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Healing From Infidelity: Practical Steps for Moving Forward

African American couple fighting

Infidelity often makes headline news whether the president or your favorite celebrity is the subject-matter. Despite its pervasiveness, why does cheating still have such a shock-factor? Maybe because it destroys our image of what a “perfect” relationship looks like.

Since infidelity is a common reality, perhaps the conversation should shift from whether people will cheat to how to heal from infidelity. We cannot always predict or control the behavior of others, but we can control how we react to and recover from it.

Have you been in a relationship where your partner has betrayed your trust? Are you confused about how to move forward?

Whether you decide to stay in the relationship or not, here is how you can heal from infidelity and grow through the experience.

Types of Infidelity

Infidelity occurs when a committed partner or sexual partner cheats. Everyone defines cheating differently, but it’s usually based on spoken and unspoken agreements within a relationship. That said, it is good practice to clearly define what infidelity is to you so both parties are clear and there are no gray areas.

Emotional Affair

What is an emotional affair? When a partner shares ongoing emotional intimacy with someone else. Essentially, when you cross boundaries set in your relationship and it begins affecting your relationship, it can be defined as an emotional affair. It could look like:

  • Spending hours on the phone exchanging personal information

  • Telling them things you don’t share with your partner

  • Becoming easily irritated by your partner after interacting with the other person

  • Lying or sneaking around to communicate with the other person

Sexual Affair

A sexual affair is when a partner engages in any form of sexual relations with another person. Examples include:

  • Sexting

  • Mutual masturbation

  • Full-blown sexual intercourse

  • Oral sex

Aside from the examples given here, a sexual affair can comprise any sexual behaviors that you consider inappropriate or that cross the boundaries set within your relationship.

Romantic Infidelity

This type of infidelity occurs when a partner seeks intimacy outside. You may notice they’re emotionally distant and it may or may not include sexual intimacy. Romantic affairs can feel like a full-blown relationship as the can comprise romance, sex, and attachment. Sometimes, the person who had the affair leaving the relationship for their newfound love.

Other Types of Infidelity

  • Financial infidelity: Lying to your partner about money, taking out new credit accounts, or incurring debt without telling your significant other. This may also include spending money on or providing resources for someone outside of the relationship.

  • Non-romantic cheating: Less about intimacy and more about sex. It could be influenced by a desire to fulfill unmet sexual needs.

The Process of Healing

Infidelity is a form of betrayal that cuts deep and leaves indelible scars. Finding out someone you committed to betrayed your trust can shatter your world and relationship. Research bolsters this, suggesting infidelity is damaging to relationships and the well-being of the person who has been betrayed. In some instances, it can even provoke trauma responses like shock, denial, flashbacks, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or panic attacks.

How do you deal with the aftermath of infidelity? Do you let go or stay and try to work it out? This is a looming question for many that doesn’t have a straightforward answer.

There is no cookie cutter process for healing from infidelity, it will look different for each person. However, there are some fundamental things you can do to facilitate your own healing and ensure you’re on a healthy path to recovery.

Here are a few steps you can take if you decide to stay in the relationship or walk away from it.

If The Relationship Continues...

Many people have an opinion about what to do or what they would do after a partner cheats, but it’s hard to say until you’re in the situation. When deciding whether to leave or stay, think about what you want, not what others think is best for you.

Know that affair recovery is possible, your relationship can survive infidelity. That said, it may not be the easiest road to travel. If both parties are determined to do the work, your relationship can become stronger and you can experience a deeper connection.

Be transparent: To move forward, it’s important the partner who cheated is honest about what happened. If you're the betrayed, ask all the you need to as it could help you process the trauma. It is best, however, to avoid questions that detail sexual behaviors, special places, and events, as they are more likely to form concrete reminders.

This process of “ripping off the band aid” can be painful but better than finding out more information later and restarting the entire process.

It may be best to go through this process with a therapist so it’s structured and not a series of counterproductive explosions that re-traumatize the betrayed partner. A therapist can help you keep the communication respectful and productive.

Acknowledge the problems in the relationship: A 2020 study by the Journal of Sex Research explored what some of the motivations are for people who cheat. One of the primary motivators was dissatisfaction with the relationship. By no means does this justify infidelity, but it’s one reason addressing problems in your relationship is critical. By doing so, you can move forward and create a relationship where both people’s needs are met.

Find ways to rebuild trust: Be clear about what it’s going to take for you to trust your partner again and agree on what steps you’ll take in your daily lives. This could include cutting communication with the person they had an affair with or providing access to their social media account, for instance. It’s critical that trust also goes both ways. If you’re choosing to stay and work things out, your partner needs to feel safe. In other words, they should know you’re working towards forgiving them and won’t punish them for their mistake forever.

Decide you want to move forward: This means trying not to continue punishing your partner for infidelity. Constantly bringing up what they did can be counterproductive to your healing and the progress of your relationship. It’s also important for both partners to know that there may still be questions that need exploring and, while they will decrease over time, creating a space for answering them without blame or defensiveness is necessary.

Consider counseling: Both couples/marriage counseling and individual counseling can be an excellent way to navigate the murky waters of infidelity. There are trained professionals capable of giving you and your partner the tools you need to move forward and rebuild a loving relationship.

If The Relationship Ends...

Grieve the loss of the relationship: Grief isn’t only reserved for physical death, you can grieve the ending of a relationship too. You have lost a connection, dreams, and a huge part of your life. Feel the range of emotions that accompany loss--don’t suppress them.

Find someone to confide in: This could be trusted friends, a family member or a professional. Venting and working through your emotions can help you during the recovery process.

Take your time: Healing isn't a race, you can take as long as you need to get through the betrayal and breakup. Give yourself tiny goals like doing one self-care activity a day or journaling about your thoughts. Also, manage your expectations. It’s ok to feel like you’re over it one day and then sob uncontrollably the next. Healing isn’t a straight path.

Don’t blame yourself: Infidelity and the end of your relationship isn’t your fault or a failure. It is our job to prioritize our healing and learn from the experiences we encounter.

Allow yourself to trust again: Just because one partner was unfaithful, it doesn’t mean all will be. It isn't easy trusting again, but you deserve a loving and trusting relationship and it’s possible to have one! If you’re struggling to work through it alone, consider seeking the help of a therapist, finding a FB community, or reading books.

Healing from infidelity isn’t the easiest task, but it’s one you’re equipped for. With the right resources and support, you can find peace and love again.

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