It’s called “falling in love” because you’re risking the chance of falling flat on your face. And when someone is cheating on you, that’s pretty much the feeling most people describe. Even if you think it might be happening and learn you were right, or you have no idea it’s coming and discover the truth out of nowhere, it hurts like landing on a ton of bricks.
Because you may not know exactly how to act in the moments, days, weeks, and months after learning your partner’s been unfaithful, we asked top relationship experts to share their advice for how to respond.
1. Stay calm and gather information
No matter how upset you are at first hearing the news, it’s important that you collect as much information about what happened between your partner and this other person. Was it a one-time thing? If not, how long have they been seeing each other and how often were they seeing each other? Are they still in contact?
“All of this information is valuable,” Dawn Michael, Ph.D., clinical sexologist, relationship expert, and author of My Husband Won’t Have Sex With Me, said in an interview with The Cheat Sheet. “Just be careful not to overreact or do anything you may regret later on, as yelling, blaming, and freaking out won’t resolve anything and will only make your partner shut down and not want to talk about it.”
2. Remove yourself from the situation
Staying around the person who just dropped this bomb on you is the opposite of what you need right now. “If you’re in the unfortunate position of living with your partner, and he or she has the audacity to sit around at home after dropping the news on you, get out,” Nicole Martinez, licensed clinical professional counselor, recommended in an interview with The Cheat Sheet. “He or she should give you some space and time to process everything, however if he or she is too blind to let this happen, remove yourself.”
It’s not healthy for you to sit around in this situation, and could prevent you from processing everything in a healthy way.
3. Find good company
This is the time to utilize your support system of family and friends. Being alone might only take you to a bad place and make you feel as though you’re slowly falling into a deep, dark hole. Instead, call a friend or family member to come get you. This is not the time to be driving, so have someone pick you up wherever you are. “Driving while emotional is just as bad, if not even worse, than driving while intoxicated,” Martinez explained. “You’re often paying less attention to your driving and surroundings than someone who’s under the influence because you’re are so distracted and, perhaps, crying.” If you need to get away fast, and don’t want to wait for someone to pick you up, call an Uber or Lyft.
4. Let those tears fall freely
So often we think crying is a sign of weakness and try to avoid it at all costs, but believe it or not, crying is cathartic. “We not only cry, but we release tension, and often self-blame, which allows us to come out of situations with a more realistic perspective,” Martinez said. So go ahead and have a good cry, eat a piece of chocolate, and talk trash about your errant lover to your best friend for a few minutes. Then, move on! Pity party over.
5. Get some exercise
The fastest way to calm the mind is to move your body. “Exercise will help calm you down and support you in moving through strong emotions,” Claudia Six, Ph.D., sexologist, relationship coach and author of Erotic Integrity. And physical exercise can help release cortisol, the stress-producing hormone, and release endorphins, your body’s feel-good hormones.
6. Make an appointment with your doctor
If you have a physician you see regularly, set up an appointment to get checked for STIs. “If your partner’s been sexual with another individual, you can’t be confident that he or she used protection, and you certainly don’t know what kind of diseases or infections the person they were sexually active with may possess,” Michael warned. “Your health is the most important thing and the worry that goes along with it, so be proactive immediately and get things checked out.”
7. Don’t use this time to blame yourself
While it may not feel like it right now, and while your partner may even try to blame his or her bad behavior on you, try to remember this is not your fault. This was their choice. “It’s human nature for people to try to blame others for the things they’ve done that they are ashamed of,” Martinez explained. “They often instinctively think to blame their actions on another person, which helps them grapple with the fact that they’re not as terrible as they feel they are in this moment.”
It is a common, albeit, shameful reaction, to blame the other person for the choices they have consciously made, but do not allow them to lay that at your feet. If you were having problems, there were many other ways they could have worked things out.
8. Don’t let this shake how you feel about yourself
Self-esteem is a tricky thing, but remember the “self” piece of it. “Too many people tie their self-esteem into how others feel about them,” Martinez said. “They should base it on how they feel about themselves, and then it is a welcome addition if someone worthy cares for them.” In other words, too often people take a lover cheating as an attack on who they are fundamentally as a person. But that is not the case, this is a complete demonstration of who their partner is.
9. Own your mistakes
“This may require the assistance of a couples therapist or clinical sexologist, but it’s important that you look at the part you played, conscious or not,” Six said. “This will help set you up for success in your next relationship.” Did you make your partner feel wrong a lot? Did you withhold sex? It’s much more empowering to know and own up to your part rather than just focusing on the fact this happened to you.
“While it’s quite possible you did nothing to encourage your partner to cheat on you, you want to figure this out from an unbiased opinion, not from a friend who’s only saying things to make you feel better,” she added.
[Correction, 4/11/17: An earlier version of this story mistakenly omitted quotes from Claudia Six. It has been updated to reflect which portions are her words.]
10. Ask if your needs are being met
Before you can say yes to continuing to pursue the relationship, you need to think things over. “Give yourself space to not forgive, and if you get to a place when you feel like you can forgive, that’s fine,” Michael said. “But, if not, that’s really OK, too. There’s no rule that says you have to come to a place of forgiveness.” In other words, don’t stay in the relationship if you find yourself in frequent pain.
And don’t forget about the role your partner plays. “End the relationship if the person who cheated hasn’t taken responsibility for what they’ve done, if they’ve not apologized and are not committed to regaining your trust,” said Dr. Jane Greer, New York-based relationship expert and author of How Could You Do This to Me? “However, if you feel they made a mistake, are willing to rebuild your trust and work with you on that and are willing to deal with your anger until you get through it, you can use the cheating as a stepping stone to making your relationship stronger going forward.”
[Editor’s Note: This story was originally published April 7, 2017]