Being cheated on is one of the most heart-wrenching things a person can go through. Not only has your heart been trampled, but trust in your partner and sense of safety has also been decimated. It's common for feelings of pain and inadequacy to linger for years.
It's also confusing—many aren't sure what to do next. It can be overwhelming to know how to address the partner who betrayed you. We asked experts––a sexuality educator, a dating coach, and a therapist––and a few people who have either cheated or been cheated on to give their best advice about how to move forward. They cover what you should and should not do when the infidelity is discovered in order to keep your sanity and heal quicker.
Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Timaree Schmit, PhD, sexuality educator
If you find out you've been cheated on, you should absolutely not destroy property, hurt anyone, or threaten to do either of those things. It's not worth it, and it's not going to bring you peace.
Is it ever possible to salvage the relationship after a cheating incident? Absolutely. People step outside the boundaries of relationships and that damages intimacy, but that looks different to everyone, and there's no single solution to conflict. It's about figuring out why this breach of trust happened, how to repair that breach and what the people in the relationship need to feel safe and loved.
I think the people who are best at dealing with infidelity are polyamorous people because they don't think there's a universal right answer on what everyone should expect or do in a relationship. What counts as cheating to poly people is based on whoever's in the relationship, not the rest of the world. They are more likely to navigate the relationship as individuals, not by trying to fit into roles. So if you're cheated on, I recommend More Than Two, Ethical Slut and Poly Role Models as resources.
Laura Yates, dating coach
It can be easy to react in the moment. But try not to do the first thing your head and/or heart tells you to. Take a few minutes to sit down, breathe slowly, and collect yourself. From this place you will be able to think clearer about your next steps.
People shouldn't blame themselves, try to justify why their partner might have cheated, or beg their ex for answers (the answers are in the act of the cheating), or worse, say they'll take them back out of fear of losing them. Regardless of the situation, cheating is wrong. It's fine to want to be with someone else, but you have to go about that in an honest and respectful way.
Of course, it's hard to not take cheating personally, but the best possible way you can look at it is to see it as a clear exit out of something that wasn't right for you. Ask yourself honest questions like if red flags might have been ignored? Were things glossed over? If so, that is something you can work on as an individual to choose differently next time.
Lydia K., discovered her ex-husband's infidelity
There were so many hard parts, but the feeling of betrayal was probably the worst. It absolutely killed my self-esteem. I almost felt as though I wasn't good enough. Our marriage was by no means perfect, but having the person you've committed yourself to decide that he'd rather turn to someone else, that hurt more that I can express.
Looking back on things, I think I would have made sure I had some definite proof. I had spent months listening to him tell me I was crazy, nothing was going on, they were just friends, etc. At times I even started to think he was right. It wasn't until he sent her flowers, and I caught him at her house that I knew I wasn't crazy. Although, believe it or not, he still insisted I was insane even after I found him at her house.
When I was going through everything, I couldn't imagine how I was going to get through it. Everything hurt so much, and I was so sad. A divorced family member, who went through something very similar, told me that she found the process oddly empowering, and at the time I couldn't even begin to understand what she meant. As it turns out, she was right. This was probably the hardest thing I have ever been through, but the process also taught me how strong I am. With the support from family and some really amazing friends (and a little help from a therapist), I am happier than I've ever been.
Geoffrey Steinberg, PsyD., psychologist
Infidelity is usually is a symptom of longstanding, deeper problems, and its discovery can be an opportunity for a couple to become more curious about what's not working in the relationship that led to acting out and betraying the other.
If both members of the couple are motivated to salvage their relationship, they would be well served to seek professional help. I'm a believer in a yours, mine, and ours approach; that is, three licensed mental health professionals. If not already in treatment, each partner would benefit from finding his or her own individual therapist, plus a couples therapist for the relationship. As a side note, many people aren't aware health insurance covers both individual and couples therapy, but it really does.
What I see nowadays is that infidelity usually gets discovered as a result of digital fingerprints in one form or another. It can be tempting from that point to embark on a campaign of digital surveillance, but it's not usually productive. It tends to only reinforce mistrust, when the task facing the couple is to rebuild trust. This comes from real, honest, in-person communication that's not mediated by technology. When a couple has trouble communicating productively like this, that's where psychotherapy becomes essential. The challenge is to learn to put feelings into words rather than actions, especially destructive actions like cheating.
Anna R., has cheated and been cheated on
I cheated on my first boyfriend with my second. My first girlfriend cheated on her partner with me for four months. Once they broke up and we were exclusive, she cheated on me for the length of our relationship.
Make sure you have someone you can go vent to. You're going to be feeling a lot of things, and you need to get them out. Just choose this person carefully—preferably someone who knows your partner but is your friend and is guaranteed to have your back. I'm not saying you can never patch things up with someone who cheats, but that's a very personal decision and not one to be taken lightly.
Also, know it is not your fault. Sometimes people cheat because they aren't getting something emotionally or physically from the relationship. Sometimes they cheat because they don't fundamentally understand the concept of monogamy. Sometimes they cheat because they're an asshole. Regardless of what the reason is, it is not your fault. And don't let them spin it as such, saying you weren't giving XYZ. You're a cool person (I'm assuming). You deserve better.
Lauren Levin, has been on both sides of infidelity
Take some time to step away from them, release any of the immediate feelings of sadness or anger with someone close to you. If those friends or family aren't around, call them, FaceTime them, or search for the most accessible hotline, or therapy center for help. A lot of people tend to make poor decisions when finding out devastating news like this and I think it's really important to remember that cooler heads always prevail. Of course, that is easier said than done.
Promptly ending your lease, separating in a civil matter, and never talking to that asshole is probably the best idea. Rash decisions involving screaming matches, property damage, or alcohol abuse are not good moves. All you need to do is sit back and work on how you are going to focus your new life of freedom and liberation toward a positive direction. The universe works in mysterious ways.
The things that have helped me the most through situations like this are the support of my friends and family and making new connections that inspire hope for the future. Join a class. Start a new hobby. A new look has definitely helped me pick my sad ass up and move forward feeling a bit more confident despite my recent emotional injury.
Keep your head up, keep your standards high, and stay strong. People who want to value you and cherish you and be open and honest with you are out there waiting. Don't lose hope. And get a vibrator.
Follow Anna Goldfarb on Twitter.