The Sex Files with Emily Morse

Can a Relationship Survive Cheating

Dear Emily,

I’ve been with my partner for 4 years and up until a month ago, I thought we were the perfect couple. Then I found out he cheated on me last year. It was a one-time thing with a woman he used to work with, and he swears that they didn’t keep in touch afterward. He confessed this all to me, and I got the sense that it had really been eating him up inside — for a good reason, clearly.

It goes without saying that I’m completely heartbroken, but I feel even more destroyed at the thought of ending the relationship. I do love him so much, and I know he’ll do anything to re-build my trust… I’m just not sure if love is enough to heal what’s been broken. So my question is, what now? Do I stay with him and try to work it out? Or should I cut my losses and make a clean break? Can a relationship actually survive cheating? And if so… How?

Betrayed and Confused

Dear Betrayed,

cheatingFirst of all, I’m sorry you’re going through this. No matter how it happens, finding out your partner has cheated on you is a devastating, earth-shattering, life-changing event. It’s normal to battle anger, sadness and deep, excruciating pain…oh and did I mention anger? You may switch from feeling calm one moment to wanting to burn all of his clothes the next. And that’s okay. Just remember that it is best not to make any big decisions while you’re screaming or crying, but rather wait until the storm has passed.

Only you can make that decision whether to stay or move on. Many couples go through this, so you’re not alone — there is hope. 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, but less than 50% call it quits! So, if you’re willing to do the work, rebuilding is possible.

It sounds like you’re not ready to let the relationship go and—despite the broken trust—you still love your partner. He’s admitted the betrayal and the good news is that he promises to do anything it takes to work it out. Plus, the fact that he told you the truth shows he’s desperate to start rebuilding towards a more honest relationship.

So how do you start down the long road to forgiveness, or look at him without seeing her? 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-cheating innocence. But the exciting thing about rebuilding is that you get to lay a new foundation and build something stronger and more fulfilling than before.

But how are you ever going to get the painfully specific image of him and his mistress doing the deed out of your mind? In one study of 1,083 betrayed spouses, those whose partners were the most honest about the affair felt better emotionally and reconciled more completely. If you haven’t already, now is the time to ask about any and all details you want to know. But first ask yourself: do you really want to know her dress size? If she’s a blonde or brunette? How many orgasms she had? If the answer is yes—ask away. Just be wary of asking for any details that may cause you even more pain.

I strongly recommend couples’ and individual therapy for both of you, and to start the work as soon as you can. It’s likely that there was a breakdown in communication long before he cheated. You’ll want to know the answer to why this happened so you can both avoid repeating the behavior and learn how to communicate in a healthy. It’s also best to set a limit on the time you spend talking about the affair outside therapy, usually 15 to 30 minutes per discussion at most.

The most important emotion to work through is resentment—this one’s a real killer. He should definitely be working towards making you feel safe, loved and valued, seeking revenge or punishing him will only make things harder. The road to forgiveness is a long one, so be gentle with yourself. Go at your own pace, reestablish what is important in your relationship, communicate your needs and determine what the rules are.

Recovering from an affair is not a one-size-fits-all process. It takes whatever it takes. After some time in therapy and open communication, you’ll start to feel better. You’ll have moments you don’t even think about the affair—even if it’s only while you’re sleeping (but then you’ll wake up and remember and want to run him over again). Even after months, the hurt can feel as fresh and deep as ever. This is a normal part of grief! You are mourning the loss of what your relationship used to be, an important step before the new one can begin.

Now is the time to start dating each other again and set aside quality time to do fun things—and then…. do each other! You have to reconnect on every level until it feels like a new normal. If you’re both willing to do the work, you’ll be surprised how much stronger and deeper your relationship can become. I truly believe cheating doesn’t have to mean the death of a relationship, it could be a rebirth. Hopefully, you’ll move through this time having gained a deeper understanding of yourself and your partner.

On the other hand, if this process feels like too much to bear, if love isn’t enough to heal what is broken and you find yourself truly unable or unwilling to move on, let him go. Either way, know that you’re making the decision that is best for you. You deserve a kick-ass future—with or without him.


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