I’ve spoken elsewhere about transitioning from cheating to a polyamorous relationship, an article which is directed to the cheater, but I’ve heard from multiple people who have been cheated on and want advice. Whether they are monogamous or polyamorous, I honestly think the steps involved are the same.
Where I’m Coming From
For the sake of openness, I’ll disclose that I’ve been cheated on, and that experience definitely informs my opinions. My former partner violated our explicit agreements repeatedly during our years together. He had an affair with a woman he’d specifically agreed not to get involved with and the woman contacted me to try to break us up when he dumped her. I forgave him at that time. Years later, he violated our safer sex agreements and had unprotected sex with someone he’d agreed not to have sex with, then concealed the fact that he was having sex with her for over a month, having unprotected sex with me in the interim. There were many other incidents over the years, but that last one eventually led to the end of a 14-year partnership, largely because he refused to end that relationship and he wouldn’t go to therapy with me to work out the problems it caused for us. I know whereof I speak.
Infidelity is Inexcusable
Infidelity is inexcusable, but it is forgivable if the cheater is contrite and fully honest. There are always, however, consequences. By inexcusable, I mean that there are literally no excuses for violating the agreements you’ve entered into with your partner. It doesn’t matter whether or not the cheater felt neglected or lonely or was drunk/high/stoned/bored/angry/out of town. It doesn’t matter whether or not the two of you were getting along well or not having sex frequently when the cheating occurred. There are no excuses. If there’s a problem in your relationship, infidelity is never the answer—working out the problem is.
The Cheater’s Behavior
A cheater often tries to make excuses in order to avoid facing the facts about themselves: that they are wholly culpable for their own actions, that they have deliberately acted in such a way as to cause harm to someone they claim to love, and that their actions may have caused irreparable harm to the relationship between them and the violated partner.
If your partner is truly contrite, that is a good sign. True contrition means that they are indeed sorry that they hurt you, not just sorry that they got caught. A truly contrite person will cut off all contact with the person or persons with whom they cheated without any urging from you and will let you know immediately if he hears from them in any way. If you feel a need to snoop on their communications in any way instead of trusting them to do that, there’s more healing to do. Spying on your partner isn’t healthy for you. It’s also likely that you’ll learn something that will make you even more unhappy.
Are they minimizing what they did? If so, that’s bad. “It was just one time/a few quickies/I didn’t care about them”—any of that talk is a way to try to minimize what happened and weasel out of taking the blame. In short, they might be sorry that they got caught, but they aren’t really sorry that they hurt you. Dump them and get started on the healing process.
Take Care of Yourself
As for coping with the hurt and rebuilding your relationship, first, step back and take care of yourself. You’ve been hurt. Your trust has been violated by someone you should have been able to count on to love you and treat you well. Emotional pain is the same as physical pain as far as your brain is concerned, so you need time to recuperate. Be gentle. Reach out for support from people you trust, or cocoon for a while, depending on how you heal. Consider seeking help from a therapist to process your feelings if possible. It is normal to feel violation, shame, hurt, anger, pain, humiliation, and even guilt after you’ve been cheated on. You might feel damage to your sense of self if you’re heavily invested in this relationship.
You need to get a full set of STD tests: HIV, Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, Syphilis, Gonorrhea, Herpes Simplex Virus (I & II) (HSV IgG test), Chlamydia, Genital HPV (women), and Oral HPV (must obtain from a dentist)—see this article by Joreth for further information. Do that right away. I don’t care if your partner claims they used barriers or not. They’ve already been dishonest, and at this point, you have no reason to trust them about that (and barriers don’t stop everything). It’s your health and you need to protect yourself.
Don’t even think of having unprotected sex with them. Sex won’t make things better, and it could further expose you to all manner of nasty diseases, some of them incurable. Don’t even consider non-barrier sex until you’re certain they’ve been faithful for a full year and have a full year of periodic STD tests showing that they aren’t going to infect you in any way.
Take Time to Decide
Decide whether or not you want to repair the relationship. Don’t make any quick decisions, and don’t let your partner pressure you. Kick them out if necessary. This is time for a legal separation if you’re married, or at least insisting that they sleep on the couch. Yes, if you have kids they will know that something’s wrong, but you’re kidding yourself if you think they don’t know that already. Be honest with them in saying that your partner did something wrong and that you and your partner are taking some time away from each other to think things out. They don’t need any more detail than that. (Don’t bad-mouth each other to the kids. That hurts the children and it won’t help either of you.)
What do I mean by deciding whether or not you want to repair the relationship? Well, how healthy was it in the first place? Are the two of you truly good together? Is this person healthy for you? How do you feel when you’re with them? Are the two of you together out of habit? What kind of person are they? What kind of partner are they? What kind of parent are they? If you met them all over again, would you go out with them? Get involved with them?
If You’re Staying In the Relationship
If you decide that you want to repair the relationship, find out whether they’re committed to repairing it and themselves. They might not be willing to do the work involved. After all, they’re the one who did the damage to it. They would probably prefer to just sweep what happened under the rug and go on as things were, but that isn’t best for anyone.
When I say they have to work on repairing themselves I’m quite serious. Are they willing to look at what led them to behave in such a destructive manner? Are they behaving in a compulsive manner with regards to substance abuse or sex? If so, are they willing to deal with that somehow? Are they in therapy? Is it working, or do they need to switch therapists? Will they attend and engage actively in a support group?
If you’re both committed to repairing the relationship, decide what that looks like. (Couples therapy is a really good tool for working this part out.) Do the two of you need to work on increasing the intimacy in the relationship? (That isn’t a code word for sex.) What would that look like? How are you going to go about it?
Whether or not you’re going to continue investing in this relationship, forgive your partner for the sake of your own emotional health. If you cling to resentment, you’ll hurt yourself. If you’re trying to heal the relationship, a lack of true forgiveness will sabotage it. Forgiveness does not mean pretending nothing bad happened, though. It means acknowledging the harm, letting go of resentment, doing what it takes to heal yourself and the relationship, and moving forward.