If you’ve ever been cheated on, you know it’s one of the worst feelings in the world. But real talk: Being the one who cheats on your partner can be equally as awful.
Still, it happens: Statistics show that women stray almost as often as men do. And anecdotally, the same is true.
“In my office, I have more women admitting to cheating than men,” says WH advisor “Dr. Chloe” Carmichael, PhD, a psychologist based in New York City.
While moving forward isn’t easy, cheating isn’t always a relationship death sentence. In fact, your bond can even come out stronger on the other side—if, that is, you know how to navigate the aftermath.
So, here’s exactly how to do so when you’re the one who slipped up. (I, for one, forgive you.)
1. Figure out WHY you cheated on your partner.
It’s important to understand the motivation for your cheating, says Dr. Chloe, because that realisation can inform how you proceed.
“Often, women cheat because they’re seeking something they’re not getting in their relationship, and cheating is the passive-aggressive way to deal with that issue,” says Dr. Chloe.
If you’re simply incompatible and unsatisfied with your partner, choosing to act out by cheating is a sign to end the relationship. But if you feel like you could be faithful to your partner if there were changes in your relationship (like if you had more sex, received more attention, or got back to a place in your relationship when you were once content), then that’s something your partner is likely capable of and may be worth working on.
2. Decide whether to tell your partner that you cheated.
Forget what you’ve heard: There’s no hard and fast rule for confessing your infidelity, says Dr. Chloe.
“If you know that you messed up and are 100-percent sure it was an isolated incident that your partner would never find out about, and it would be too much for them to handle or they wouldn’t want to know, then it might be best not to tell them,” she says.
Even if you don’t say a word to them, you may still want to seek therapy for yourself to work through why you cheated and how to prevent it from happening again.
If you want to tell your partner to relieve some guilt, or if you cheated because of an issue in the relationship and you want to move forward together, then you must have a conversation about it. Otherwise, a slip-up is bound to happen again because your needs aren’t being met by your partner (who may not even know you’re unhappy).
3. If you tell your partner you cheated, do it the right way.
Telling someone you love that you betrayed them is going to be difficult and uncomfortable no matter what, but there **is** a right way to explain yourself.
Pick a private space where you can talk, and say, “‘I need to tell you something that’s really hard for me to say, and I’m incredibly ashamed and sorry for what I’ve done,’” says Dr. Chloe.
“Take ownership for the mistake and emphasise what you plan to do to build trust and make sure this never happens again.” (More on what those steps might be below, under Move Forward.)
Once you’ve done that, delve into why you think it happened, making sure not to justify your cheating. Say something like: “I had an issue and I dealt with it in the wrong way. And I want to work through that issue with you so that this never happens again because I love you and am committed to you.”
4. Expect major anger from your partner.
It’s normal for a significant other to react with extreme anger and disappointment, says Dr. Chloe, and as the cheating partner, you have to accept and honour that. Try to think of it as a good sign—it means that they care about you and the relationship.
They’re likely to have a lot of questions, but be mindful about how you share information about the affair. “Logistical questions about who it was and when it happened are fair game,” says Dr. Chloe. “But the more salacious details are probably not going to be helpful for them to hear, even if they want to know.”
If you’re being pressed for more info, say, “I will share that with you if it’s really going to be helpful for us to move forward, but I don’t know if that’s going to cause more damage. Let’s talk to a therapist and if we find that that would be helpful to share, I’m happy to do whatever I need to do to repair this.”
5. Let them go—if they want to.
Your partner may want nothing to do with you after they know about your cheating (fair), but that could be a sign that that relationship wasn’t meant to last anyway, notes Dr. Chloe.
“If someone won’t even consider working through it and it was a one-time incident that you clearly feel awful about, they probably weren’t that committed to the relationship anyway.”
If they want to part ways, respect their decision and try to move forward on your own. That might involve therapy to figure out how you could have better managed the situation. (Seeing a professional also gives you an objective, nonjudgmental third party to vent to and hear you out—never a bad thing.)
6. If your partner stays, move forward together.
So you both decided that you want to work through your disloyalty—great! But don’t just assume you can go back to normal.
Dr. Chloe strongly urges seeing a therapist together, which may seem scary (you feel the bad guy, after all) but can be super helpful for both parties.
More specifically, a therapist can lead the partner who was cheated on “to understand what an appropriate reaction to the cheating is and make sure they aren’t using it against you as a power play for months to come.” (If you’ve ever crossed the line before, you know this all too well.)
Couples counselling can also help you work on the actual issue that led to the cheating—a lack of attention or appreciation? not feeling secure?—so you can both feel happier in the relationship down the road.
7. Rebuild what’s broken after cheating.
Cheating hurts not just because you were intimate with another person, but also because you broke what matters most in a relationship—trust.
So to work on repairing that, you may have to go the “extreme” for a bit: Let your partner have access to your phone, email, and social media for a limited amount of time.
Ideally, you should both be working on getting to a place where your partner doesn’t feel like they need this information, but in the beginning, having access to your private world can be very helpful in reassuring them that you’re faithful and also interested in rebuilding trust, says Dr. Chloe.
(P.S. If giving them your password makes your stomach flip, perhaps reconsider if staying in the relationship is what you truly want.)
In a similar vein, be open and consistent in your communication with your partner about what you’re doing when you’re apart. The goal is to assure them that what happened was undoubtedly a one-time mess-up and that you’re prioritising your bond.
8. Address any residual post-cheating concerns.
If you think you cheated because you were under the influence of drugs or alcohol, take steps to work on those problems, like going to an AA meeting. “Let your partner be part of the process when they can so they can see that you’re committed to fixing your problems,” says Dr. Chloe.
Whether your incident happened when you were intoxicated or sober, be upfront with your partner if you ever have the temptation to cheat again. “Tell them that you think this is a signal that you need to work on something in the relationship, and you’re letting them know to be transparent and so that you won’t feel the need anymore.”
Of course, there’s no predicting how they’ll respond, but hopefully your S.O. will appreciate your openness and want to figure out how to get your relationship back to solid (stray-free) ground.
All in all, if you’re open to making changes that will help your other half trust you—and they have time and space to heal, as well as an interest in making their own changes to improve the relationship—moving past a moment of infidelity is definitely possible.
Not every person will be on board to work through cheating, but if someone is, that may be a sign of a true life partner. Whom, btw, you should never cheat on again.
This article originally appeared on Women’s Health US.
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