Cheating Happens — Here's How To Heal

Photographed by Jessica Nash.
In a new mini-series with help from therapist and relationship coach Esther Perel, we're exploring relationship myths perpetuated by rom-coms and fairytales. Yesterday, we discussed whether or not fighting is a sign of a bad relationship. Today, we return to the subject of cheating — and whether it's a forgivable offense.

Q: My partner cheated. Should I forgive and forget? Or should I just end it?

A: Whether or not you leave is not so cut-and-dry, despite what your friends feeding you shots might say. "People always say to leave. It's what I call the 'new shame,' where people think that if you choose to stay with someone, there's something wrong with you, that you have low self-esteem," Perel says. "But the affair is not the sum total of a whole relationship. We can't think so immediately in black and white. Life is way too complex to have one answer that fits everybody."

If cheating is an ongoing problem, and it happens multiple times, then the issue has more to do with the cheater than with the relationship — and "dump that jerk" might be the best option. But, if the affair was a one-time thing after years of monogamy, consider working through the issues, Perel advises. "Sometimes, working things out and understanding what happened in the relationship makes the relationship more resilient," she says.

So, forgive and forget — maybe — but how? "First of all, you never forget," Perel says. "And you can forgive, but only partially at first. Forgiving is at the end of the journey."

The first step is to rebuild the trust that was shattered with the affair. Someone who cheated needs to recognize that he or she has hurt a partner, and acknowledge it. Then, "[that person needs] to become really attentive, make sure they can be trusted again, not leave their partner in a state where they have to worry," Perel says. "Be more reassuring than usual, make them feel they really matter. If infidelity tells me I'm not that special, then one of the ways to heal from that is to once again show that I do matter."

The second step is to ask questions — but only those that matter. "Why did it happen; what's the meaning?" Perel says. "An affair has a meaning, a storyline — and understanding that is important for healing." But, stay away from the sordid details (the "when, who, where, how many times" sort of queries). "You want questions with answers that calm you, not agitate you," Perel says, "and if you flood yourself with these details, it doesn't help you understand what the affair was about. It just makes you more anxious."

In the end, if your partner cheated, it's not on you to force yourself to rebuild that trust. It's on your partner. "Two people are responsible for the state of the relationship, and one person is responsible for the affair," Perel says. "And it's very hard to forgive somebody who doesn't take responsibility."
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