicate will help to prevent this from ever happening again.
Remember, recovering from an affair is not a one-size-fits-all process. It takes whatever it takes. After therapy and open communication, you'll start to feel better. You'll have moments you don't even think about the affair. (Perhaps while you're sleeping.) But then you'll wake up and remember and want to run your partner over. The hurt can feel as fresh and deep as ever. This is a normal part of grief! It's a process, not a recipe to get right. Be patient with yourself. You'll probably want revenge. But the most important emotion to work through is resentment. This one's a real killer. If you've chosen to stay, punishing your partner will end up doing more harm to your relationship. The road to forgiveness is a long one, so be gentle with yourself. Go at your own pace. You get to reestablish what is important in your relationship. What your needs are. What the rules are. And you both get to play by them.
Lastly, reframe your mindset. Instead of seeing an affair as the death of the relationship, try to think of it as a rebirth. Hopefully, you'll move through this time having gained a deeper understanding of yourself and your partner. Take this as an opportunity to connect with friends and family. Belonging to a community outside of your relationship will help you feel loved and less isolated. A time when the affair doesn't consume your thoughts may seem far away, but it doesn't have to be. Start dating each other again. Set aside time to do fun things, and then do each other. If you're both willing to do the work, you may be surprised by how much stronger and deeper your relationship can become.
Dr. Emily Morse is a sex and relationship expert with degrees in human sexuality and psychology. She runs the popular website sexwithemily.com and is the host of the top downloaded podcast Sex with Emily.
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