The day Ava* decided to stop cheating on her partner started like any other. She woke up, poured herself a mug of coffee, did her makeup, got dressed. She drove her toddler to daycare, then herself to work. As she was getting out of her car, she heard the ping of an email — a note from her lover. They emailed often, and while at first his messages made her feel desirable and wanted, lately, she’d been feeling overwhelmed by the affair. This message, though, changed everything.
In a few, short paragraphs, Ava’s lover described a dinner he’d had with his wife, in which she’d expressed that he felt “distant.” As she read, Ava’s stomach dropped like she had just careened over a rollercoaster’s highest peak. “To hear that she had brought that up hit me like a ton of bricks and made it real for me,” Ava tells Refinery29. “I was picturing her, waiting for him to get home from work and having dinner ready for him. Noticing that her husband was acting different towards her, and working up the courage to share her worries about their marriage.”
One reason that particular image hit home for Ava is because she’d been in the wife’s position. Ava’s husband had cheated first, sustaining another relationship for two years, including while Ava was pregnant with their child. Though she’d suspected something was off for months, she’d actually found out about the cheating on her first Mother’s Day, after calling the vet to check in on their dog, who was sick and had stayed overnight; her husband’s mistress had called first, and the secretary unwittingly exposed the affair. It “completely destroyed me as a person,” Ava says.
Although her husband ended the affair, Ava struggled to recover. She was still trying to feel like herself again after giving birth, and learning about the infidelity felt like her partner had taken “a butcher’s knife” to her self-esteem.
After going through that pain, Ava didn’t set out to cheat herself — but when she reconnected with an old contact, 25 years her senior, at an industry event a year after learning of her husband’s cheating, their flirtations felt reaffirming, a reminder of her own attractiveness and worth. The flirting turned into a full-fledged emotional affair, which later turned physical. “We were both in an emotionally vulnerable place, so it was a ‘the stars aligned to start this’ type thing,” she remembers. Over the next year, Ava often felt guilty, but the relationship also made her feel like she was regaining her power and sense of self. “He helped me feel more confident and rebuild that part of myself that I had lost,” Ava says. “I felt validated.”
The email shattered the spell she’d been under. She couldn’t stop thinking about her lover’s wife, and even looked up photos of him and her on social media. “Looking at her face, I felt like the most horrible human,” Ava says. “I was doing the same thing to someone else that had been done to me. I thought, If she finds out, her world is going to end just like mine did.” Not long after getting the email, she called to end things with her lover. Six months after that, she left her husband.
Ava believes this email changed the course of her entire life. And in fact, many people who’ve strayed say that, similarly, they can point to one specific event that made them realise that they wanted to stop, says Moraya Seeger DeGeare, MA, LMFT, co-owner of BFF Therapy. “I think it’s many series of events that can lead up to someone deciding to stop cheating, but often it is a specific moment of clarity or moment of higher functioning that we pinpoint as the pivotal change,” explains DeGeare.
That pivotal event may be getting caught, but Tammy Nelson, PhD, a sex and relationship expert and author of When You’re the One Who Cheats, says that affairs often end when they either serve their purpose — for example, when they get you out of an unhappy marriage or scratch a sexual itch — or when a person realises that they’re not serving any purpose.
But figuring out what happens next can be complicated. No matter how a person decides to get out of an affair — by breaking up with the lover, or the primary partner, or both; by coming clean about the infidelity, or by keeping it a secret — after ending things or just deciding they want to end things in the future, many people benefit from looking at why they crossed a boundary in their relationship or with themselves in the first place.
Individual therapy can be helpful to someone going through this, says Damona Hoffman, OkCupid's dating coach and host of The Dates & Mates Podcast. Cheating is almost always more about the cheater than the person or people they’re cheating on or with. But many people who have been unfaithful deal with a deep sense of shame, which is, in part, reinforced by societal stereotypes that paint all cheaters as bad people. “Changing behaviour is hard, especially when it’s deeply tied to shame,” points out DeGeare. “If you’re feeling worthless deep down, it’s actually easier to continue with those behaviours than change behaviours that don’t match with how we see ourselves.” Therefore, that shame must be worked through in order for a person to be able to honestly look at why they cheat, and how they want to grow.
Sorting through a person’s motivations for infidelity can be much like detangling a delicate gold necklace chain — it’s slow work, and it requires time, dedication, and care. Someone’s first impulse might be to blame their partner, as Ava initially did. But oftentimes there’s internal work that needs to be done too. “Usually the process is doing deeper therapeutic work to understand the underlying beliefs and patterns that led you here,” Hoffman says.
One way of examining one’s motivations is by unpacking what straying did for them, DeGeare says. “It’s about asking, ‘What is making you put this energy out there that you’re available? Is it because you love the feeling of being wanted? What’s the reason for that?'” she says. “For example, is it because a parent was neglectful and never made you feel like you were enough or had all their attention? Is it time to go have a conversation with that parent if they’re still alive? How can you feel good about yourself on your own, without the validation of other people?”
Of course, there’s no one smoking gun that’s true for all situations. Affairs and the motivations for indulging in them are complex, as Ava's story reveals. Ultimately, Hoffman notes, almost all people who are trying to recover from an affair will need to do some self-inquiry to better understand their impulses, emotions, and motivations, while also showing themselves some understanding and self-love.
The work can be gruelling but is ultimately worth it. On the other side is an opportunity to live more authentically, and to build happier and more honest relationships. For example, some people who cheat realise that they want to explore their sexuality, their gender identity, or non-monogamy. Others realize that they’ve been stuck in an unhealthy pattern that’s affecting more than just their romantic relationships. “Sometimes an affair is a way to discover an alternative self,” Dr. Nelson adds. “It may not always be about finding a new person, but becoming a new person.”
That was true for Ava. After ending both her marriage and affair, she moved to a new town with her child and started going to therapy. “I discovered my self-worth again on my own, without a partner,” she says. “I grew my business and became a solid single mother who learned to co-parent with the one who broke my heart. In time, I felt whole and complete again. I worked out, I admitted awful things about myself, and I forgave myself.”
It may have been a long time coming, but when looking back at the story of her life, Ava can’t help but credit the events of that one morning — reading her lover’s email, feeling her stomach queasily drop — as her impetus for ending both her complicated affair and her mercurial marriage. Today, she still considers it one of the most important moments of her life, the final tug that unravelled what had previously seemed to be a hopelessly tangled knot of deceit.
*Name has been changed for privacy.