If One of You Cheated, Is There Hope for Your Relationship?

If it seems like cheating is incredibly common, that’s because it is. According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, 45 percent of men and 35 percent of women have been sexually or emotionally intimate with someone outside of their committed relationship.

And with so many ways for cheating to come out these days — an accidental text to the wrong person, a like or comment on Insta, a location pin dropped where it shouldn’t be — it feels a lot more normalized.

That might mean more couples are overcoming it when it happens. Marriage and family therapist Gabrielle Applebury wrote that “adultery is no longer a deal breaker in many marriages,” and that “70 percent of couples actually stay together after an affair is discovered.”

“Some couples make it through infidelity, others don’t,” sex therapist Diana Sadat said. “Some do and shouldn’t, and others don’t and should.”

If you or your partner has cheated, it’s certainly possible to stay together (though it probably won’t be easy). But is there a way to know if you should even try, or just pick up the pieces and move on?

It’s complicated. But a bunch of experts have helped me unravel the problem a little.

When it happens to you

It’s easy to feel black and white about cheating before it happens in your relationship. But if it does happen, things can get messy, especially emotions.

Illustration of couple speaking with a therapist. Cheated pbs rewireCredit: Adobe
One of the most important things you can do to rebuild your relationship is to work together with a therapist.

“Many people think cheating is a deal breaker and believe that ‘once a cheater, always a cheater,'” couples consultant and author Lesli Doares said. “But cheating is much more complicated than that. People are often surprised that they don’t want to end the relationship even though they said that’s the one thing they wouldn’t accept. This adds to the confusion.”

If you learned you were cheated on, take time for yourself to process the information. You don’t have to make a decision right away about how to proceed with the relationship.

“One of the most important things a betrayed person should do is take some time to determine if they really can forgive,” relationship advice author Kevin Darné said.

There are lots of reasons cheating happens, and lots of ways it happens. For example, whether it was an unplanned one-time thing with a stranger, or an ongoing thing with someone you know, can play into how you choose to move forward

“Each person has his or her own values, boundaries and deal-breakers,” he said. “Not all cheating is the same. Whomever your mate cheated with can have a major impact on whether your relationship survives.”

But sometimes, one instance of cheating, no matter the circumstances, really means the end of the relationship.

If you were unfaithful, you should also take time to think.

“Be honest with yourself,” said Jess O’Reilly, resident sexologist at Astroglide. “Are you really OK having sex with only one person for the rest of your life? If not, step up and admit it. It’s okay if you don’t want to be monogamous — just don’t sign up for a monogamous relationship.

“I also suggest that you try to better understand why you cheated. This can help you to make behavioral and cognitive changes to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”

[Read: Do You Keep Crushes On the Back Burner?]

Who can make it work?

If either of you is open to staying in the relationship and working on it together, talk openly about it. Your relationship has been damaged, and you need to be on the same page if it’s going to hang in there.

“Having been down this road, I must say that no relationship will survive cheating if both parties do not want to rework the relationship,” said Stacey Greene, author of “Stronger Than Broken: One Couple’s Decision to Move Through an Affair.”

“If it is one-sided, it just won’t last.”

Every relationship is different, but if you’ve both decided you want to stay together after one of you cheated, there are qualities that can predict the success of your relationship, said Talal H. Alsaleem, a marriage and family therapist who specializes in infidelity recovery.

  • If your relationship was healthy at some point: “The ability for couples to recall a point in time in which the relationship was healthy prior to the affair motivates couples toward rebuilding.”
  • The details of the cheating: “The specific factors related to the affair such as length, type, frequency, et cetera, can affect the couples’ willingness to rebuild the relationship.”
  • The unfaithful partner’s willingness to be open about what actually happened: “When the unfaithful partner struggles with being honest about what happened, they are sending the message that they are still unable to be honest and trustworthy, which minimizes the motivation for rebuilding.”

Although it’ll be really hard to talk about and to hear, being transparent about what really happened, and what was going on internally, during the infidelity is key to starting over with your partner, Alsaleem said.

“Without understanding what happened and why it happened, couples will fail in making the right decision about the relationship’s future,” he said. “In order to rebuild trust, the betrayed partner needs to see that the unfaithful partner has the capacity to be accountable for their mistakes. Acknowledging the damage of the affair is the first way toward showcasing that ability.”

Find support

One of the most important things you can do when rebuilding your relationship after cheating is to work together with a relationship therapist, especially one who specializes in infidelity.

“There are a lot of issues and topics individuals and couples can fix on their own through self-help books,” Alsaleem said. “Healing from infidelity is not one of those issues.”

It’s likely there are larger reasons behind the cheating that will need to be addressed with the help of a therapist, “especially if the goal is to have a healthier, stronger relationship as opposed to possibly repeating these patterns over and over,” couples counselor Laurie Arnold said.

“Cheating is often a symptom of other problems that already existed in the relationship that weren’t being addressed.”

Through this process, you might find the damage runs too deep and you’re not able to stay together after all. You might also find that your relationship is very different than it was before.

Re-negotiating relationship terms is part of the healing process, Sadat said.

“Couples who often work through infidelity are those who are able to express their emotions without attacking the other person’s character, acknowledge the trauma this was to each partner, be open and honest about what led them there and re-negotiate the terms of their relationship to move forward in a new relationship based on what was learned in the past one,” she said.

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.