The therapist’s view: How to fix your relationship after cheating
It takes work, says Jean-Claude Chalmet, but couples can survive and even thrive
Infidelity strikes at the very heart of a relationship. It destroys trust in the present, as well as the foundation of trust on which your relationship is built. When trust is damaged so profoundly, it’s difficult to repair. And yet I’ve worked with many couples whose relationship has grown stronger after an infidelity. Indeed, I’d say half of all couples survive and even thrive. But for this to happen, a huge amount of work and emotional maturity is required — as well as a mutual desire to stay together.
The person who has cheated needs to take responsibility for their actions
What’s important is that the person who has been unfaithful takes responsibility for what they did. Too often people externalise the problem and make it their partner’s fault (they don’t pay attention to me any more, I don’t feel loved etc). Very often in my practice, I’ve seen that partners had conflicting ideas about infidelity because they didn’t talk about it. “I didn’t think you’d care — we haven’t had sex for six years.”
While these feelings may be valid, we adults have a choice in how we behave and so, ultimately, we are accountable. But very few people who cheat — emotionally or physically — say: “It shouldn’t have happened.” Most start off defensively, like children — “it was nothing” — refusing to admit that they behaved badly or failed to match expectations.
Never underestimate the pain that has been caused
Denial, anger (“how long are you going to punish me for?”), claiming your partner is fussing about nothing invalidates and minimises their hurt and pain. It’s insulting. It makes the situation worse. If the relationship is to survive, it is essential that the person who cheated truly acknowledges how their partner feels — rather than dictate how they should feel.
The betrayed partner needs to know that the depth of pain inflicted by the partner is fully understood. They also need to feel that the one who strayed is genuinely sorry. And contrition is more effectively shown by actions than by words. This is not a process that can be rushed.
If you’ve been unfaithful, expect two years of scrutiny before your partner feels safe
The person who has been unfaithful must accept that for the next two or three years they will be placed under close scrutiny by their partner. That said, for the relationship to recover, the betrayed person must be able to — eventually — move beyond their hurt and anger. If there’s no statute of limitations on flinging accusations of being a cheat every time there’s a row, the couple are caught in a loop of resentment, and passive aggression, and progress is impossible.
Forgiveness is rarely a decision. But if the betrayed partner can realise that they are willing to look beyond their anger, hurt and betrayal, because they want this to work and they’re not ready to give up on it, forgiveness becomes organic.
You both need to investigate why the affair happened
A relationship survives and thrives after an affair when the crisis becomes an opportunity to investigate why the affair happened and fix what caused it. Cheating doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The blame ultimately lies with the adulterer, but any unhappy situation in an intimate relationship is co-created by a couple. People’s needs aren’t met — otherwise they wouldn’t stray.
I’ve worked with many couples where the relationship has grown stronger after an affair — because what could not be said was finally communicated. Each partner finally expressed what was lacking, eg intimacy or affection, and how they felt their needs weren’t being met.
You can’t just say: “It happened because I was drunk”
While there needs to be honesty and transparency — in behaviour, in communication — there also has to be emotional maturity from both. A lot of people play the justification game. “I was drunk/ it was a party/ you didn’t give me sex for three months.” Having an affair is a toxic, immature way of acting out how you feel — of saying, “I’m angry with you, I’m frustrated,” or regaining control. It can be to scare the other person, to push them to meet our needs by creating a fear of loss. So for the relationship to repair, it’s essential that the cheater honestly answers the question, “Why did I do this?” before explaining.
It’s important to face up to talking about what has happened
Self-awareness facilitates accepting responsibility. You don’t blame, but you might also say: “I felt lonely/ I couldn’t talk to you about my desires.”
Both parties need to listen and become self-aware. If a couple aren’t having therapy, I advise setting aside a particular time to talk about the affair before drawing a line and moving on with their day. If the subject can be raised at any moment, it’s corrosive. Then they grow afraid of being with each other. But I would advise seeking professional help — it’s such a painful and difficult path to navigate because people feel so hurt and vulnerable.
You both have to work at the new version of your relationship
Just as the affair was a co-creation, so is the reconciliation. As a therapist I help people to understand their needs, why they behaved as they did, and explore whether those needs — for both parties — can be met by the other. But once they know and understand what those needs are, they can work towards reconnecting and forging a stronger, deeper, more rewarding relationship.
A kiss with someone else is a form of infidelity
Even in good relationships there are temporary moments of insanity. A kiss with someone else counts as that moment. If an illicit kiss reveals an issue — say, a shortage of intimacy or affection in your partnership — yet also prompts you to realise how much it means to both of you, this could be an opportunity to forge positive change. In most situations few men or women would want to lose a marriage over a kiss. If a partner has discovered the kiss, it’s not just about what happens next — it’s about how much trust the betrayed partner has in their relationship. Ultimately, the question is, do you trust your partner that this was a moment of madness, or do you believe it was the stepping stone to going further?
A flirty lunch with a colleague is also dangerous ground
Of course, there’s a big difference between a flirty lunch and falling into bed together. But even if any sex between you is all in the mind, indulging fantasies is a dangerous course of action.
In long relationships intimacy and sex are not always top priorities. But focusing your desire on someone else does nothing to rectify that. You might claim that lunch with your colleague is a pick-me-up, an innocent thrill, but I’d ask what’s lacking in your primary relationship that you need that thrill. This is the conversation you should have with your partner — and, difficult though it is, it’s more likely to lead to the closeness you need in your relationship.
The tell-tale signs that someone is cheating
If a person is playing away, they may hide their phone and passwords. There may be unexplained absences. They may become less affectionate, less tolerant, less accepting. But it can be hard to detect because some of us are excellent at deception, or gaslighting our partner — “That lunch? It was a work thing, don’t be ridiculous, you’re imagining it.” At the same time, one must be careful because some people, because of their insecurities, backgrounds or traumas, are hyper-vigilant, and a partner staying an extra ten minutes in the pub to have a drink with colleagues arouses suspicion.
The truth is, we never really know what goes on in someone’s mind. That’s why trust is fundamental. Love is a transaction. You have expectations of each other, and it’s a continuous game of meeting those, or not, and depending on how that goes, there can be a point when we stop believing in love, and believe in betrayal. That’s when we suspect someone of cheating.
As told to Anna Maxted for The Times Saturday, 12 June 2021