~ May, 2021, ~ When someone says they’ve been cheated on, it’s easy to react with empathetic outrage and imagine a reality TV-style confrontation. But infidelity is not a new concept—as long as relationships have existed, someone has been transgressing whatever “rules” had been set up for them. Heartbreak-rage-move on is a formula that has fed every kind of pop culture for centuries, from the Bible to movie melodramas. Lifelong monogamy is still a cultural ideal.
It’s easy to assume that infidelity would spell an automatic end to a partnership, but it’s not that simple—and that’s a good thing. Greater social equality between men and women, the rise of relationship and sex experts like Esther Perel, and diminishing stigma around going to therapy have all made it easier for couples to think beyond a binary “stay together or break up” choice in the wake of an intimate betrayal.
But that doesn’t mean it’s actually gotten easier to move forward when one partner cheats on another. If there is one thing experts agree on when it comes to dealing with infidelity, it’s that while recovery is possible, rebuilding a healthy relationship is hard work.
“It is a long road to recovery when one partner cheats,” licensed marriage and family therapist David Klow, owner of Skylight Counseling Center in Chicago, says. “Couples do and can stay together after an affair, but it takes a lot of work to repair broken trust.” Klow says most couples don’t recover when one cheats but “those that do can emerge stronger from having gone through the process of recovering from the affair.”
It takes time, however. He says he’s seen it take at least a year, but it’s usually up to two years for a couple to heal.
Manhattan-based licensed clinical psychologist Joseph Cilona, Psy.D., says that, due to the sensitive nature of the topic, it’s hard to know for sure how many couples stay together after infidelity. “Despite the ambiguous statistics, it seems reasonable to speculate that more couples are staying together after infidelity than not,” he says.
There are a few factors that make a couple more likely to try to work it out, psychologist Paul Coleman, Psy.D., author of Finding Peace When Your Heart Is In Pieces, says —namely, whether they have strong commitments to one another like children or a house. “If a couple is dating or just started living together, there is less of a need to go through the work of rebuilding trust,” he says.
The cheating has to stop
Experts say there are a lot of things that need to happen in order for a couple to move on. The first, and most important, is for the cheating to stop. “The person who cheated cannot see the person they cheated with again,” says Klow.
Washington, D.C.-based Lena Derhally, M.S., L.PC., and certified Imago therapist, agrees. “I think it’s a waste of time if you’re working through an affair and the person is still seeing the other person, because there’s no trust there,”.
Total honesty is essential
After it’s clear that the affair is over, Derhally guides her clients through a process in which the person who was cheated on can as as many questions as they want about what happened. This can take multiple sessions, and it depends on complete honesty.
“Some people want to know everything about the affair,” Derhally says. “They want to know where it happened, how many times. Some people don’t want to know as much information. What’s scary about affairs is there’s a lot of unknowns. Then you kind of move the process of being able to vent your feelings to your partner and the process of your partner being able to receive that forgiveness.”
Trust has to be rebuilt
“Betrayal is the most damaging part of an affair,” Klow says. “The person who was cheated on usually struggles to know what is real anymore. Their ability discern what is real gets damaged.”
To try to repair this, Derhally says the person who cheated needs to be completely honest, even if it will seemingly hurt their spouse more, since continuing to hide the truth can cause even more damage.
That includes letting the partner who was cheated on see emails and cell phones, which Coleman calls “random ‘drug tests.’” “It seems like the cheater is now on probation, and that is not ideal, but the betrayed partner needs to rebuild trust and faith,” he says. “Knowing they can check on their partner’s phone or computer is a bit reassuring.”
Handing over email and social media passwords can be another sign of trustworthiness. “Giving passwords, things like that, it’s a gift that someone who’s betrayed you gives that says, ‘You can have 100 percent trust in me and you can look through my things and you can do what you need to do,’” Derhally says. “There’s many people I’ve worked with who are very willing to give their passwords and things like that to their spouse.”
Of course, technology can make it possible for cheaters to continue behaving badly without leaving a record by deleting apps from their phones or communicating with affair partners through things like Snapchat. “What I’ve started seeing now, unfortunately, is that there’s ways to still hide things,” Derhally says. “Not to scare people, but that is a challenge.”
Underlying issues must be addressed
It’s also important for the couple to evaluate the relationship’s issues beyond the cheating. “A troubled relationship is not an excuse for cheating, but if improvements can be made in broader areas—communication, time together, sex, etc.—it can be reassuring to both that cheating is less likely to occur,” Coleman says.
“A major thing with couples is always to have them realise that there are two people there, and each person has to own their stuff, because blame is a big deal,” Sherry Amatenstein, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist, says. She also says that it’s important to take advantage of whatever communication skills couples always have, even if they’re not perfect. “I work on having people own their stuff. If they’re willing to get out all their repressed stuff and learn how to communicate better, that certainly can be a help.”
The cheater also needs to not only take full responsibility for the betrayal, but to show patience and understanding that healing from their actions is a long process, Cilona says.
Together, start over again
Finally, the couple has to essentially recreate their relationship. “The couple needs to let go of the parts of their [partnership] which were not working, and then move towards creating a new dynamic in the relationship,” Klow says. “Couples can emerge from an affair with a better sense of who they each are and what they want from their relationship.”
Amatenstein agrees. “It’s not going to be the same, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be strong in some ways stronger than it was originally,” she says. “But you can forge something through it.”
Experts say it’s possible for couples to go on to have a happy relationship after infidelity, provided they’re willing to put in the work. “The couple can survive and grow after an affair,” says Coleman. “They have to—otherwise the relationship will never be gratifying.”
But couples who do decide to separate after an affair can still benefit from therapy, especially if they have children. “I always say that couples therapy is not about, ‘Oh wow, the marriage is saved. Because that’s not always gonna be the best outcome,” Amatenstein says. “If each person learns from it and can move on and be in each others lives when they have kids, that’s absolutely a success.”