An estimated 30 to 60 percent of couples will experience their partner cheating on them at some time during the course of their relationship. Considering that roughly 50 percent of all marriages, 60 percent of second marriages and 73 percent of third marriages or more end in divorce, it’s likely that this number would be at the high end of the range (if not higher). Not surprisingly, most individuals stray from a relationship as they perceive it is starting to fail.
Studies also show that women are nearly as likely to cheat as men (largely attributed to the presence of more women in the workplace with greater financial independence), and that the prevalence of extra-marital affairs for couples under the age of 30 has increased significantly over the last decade. It would seem that affairs are no longer reserved for so-called “male chauvinists” or for those couples that have lost their “mojo” after years, or even decades of lifeless, sexless and loveless marriage. Affairs have become indiscriminate and are tearing apart the fabric of relationships more so than ever before.
When we consider these quite overwhelming statistics, it’s of no great surprise that many couples seek out counseling to address an extra-marital affair. Some couples arrive in treatment with only a suspicion that their partner is cheating on them, others are confronted with a cheating partner for the first time, and still others are addressing the most recent in a long list of multiple infidelities. Although some relationships cannot survive an affair, many do. Some even thrive! Cheating does not need to define the course of your relationship. It is possible to heal. But it needs to be done right – and only once.
If you’ve recently discovered that your partner is cheating, try following these five steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
Give yourself space.
If you just found out that your partner had an affair, your world has probably been turned upside down. It is normal (and necessary) to experience a wide variety of different emotions, ranging from sadness and anxiety to anger and rage. It is important during this time that you put distance between you and your partner (nothing good can happen in those first 24 to 48 hours after you find out). You must find an emotionally safe place, both to grieve and to process what’s happened.Pack up a few things and stay with a friend of family member for a night or two. Tell your partner who you are staying with and that you need some space. Ask your partner to respect your time alone and not to contact you.
Let it all out.
Once you’ve created a safe environment for grieving, let it all out. Hopefully, you have chosen a friend or family member that you trust, someone who genuinely loves and cares about you and is ready to give you an opportunity to freely express your feelings without being judged. Don’t hold back! It’s important that you allow yourself to grieve the loss of what you imagined your relationship to be. You will bounce back and forth between denial, sadness and anger. You may feel betrayed, taken advantage of and alone. It is also likely that you will have moments of clarity and control mixed with spells of confusion, fear and insecurity. This is all normal and critical to your recovery and acceptance.Although grieving is an ongoing process that is unique to each individual, you may find that after the initial surge of emotion you start moving toward wanting to make sense of what happened. Again, don’t hold back! Tell your trusted friend or family member what you think may have happened and why. Hypothesize together. Reflect back over the last several months and try to put some of the pieces together. (Note: Don’t worry if you end up being way off base. The goal is to reclaim a sense of control and empowerment and avoid a sense of helplessness, not to be top of your class in P.I. school!).
Keep an ongoing list of questions that you have for your partner and start thinking about what you need to know in order to fully understand, and ultimately accept, what has happened. This is your process. Own it!
Time to talk.
After a night or two away (the timeframe depends on you … whenever you’re ready), it’s time to go home and begin the difficult conversations with your partner. Let your partner know ahead of time that you’re planning on returning home and that the two of you need to talk. Be clear that you need them to be open and honest with you (even if they think it will hurt your feelings or make them uncomfortable) and that this will largely determine what you decide to do moving forward. (Note: If your partner continues to lie and deceive even after the affair has been revealed, it seals the fate of the relationship and makes your decision that much easier. Honesty, remorse and a desire to change provide hope for the long-term prognosis of the relationship. Ongoing deception does not.) Start out by telling your partner what the last 24 to 48 hours have been like for you. Tell them how their behaviors have impacted you emotionally and your entire perspective on the relationship. Ask your partner to listen, and not to interrupt. Begin to ask your questions (remember no question is off limits) and start to formulate an understanding of what happened and why. As you start to ask questions and your partner answers them, you will almost certainly feel the flooding of intense emotions return. Don’t hide it. Your partner needs to see how their actions have affected you. If the feelings become too intense, take a break, regroup, and then come back to the table.
