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Relationships and Community
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. I’m going to use male pronouns for the cheater here for the sake of convenience, but the advice applies to men and women equally.
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 at all at one point, and the woman contacted me to try to break us up when he dumped her. I forgave him 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. That incident 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, 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.
A cheater often tries to make excuses in order to avoid facing the facts about himself: that he is wholly culpable for his own actions, that he has deliberately acted in such a way as to cause harm to someone he claims to love, and that his actions may have cause irreparable harm to the relationship between him and the violated partner.
If your partner is truly contrite, that is a good sign. True contrition means that he is indeed sorry that he hurt you, not just sorry that he got caught. A truly contrite person will cut off all contact with the person or persons with whom he 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 his communications in any way instead of trusting him to do that, there’s more healing to do. That isn’t healthy, and you’ll likely learn something that will make you even more unhappy.
Is he minimizing what he 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, he might be sorry that he got caught, but he isn’t really sorry that he hurt you. Dump him and get started on the healing process.
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. 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 tests1 right away. I don’t care if your partner claims he used barriers or not. He’s already been dishonest, and at this point you have no reason to trust him 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 him. 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 he’s been faithful for a full year, and has a full year of periodic STD tests showing that he isn’t going to infect you in any way.
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 him out if necessary. This is time for a legal separation if you’re married, or at least insisting that he 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 Daddy did something wrong, and that you and Daddy 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.)
What do I mean by decide whether or not you want to repair the relationship? Well, how healthy was it in the first place? Are the two of you good together? Is this person healthy for you? How do you feel when you’re with him? Are you together out of habit? What kind of person is he? What kind of partner is he? What kind of parent is he? If you met him all over again, would you go out with him? Get involved with him?
If you decide that you want to repair the relationship, find out whether he’s committed to repairing it and himself. He might not be willing to do the work involved. After all, he’s the one who did the damage to it. He 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 he has to work on repairing himself, I’m quite serious. Is he willing to look at what led him to behave in such a destructive manner? Is he behaving in a compulsive manner with regards to substance abuse or sex? If so, is he willing to deal with that somehow? Is he in therapy? Is it working, or does he need to switch therapists? Will he 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.
1 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.