Most people feel rather strongly about cheating, and may even go far as to say that if their partner cheated on them, it would be the end-all be-all—the single factor that burned their once-happy relationship to the ground. In reality, however, this is usually not the case. In fact, one in five Americans admit to being unfaithful to their significant other, according to a 2015 poll by YouGov/The Economist—that’s 20 percent of people. Needless to say, cheating happens far more often than we think, and it doesn’t always lead to an abrupt end in the relationship.
While cheating might sound like a cold, hard act, it is often more complex, notes Anita Chlipala, licensed marriage and family therapist and author of First Comes Us: The Busy Couple's Guide to Lasting Love. In fact, most of the infidelity she has seen is not the type where the person who cheated deliberately set out to cheat just for sex. “For the most part, people tend to develop friendships outside of their relationships and marriages that, step by step, turn into affairs,” she says. “Every person who cheated didn’t set out on the course to be deliberately unfaithful.”
When counseling couples where one partner was unfaithful to the other, Chlipala makes a point for the cheater to take 100 percent accountability for their actions. However, she also takes a good, hard look at the state of the relationship or marriage to see if it made the partner vulnerable to an affair. “One of the biggest factors in cheating is opportunity,” she says. “For a relationship to survive cheating and to prevent future infidelity, a couple must adopt a mindset to protect their relationship when an opportunity to cheat arises.”
So while it’s certainly possible for a relationship to survive cheating, experts like Chlipala agree that there are plenty of factors that play a role in determining the relationship’s longevity beyond the incident. Here are some of the key steps couples need to take in order to determine whether or not their relationship can survive cheating.
Talk about what happened and why.
Chlipala has worked with countless couples where the cheating partner has tried to skirt accountability by referring to the incident as “the past,” and urging the other partner to move on and focus on their future together. Not only does this not work as a means to making amends, but she warns that it can cause even more damage. “A couple must talk about what happened, and I recommend doing so in front of a couples' therapist if the conversations get out of hand or if you feel like you’re on an endless merry-go-round,” she says. “I don’t recommend going over all of the details (like if it was a physical affair, you don’t need to know the exact positions), but the betrayed partner should get the answers to who, where, how often, how the partner was able to get away with it, etc.” If you refuse to have these important discussions, she warns that it may risk your partner being able to trust you ever again.
Commit to being open and honest with each other.
Transparency and honesty are clearly two qualities your relationship was lacking as the cheating was taking place, but this needs to be resolved in order for you both to move forward. It can be difficult for the cheating person to follow suit, according to Chlipala, as they tend to avoid conflict, minimize and sweep things under the rug, and avoid tough conversations and uncomfortable feelings. “By not talking with your partner about things, it can make you more vulnerable to an affair because, instead of talking to your partner, you may find it easier to talk to someone else,” she says. “You also set yourself up to view your partner in an unfavorable light because, by being conflict avoidant, you don’t speak up for your needs or what you want, thereby not giving your partner the opportunity to address your concerns.”
Be willing and able to do the work to heal.
It is vital that the person who cheated is willing to put in the time, energy and commitment towards healing the relationship from infidelity, according to Chlipala. “Cheating is considered a trauma, and the person who has been cheated on often experiences symptoms of PTSD, as their entire world has been shattered and they don’t know the truth from fiction anymore,” she says. “In the beginning of the healing process, the person who cheated must show as much transparency as their partner needs, which may include access to phone and phone logs, computers, bank statements, etc.” Although it shouldn’t be a forever requirement, showing this type of transparency can go a long way in healing the partner from the cheating PTSD they are likely suffering from.
Decide what being monogamous looks like for you both
Negotiating the contours of your monogamy is an important part of making a relationship work and it can determine whether or not your relationship will survive an affair, explains Tammy Nelson, Ph.D., certified sex therapist and author of Getting the Sex You Want. “Whether you’ve decided to stay together and make your relationship work, or leave your partner and work on your next relationship, making an implicit monogamy agreement is a skill you’ll need to master to have any sustainable partnership going forward,” she says. “Creating a new open monogamy is an important goal if you want to start over, either with your current partner or someone new.”