The fallout that comes along with cheating on your partner can be unpleasant. You have to deal with your feelings of guilt in addition to your partner’s hurt and anger. However, it is possible to heal after the damage has been done.
Julienne Derichs, a licensed clinical professional counselor, says healing from an affair can be a complicated dance, one that involves multiple parts. “There are three stages couples go through while healing from an affair: 1.) stabilizing and working through your feelings, 2.) deciding whether to recommit or quit, and 3.) rebuilding your relationship. Even though infidelity has a devastating impact on marriages, many do survive,” Derichs told The Cheat Sheet.
With that in mind, here are 10 steps you must take to save your relationship.
1. Recognize it was a betrayal
One of the reasons it can be so difficult to recover from cheating is that it is a betrayal. It can be hard to trust others after experiencing such deep hurt. Your partner will likely still feel the impact of your indiscretion for years to come. Dr. Stan Tatkin, assistant clinical professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and author of Wired for Love, tells us being on the receiving end of cheating could even cause the victim to experience post traumatic stress.
Cheating is a betrayal. … It involves the reveal of some information where things aren’t what they seemed. Your partner seems to be monogamous and then you find out he or she isn’t. The reveal of something like that can cause PTSD or PTSD-like symptoms. This is because you thought things were a certain way, and you thought your partner was a certain way, and suddenly the world has changed. He or she is not who you thought, and things aren’t as they seemed. Now that is in the case of major betrayal, where the reveal is so head-spinning, that the person’s brain can’t do anything other than re-sort that information.
Tatkin says these symptoms are generally manifested in the form of mood instability, nightmares or sleep problems, and obsessions revolving around who the cheater is or was. In addition, he says it’s important the perpetrator not push back against these emotions or punish his or her partner for feeling the way they do.
2. Get to the bottom of why you had the affair
Cheating doesn’t usually just happen. Take the time to discover exactly why you felt the need to be unfaithful. Were you feeling neglected? Were you bored? Were you angry at your partner? Without assigning blame, get to the root of the problem and try to understand what made you react to problems in your relationship by seeking comfort, excitement, or support from someone new.
“It’s not enough to tell your partner you were unhappy or tempted. He or she needs to know why you chose to react by cheating. The only way for trust to be rebuilt is for your partner to know that if the circumstances that led you to cheat ever reoccur, your response will be different,” said Lesli Doares, a couples consultant, coach, and author of Blueprint for a Lasting Marriage.
Offer a sincere apology for your actions. You might assume your partner knows you’re sorry, but it is important to verbally express your regret. Another thing to remember is that your apology shouldn’t come with excuses or finger pointing. Set your pride aside and let your partner know you’re sorry for cheating and that you no longer wish to exhibit the same behavior.
Some experts suggest writing an apology letter. This can be a less stressful way to express everything you want to say. Apologizing can be nerve wracking, so it’s not unusual to forget what you want to say. A letter can solve this problem for you. Although letters are nice, remember that you should still offer a face-to-face apology at some point.
4. Cut off all communication with the other man or woman
How can you expect your partner to trust you if you’re still in contact with the person you were cheating with? Demonstrate with your actions, not just your words, that you are serious about saving your relationship. “If the betrayer in the relationship is still busy with someone elsewhere, then he or she will not be as invested in staying in the relationship. After the affair is stopped and that exit is sealed, you both need to talk about what happened,” said Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, a Baltimore-based relationship therapist and founder of The Marriage Restoration Project.
5. Be honest
Be open and honest when answering questions from your partner. Don’t lie about the affair or hide details he or she wants to know about. Discovering that you lied again could end your relationship for good, so try not to tell lies, whether outright, or by omission.
Jeanie Winstrom, a therapist at Talkspace, says honesty is necessary to rebuild trust. “Total, brutal honesty is essential to save the relationship. In order to rebuild trust, it is essential that no further lies occur. From the point that the deception occurred, something was horribly wrong and the relationship needs a reset to move forward,” Winstrom told The Cheat Sheet.
6. Reestablish boundaries
Sit down and talk about what will and won’t be tolerated in your relationship. Part of the reason your relationship broke down is boundaries were either pushed too far or ignored completely. For example, when it comes to being honest about the affair, you can tell your partner you will answer questions, but that you will only engage in this discussion during certain times of the day. “Establish some general guidelines around appropriate times to talk, such as: ‘not in the morning before work’ or ‘not when either of us had alcohol,’ or ‘if this erupts into a fight, we take a break.’ Structure can be helpful so both parties feel they have some guide to follow,” Erika Boissiere, licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of The Relationship Institute of San Francisco, told The Cheat Sheet.
7. Allow your partner time to grieve
Don’t expect things to immediately go back to normal after you apologize. It will take some time for your partner to absorb what has happened and to grieve the loss of the old relationship. Give your loved one appropriate space to work through this emotional time. “You can’t just expect your partner to take you back in. You have to pay for it. And the way you have to pay for it, is that you have to be contrite,” Tatkin told The Cheat Sheet.
8. Be prepared for some push-back
Your partner will obviously be hurt and angry upon learning about the affair. Consequently, he or she may have some choice words for you. Things will also be tense for a while as emotions get sorted out. Understand what your partner is feeling and give him or her space to express all the sadness, anger, and fear that has resulted from your admission. Try not to be angry at your partner for reacting strongly. With time, care, and communication, things will slowly begin to settle down.
9. Work on reestablishing physical and emotional intimacy
Needless to say, it will be tough to get back into the swing of things when it comes to reconnecting physically and emotionally. Spend time getting to know each other again so that you can feel more comfortable becoming physically and emotionally intimate again. “Think about why you want to be in a relationship with this person. Why is this relationship worth saving? Put together a long list, and remind yourself of all the positive things daily,” relationship and financial expert Jenna Biancavilla said. “If there are reasons you want to save your relationship, there are reasons you feel emotionally connected to this person. If you cannot write one item on this list other than ‘for the kids,’ is this really the relationship example you want to set for your children?”
Forgive each other and work through any lingering grudges either of you may be holding. The only way to completely move forward is to set aside any hurt feelings you may be having. Resolve to not blame each other for what went wrong in your relationship and slowly build from there. Only time will tell if you can really make it work.
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[Editor’s Note: This story was originally published March 2017]