What to Do When Your Partner Cheats on You

A therapist explains that not all betrayals are created equal.
Vincenzo Ligresti
Milan, IT
October 15, 2020, 7:45am
A ceramic cake topper being smashed on the ground. The little statue is a man in a blue suit kissing a woman in a white dress on the cheek.
Photo: Getty/Sohl.

This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.

Growing up, I always thought that people who stay together after one person has cheated were losers. But over the years, I realised that adult relationships are way more complicated than that. Of course, cheating is incredibly painful, but there’s no shame in trying to make your relationship work when a partner has failed you – in fact, there can be pride in it. And if you’re willing to work hard, it’s possible to end up even closer.

Infidelity creates “a serious tear in a couple’s bond”, explains Laura Duranti, a psychologist, sexologist and couples therapist. “It undermines trust and therefore the basis of a relationship. It can also destabilise your sense of self.” Of course, not all cheating is created equal. It’s one thing to get over a single event or even an emotional affair, and quite another to deal with a serial offender. Either way, there are no right and wrong answers, only options to consider.

If you’ve been cheated on, Duranti says the most important thing is to pinpoint why your partner did it. To start, take a look at how both you and your partner felt about your relationship at the time of the transgression. If you both agree things were great, Duranti says the infidelity could be a sign of a “narcissistic partner” unable to be in a relationship. If things were going badly, you might find it easier to understand your partner’s motivations.

Duranti explains that people often think things were fine before their partner betrayed them. Given time, they might revise that opinion: “In retrospect, people who were cheated on will admit they weren’t aware their partner was unhappy. Or worse – they noticed it but did nothing.” In those cases, she believes they are somewhat complicit in the cheating.

Admitting you might be partly to blame doesn’t mean you need to punish yourself and hastily forgive your partner. It’s more about being somewhat understanding and empathetic when the affair comes to light. Sure, you’re probably feeling hurt, overwhelmed and, above all, angry. Your partner should be patient with you and forgive what you might say in the heat of the moment. But eventually, if you decide you really want to move on, you need to try to make sure that any confrontation is constructive. For instance, Duranti advises against asking for details: “They are useless and harmful.”

Often, when people talk about overcoming infidelity, they say they want things to get back to “normal”. But even if hitting a reset button was possible, the relationship would revert to a status quo that wasn’t satisfactory to your partner, and quickly get to a breaking point all over again. “If you dismiss the cheating without really dealing with it, it will come back,” Duranti says, fairly ominously. “It’s necessary to make your connection more mature, aware and honest.”

Duranti’s approach to moving forward is divided into two steps. Firstly, you need to make up your mind once and for all about whether saving your relationship is what you really want or not. And if you do, whether you are capable of accepting your partner for who they are, mistakes included. “It might seem obvious, but often couples start therapy before they’re clear on this point,” she says.

After that, deal with your ego: “Forgiving does not mean forgetting, but it helps reduce the burden.” Duranti says a more helpful mindset is looking at cheating the way you look at other negative life events: “Something that cannot be erased, but stored in the past and used to understand the vulnerabilities of the relationship.”

Once you’ve addressed these issues, you can work on rebuilding trust and all things connected to it – intimacy, personal space, common space and your future. You both need to be on the same page and treat each other fairly, even though you might be tempted to punish your partner for the pain they’ve caused you. "It’s more useful to share concerns and fears and be aware of the ghosts of the past," Duranti explains.

Although it’s crucial that you make a decision that works mainly for you and your partner, you probably want to ask friends and family for advice. But loved ones don’t like to see us hurt, and might react more strongly to the cheating. “Other people only see what we show them,” Duranti says – and if you’ve only ever talked about your relationship when you’ve needed to vent, your friends might not get why you want to save it.

It’s possible you’ll say you want to leave your partner, but then decide to stay, attracting judgment and concern from those who care about you. Duranti recommends talking to a therapist or someone who can be as impartial as possible.

Unfortunately, there are no guarantees you will make it. Every relationship is unique – in some cases you might be able to get over it quickly, in others it might take a while, or not happen at all. A good way to assess where you are in the healing process is understanding whether you fully trust your partner. For instance, you could say you’re OK with your partner going out alone, but later feel the urge to check their phone.

Ultimately, you have to be honest with yourself. If, despite your best efforts, you find yourself continuously testing your partner, Duranti says it’s better to end things, or risk the relationship becoming toxic. If it all fails, don’t look at the process as a waste of time, but as an opportunity to learn more about yourself and the people around you.

“And remember,” she says, “being in a relationship is like driving: if you’re always looking in the rearview mirror, you’re bound to crash."