It’s important that you stay focused on getting the answers you need to understand how the affair played out, and why. You may want to ask when it started, how long it’s been going on, what it was that attracted your partner to this other person and what it is that your partner feels they were able to get from this other person that they were not able to get from you. Many of the answers will be painful to hear, others may surprise you. Don’t shy away from those difficult questions. It will be difficult to move on without all the information. (Note: Research shows that couples who understand, accept and agree upon the details of an affair have a significantly better chance of healing and reconnecting in their relationship long term).
Don’t end the conversation until you feel you have all the answers. You don’t want to re-visit the same details over and over again. This will only serve to extend your emotional pain and prevent you and the relationship from healing. Once you’ve heard it once, you don’t need to hear it again! Inevitably, you will reflect on the conversation afterward and have more questions. This is fine as long as the questions reflect the progression of your prior discussions. It will likely take multiple conversations to have a sense of closure.
Assuming your partner has answered your questions openly and honestly (which is difficult to tell as the trust has been stripped away), and has expressed remorse and a desire to change, it is important for you to be clear about what it is you need in order to start trusting and reconnecting with your partner again.Depending on how the affair played out, some changes will need to be made. For example, if your partner met the other person commuting on the train downtown, you would ask your partner to take an earlier/later train or drive the car to work. If your partner met the other person through Facebook or in a chat room, you would ask for full access to your partner’s account or that it be closed. In almost all cases, it is reasonable and appropriate for you to request access to your partner’s e-mail, phone, online accounts, etc. Be selfish, but reasonable. Putting your partner on house arrest 24/7 is not going to solve the problem.
This won’t be indefinite, just long enough for you to feel comfortable that the affair is over and to start trusting your partner again. (Note: If your partner refuses to do any of these things, they are either not fully invested in saving the relationship or still have something to hide. If they are not prepared to make a few small short-term adjustments to fix their relationship with you, it’s time for you to leave … and don’t look back!)
In addition, it’s also important that you prioritize time with your partner. As difficult as this may be (due to the hurt and anger you still inevitably feel), you must both begin the rebuilding process … and it needs to look different than before. It will be largely based on the many conversations that you’ve had over the last several days or weeks since you learned of the affair. For example, if your partner told you that they felt lonely because you never spent any time together, plan a date night once a week. Or, if your partner said they felt unappreciated and taken for granted, talk about how they might feel more valued moving forward.
This is an opportunity for you both to talk about and experiment with what you have learned, and to deliberately and intentionally make changes for the other person in the best interests of the relationship. (Note: This will be one of the biggest challenges you’ll face throughout the entire process. Although you love your partner and would normally want to do these things for them, you have been badly hurt and their infidelity will be fresh in your mind. Time is one of the greatest healers. Be strong and persevere. Good things will happen if you both have good intentions.)
Last, but certainly not least, is boundary-setting. It is critical – not just with couples that are dealing with an affair but with all couples – that each individual understands that there is a line that cannot be crossed. This is more so now than ever before. Be clear, in no uncertain terms, what the consequences are if your partner were to cheat again.These consequences can vary from couple to couple. However, I will simply say, “First time shame on you, second time… you’re out the door!” Everybody makes mistakes and almost everybody should be given an opportunity to make up for it, but if they repeat the same mistake again they should not be given any more chances. If the changes in the relationship and the emotional trauma that the initial affair caused aren’t enough to stop your partner from cheating again, then it won’t be enough the next time, or the time after that, or the time after that. It’s time to let them go. (Note: Be firm in your boundary-setting, and commit to it. If you don’t mean it and can’t follow through, it will have no power and will not be taken seriously by your partner. Don’t feel bad. This is an empowering experience that moves you away from being a victim and toward a happier and more stable future… with or without your partner.)