Affairs and relationship betrayal are seemingly everywhere – from Hollywood couples and disgraced politicians to the plotlines of more than a few binge-worthy TV series. From afar, it can be a source of fascination and entertainment, but when it happens in your relationship, it’s incredibly painful – and even traumatic. We share the best – and worst – ways to navigate cheating and infidelity.
An average of one in five couples experience sexual infidelity, and that rate increases to about one-third of couples when you include emotional infidelity. Being betrayed by your partner can be one of the most upsetting challenges you’ll face in an intimate relationship.
The impact infidelity has on your relationship isn’t necessarily correlated to the level of the betrayal – depending on your own history, the stage in the relationship and the commitments you’ve made, what might objectively seem to be a minor infraction can hit hard.
Infidelity can take many forms. It might have involved a purely emotional connection and attachment; it might have been a brief and opportunistic physical fling; or a much longer-lasting sexual and loving relationship. The infidelity might have been with someone overseas, or with a best friend. It may even involve a relationship that’s taken place entirely online, or watching pornography in secret.
Whatever the circumstances, there are productive and not-so-productive ways of confronting this challenging time in your relationship.
Here are our dos and don’ts for addressing infidelity.
Do trust your own judgement
If a whole lot of things don’t add up and you suspect infidelity, then speak up. You don’t have to be correct, but you do need reassurance that your concerns are taken seriously and worth responding to. If your partner can’t provide this, it’s not necessarily confirmation of their infidelity, but it could still raise other concerns about their reliability and the level of emotional support they’re capable of providing.
Don’t blame the third party
It can be tempting to confront and blame your partner’s lover, as if your partner would never have strayed without their temptation. This deflects the responsibility and is more about you wanting to keep seeing your own partner in a good light.
Don’t minimise what has happened
The person who has committed the betrayal can be tempted to minimise their involvement in the affair or betrayal to avoid hurting their partner, but this generally isn’t helpful. It can actually make your partner feel worse, as your caginess around the details can just perpetuate the sense of secrecy.
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Don’t engage in technicolour illustrations about what happened
At the other end of the spectrum, if you have betrayed your partner you might be asked for full disclosure – but sharing all the details can be unhelpful and make matters worse. You have to judge where you are tormenting your partner by being withholding, and when you are providing pictures that will live in their head for eternity.
Don’t tell everyone you know
You need to get support, but speaking with a professional or a neutral friend can provide this as well as the space to make your own decisions.
Too often people spiral in their distress and tell family and friends, then decide to stay together. This can mean you have harmed all your social supports, and the betrayal has to be worked through with a cast of thousands. Some might never forgive your partner, even if you have.
Do decide whether to stay or go
Whether you’ve been betrayed or are the person who has committed the infidelity, it’s important to make a final decision about the future of your relationship.
Relationship betrayal breaks trust that can be rebuilt over time and with help. However, if you decide to stay together, this requires you both to agree to work on it. For some people this may be too painful or difficult and you need to give yourself permission to take time away from the relationship or consider ending it.
Do consider the bigger picture
While infidelity is always the choice of the person who acts on it, looking together at the state of your relationship is valuable. It may be that relationship issues had arisen prior to the infidelity, like complacency or conflict avoidance. This doesn’t mean that infidelity can be justified, but it can give you a common purpose when working together to make the changes you need to strengthen your connection.
Do remember that repair takes time
Often the re-establishment of trust can seem to involve a lot of practical and concrete requests – “be home on time” or “ring me every day.” However, trust comes about over time and through a couple working together to make sense of what has happened and strengthen their relationship.
Once there is repair, those practical rules are not the main game and can feel constraining, impacting your closeness. Trust needs to eventually be measured another way.
Do work towards peace and closure
Infidelity is one of the most challenging events a couple can face. It is painful, even devastating. It can initially seem to shatter your sense of yourself, your worth and your faith in your partner. For those who have the affair, they might have shocked themselves with their behaviour, and may live with guilt and remorse about it.
But – a couple has to close this painful chapter eventually. This doesn’t come from quick apologies and brushing issues under the mat, and endless punishment and revisiting the betrayal won’t help either. If this is happening, there is more work to do.
Many couples who do the work to repair the relationship, where they both realise there is too much to lose, can also say they are stronger as a result. This deep work and repair are best done with a neutral, experienced couple therapist to guide you, who provides the scaffolding to keep you emotionally safe while you work it through.