In modern love and dating, the definition of cheating has expanded. Today, cheating is defined beyond the physical one night stand, and now includes emotional cheating. But it gets even more complicated given that infidelity is a subjective term that is uniquely defined by each couple. It could encompass flirting to texting and social media exchanges, in addition to physical intimacy. Similarly, a one night stand, for example, might be forgivable in one partnership, while in others, it is interpreted as the ultimate act of betrayal. "Couples sometimes don't realize until an affair is uncovered that they have different ideas about what is acceptable in their relationships with others outside of their relationship," says Heather Z Lyons, Ph.D, a licensed psychologist and couples therapist with Baltimore Therapy Group.
For those who view this sexual act a painful breach of trust, perhaps the most difficult question to answer is whether the relationship can survive. Experts say that it is possible to repair a relationship after someone cheats, and that it is helpful to try to understand why it happened, rather than focusing on who was involved and how it happened.
Why Infidelity Is So Painful
Esther Perel, a psychotherapist, author, and host of popular relationship podcast "Where Should We Begin?" writes in The Atlantic that infidelity produces so much emotional turbulence that psychologists use vocabulary from the field of trauma to describe it. They use terms like obsessive rumination, inexplicable rages, and uncontrollable panic. "Infidelity today isn’t just a violation of trust; it’s a shattering of the grand ambition of romantic love. It is a shock that makes us question our past, our future, and even our very identity," explains Perel. Put plainly, intimate betrayal hurts. "It hurts badly," writes Perel.
Why People Cheat
The path to infidelity is complex and different for everyone. Between "insecure attachment, conflict avoidance, prolonged lack of sex, loneliness, or just years of rehashing the same old arguments," Perel writes, "many adulterers are motivated by domestic discord." Other times, cheating "can also be liberating and empowering," and have less (or absolutely nothing) to do with a partner, and everything to do with how the cheater attempts to connect to themselves. Adds Perel, "Understanding both sides is crucial, whether a couple chooses to end the relationship or intends to stay together, to rebuild and revitalize."
While no one can make excuses for anyone who is unfaithful, we are all capable of making mistakes—from a one night stand with the attractive bartender, to realizing we've crossed some sort of emotional boundary with the co-worker we've been texting non-stop and sharing inside jokes with. As flawed human beings who make mistakes, we may be deserving of second chances. Working together as a couple to fix the problem could mean ending up with a stronger bond and better communication than you had before the infidelity.
Rebuilding the Relationship After Someone Cheats
It's worth repeating that experts say rebuilding a relationship after infidelity isn't an easy road to travel. However, a relationship may be able to survive infidelity if the offending party is willing to:
- Take responsibility for their actions: "While full disclosure is painful, it allows for transparency, verification, and vulnerability," writes Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW, in a blog post for The Gottman Institute, which provides live relationships workshops and take-home training materials for couples.
- Recognize the pain they've caused: “The wounded partner will feel the stirrings of new faith only after multiple proofs of trustworthiness. Atonement cannot occur if the cheater insists that the victim take partial blame for the affair,” writes couples therapist Dr. John Gottman, founder of The Gottman Institute, in his book "What Makes Love Last?"
- Prioritize the relationship: The person who cheated needs to be on board with whatever you need from them to rebuild the lost trust and fully commit to your relationship again. For example, call when you say you will, and be home on time. "Make yourself and your schedule an open book," writes Sheri Meyers, Psy.D, a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist in Los Angeles, and author of "Chatting or Cheating," for HuffPost.
If you were the person cheated on and agree to repair the relationship, ask yourself if you are willing to:
- Forgive: Gaspard writes that forgiving doesn't mean condoning the cheating. Starting with a clean slate, however, will help set the foundation to recommit to each other moving forward. Plus, Gaspard points to research that suggests forgiveness is a key component of the healing process.
- Move forward: Ask yourself whether you have enough admiration and respect left to salvage the relationship, writes Gaspard. It won't be easy, but if you believe it's worth it, then forge ahead, together.