There's a reason people say relationships take work. Every day, there are tiny triggers—from a restaurant bill to dirty dishes in the sink—that challenge your compatibility and your ability to communicate with each other. Larger conversations about moving in together or managing finances pose more significant challenges. And then, there is a complete betrayal. Nothing threatens a relationship or does more damage to your heart than a cheating partner. That broken trust can knock the wind out of you, destroy your faith in love and irreparably damage your partnership.
For some, cheating is a dealbreaker. Recovering from it requires breaking up, being on your own and eventually getting over the person who threw your world into chaos. For others, cheating doesn't mean the end of a relationship—but it does mean some things have to change if you're going to move forward together. Only you know what's right for you and nobody else should judge your decision in the wake of betrayal. But if you genuinely want to stay together, it's possible to repair the damage that's been done with time and plenty of effort.
"It is a long road to recovery when one partner cheats," licensed marriage and family therapist David Klow tells SELF. "Couples do and can stay together after an affair, but it takes a lot of work to repair broken trust."
So what steps are required to rebuild that trust and move forward in positively? Every relationship is different, and there's no pat prescription that works for everyone. However, some behavioral shifts can help bring you closer and repair the damage that's been done.
Part of what makes infidelity so painful is the constant need to question what led to it. In order to move forward, you need to be able to ask your partner questions and gather all the honest information about who, what and how it happened. It's not always the kind of conversation that can be wrapped up in one sitting and you should be expected to "just get over it" once you've hashed out the course of events. However, the more fixated you are on the past infidelity, the harder it will be to repair the relationship in its current state.
"It's not healthy to deny the emotions that you might have about the affair or other hurtful experiences," writes YourTango's advice columnists Susie and Otto Collins. "At the same time, it's inaccurate and harmful to live in the past."
They advise noticing every-time something triggers a reminder of the past betrayal, and what emotional response it brings out in you—whether it's rage, disgust or self-blame. "When you do, take a deep breath, pause and return to the present moment," they suggest. "Ask yourself if your perception, words, and actions are a fit for what's happening now."
Maybe your partner is doing all the work to repair your trust, maybe you're even in a better place together than you were before it happened, but the initial shock from the day you found out continues to haunt you. It's okay if you just can't get past it, but if you're open to trying, reminding yourself to be present "will allow you to see and appreciate the improvements that are possibly going on in your relationship," according to the experts at YourTango.
Creating an Honesty Policy
Cheating isn't just a physical betrayal; it's an emotional one as well. Sometimes, cheaters are more compelled by the act of keeping secrets from their partner than anything, or anyone, else. "To repair relationship trust, cheaters must not only come clean — in a general way, with the guidance of an experienced couple's counselor — about what they have done, they must also become rigorously honest about all other aspects of their life, both in the moment and moving forward," writes relationship expert Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S in Psychology Today. "Basically, cheaters must make a commitment to living differently and abiding by certain boundaries, the most important of which is ongoing rigorous honesty about absolutely everything, all the time."
The goal is to break the pattern of hiding things in their relationship, and to learn that openness—even if it upsets their partner—is the key to rebuilding long-term trust.
"When cheaters become rigorously honest, they tell their significant other about everything — not just the stuff that's convenient or that they think will hurt their partner the least," explains Weiss. "With rigorous honesty, cheaters tell the truth, and tell it faster, keeping their spouse in the loop about every aspect of life — spending, trips to the gym, gifts for the kids, issues at work, needing to fertilize the lawn, and, of course, any social interactions that their partner might not approve of."
Sometimes, infidelity is a symptom of larger communication issues within the relationship. That doesn't mean you're to blame for your partner's affair. However, if you want to get to the root of the issue, you may have to examine some topics you'd previously avoided, with the help of a counselor.
"An affair can actually be the thing that saves a relationship," psychotherapist Tina B. Tessina tells Prevention. "If the cheater realizes it's a big mistake and seeks to understand why he or she was tempted, and the betrayed spouse is willing to look at what might have been missing in the relationship, both of them can repair the damage and actually make the relationship stronger."
The more comfortable you become with sharing your needs—no matter how taboo they once seemed—the more you'll understand each other and the closer you'll become.
"Understanding these dynamics and learning to discuss what went wrong in the relationship, apologize and make changes will give both partners much more insight into themselves and their marriage—and might even help to make their relationship affair-proof in the future," adds Tessina.
Focus On Yourself
If you've ever been cheated on by a partner, you know the toll it takes on your own well-being. In order to heal together, you first need to make space for self-care. Give yourself time away from your partner in order to heal on your own. Treat yourself tenderly and avoid self-blame at all costs. You are not responsible for someone else's actions, and you shouldn't be punished for them.
"Take it one day at a time and start prioritizing healthy habits, like going to the gym and starting therapy, to help you rebuild your life and your relationship." couples therapist Ian Kerner tells Prevention.
The more you reaffirm your independence, the more you'll remember who you are as an individual. Ultimately, that will allow you to make a clearer decision about whether or not you want to work on your relationship in a healthy way.
"People who recover from infidelity are usually able to go within themselves and recapture their center of power," adds Kerner. "They actually end up stronger and more resilient than before the affair."
When your partner cheats it doesn't just do damage to your relationship, it can rupture your confidence, self-worth, and faith in others. What you need to remember is that it isn't your fault, and whatever decision you decide to make moving forward is the right one. You will get through this, and over time, it might even make you stronger—as a couple, but more importantly, as an individual.