Imagine you’re head over heels in love with your partner, and then they cheat on you. But, they say it was a one time deal and show genuine remorse: They got too drunk at that party. Or maybe they say it was a short-lived crush with a coworker and now it’s over. You feel that they’re being truthful and you want to patch the relationship so you can move on and forward together. So, how do you proceed?
Well, the truth is there are a lot of reasons why your partner may have cheated. It’s crucial to figure out what propelled them to cheat and know that it’s going to take some work on both sides to rebuild the trust in the relationship. If you’re ready to do that work, we’ve gathered some tips on how to forgive your partner or know when it’s time to break it off for good.
1. Accept that the cheating happened
While it may feel good to pretend like nothing happened, it’s bad for the health of your relationship overall. It builds resentment and doesn’t allow for actual communication and healing.
Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of Fragile Power: Why Having Everything is Never Enough, tells O.school that “you have to accept that your partner, the person who you trusted with your intimacy, betrayed you.”
“For most people, this is a difficult hurdle to cross. Our egos engage in all sorts of acrobatics to rationalize, deny and minimize the event. For this reason, it's important to recognize that forgiving is a process that takes time, not an event that occurs with the snap of one's fingers,” he says.
Hokemeyer adds that, “once you realize that it will take time, you'll need to give yourself a clear reason to forgive and allow yourself the time to fulfill your reason.”
2. Create space for healing and processing
When it comes to cheating, it’s not surprising if tensions run high when you and your partner attempt to unpack the damage that’s been done. It’s important to allow time and space for healing so you don’t say things you perhaps don’t mean in moments of anger.
“Couples need guidance to be patient — the person who's been cheated on needs space to have his/her/their feelings validated and has a right to be angry,” Matt Lundquist, founder and clinical director of Tribeca Therapy in New York City, tells O.school. “At the same time, the cheater is allowed to have complicated feelings and needs time in this process as well, and, challenging as that may be, room is needed for both.”
3. Talk everything through and work toward rebuilding trust
After taking the time and space to process what’s happened, it's time to communicate openly and honestly. Talking about everything you and your partner are feeling — anxieties, fears, needs that aren’t being met — is the only way through to another chapter of your relationship.
It can be helpful to have an intermediary during this part of the process, perhaps a couple’s counselor or a marriage professional who is an unbiased third party. This person can help mediate the conversations and properly communicate a point that maybe you or your partner aren’t able to do so effectively on your own.
If having a third party involved isn’t possible, you can talk through what’s happened without it becoming an argument by exercising some key tips. For one, try not to raise your voice and keep calm when sharing how you’re feeling. Listen to your partner fully and completely before responding. Also, don’t assume your partner will respond in any specific way to a feeling or thought. Give them the space and benefit of the doubt to formulate a response that’s entirely their own.
At the end of the day, if you and your partner want the relationship to work, you’ll lay all of your respective cards on the table. Perhaps this means establishing new methods of communicating going forward so you don’t get back to this place — maybe checking in with one another daily or setting new boundaries for what’s acceptable behavior within the bounds of your relationship. Talking through anything and everything you’re both comfortable and uncomfortable with will help build trust for the future so there’s no surprises and no one is blindsided by any behavior.
4. Lean on the things that give you strength
Having a partner cheat on you can throw your world off your axis. Often, the best way to get through your initial feelings of hurt, sadness, and/or anger can be to lean on friends, family members, and others who comprise your support system. Talking through your feelings with these individuals can help you make sense of your feelings when you sometimes can’t do so on your own.
For some, a therapist may be part of their support system. For others, perhaps it’s the community they’ve created at church or temple. Leaning into spirituality or faith may be the thing that helps get you through.
If you’re a Christian wondering how to forgive a cheater, for example, Erik Mildes, MA, LMHC, licensed counselor and clinical supervisor in Seattle Christian Counseling suggests to O.school that you can turn to your faith. Have your spouse give you an accounting of why they did what they did. For those who are particularly spiritual, Mildes even quotes Paul in Ephesians: “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” (5:11)
Mildes acknowledges “this is difficult work,” but “if there is to be any hope of actually finding room within your soul to forgive your [partner], the wound needs to be fully cleaned out.”
5. Be willing to let go of the past
For a relationship to succeed in the wake of someone cheating, both parties have to be willing to let go of what happened and move forward as a unit. Part of moving forward means that the scorned partner needs to be amenable to truly let go and not let their hurt create ammunition they’ll throw at their partner when things get tough in the future. That sort of toxicity breeds resentment and neither party will feel like they’ve really earned back the other’s trust.
While forgiving is not forgetting, if your partner has apologized in earnest and you genuinely believe them, you need to honor that new agreement and leave what’s happened in the past.
If you don't think their apology is coming from a genuine place, you suspect they could cheat again, or you don’t feel you can ever let go of what happened, then perhaps the relationship can never move forward.
If your partner cheated, can you trust they won’t do it again?
Trusting your partner again wholeheartedly is an entirely subjective act, but there are of course some things to look out for when rebuilding trust. Showing remorse and offering an authentic, genuine apology are a huge indicator, it says in How to Save a Marriage.
“If [your partner] doesn’t show any remorse and tries to blame it all on you (by accusing you of not satisfying [their] needs or caring enough), [they are] probably on [their] way out of the marriage or planning [their] next affair,” they say, adding: “If [they] just said ‘sorry’ a couple of times, or avoid the topic by saying ‘I’ve already said I’m sorry, so let’s not bring it up again,’ [they] clearly do not regret [their] actions or takes any responsibility for them.”
Another indicator is your partner’s willingness to listen and communicate with you on the matter. Is your partner hearing you out on your feelings or running away from them? If your partner is always on the defense, it could be a sign they don’t respect you or care how their actions impacted you. This can make it difficult to trust they won’t be unfaithful again in the future.
There’s some science to consider here, too. In a study about serial cheating published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, 484 people in relationships were asked about their behavior and it produced this whopper of a statistic: People who cheated in their first relationship were considered three times more likely to cheat again in their next relationship. While this statistic is alarming, remember that every relationship is different. It’s up to you to weigh the pros and cons of trusting your partner and determining if the relationship is worth fighting for.
Is it right to forgive a cheater?
As with most choices, there are pros and cons to all situations. In forgiving your partner, you’ve likely freed yourself of the negative emotions of being angry and resentful. “Learning how to let go and move forward in life is a valuable life skill,” Gabrielle Seunagal writes for Regain.us.
Another pro is that you’ve likely identified where the fractures were in your relationship through talking about the infidelity. If both parties have communicated fully and showed effort that they want to continue the relationship, all cards are on the table — good and bad. From there, you can repair the damage accordingly.
As for the cons, there’s always a chance that the partner who cheated could do so again. This isn’t a one-size-fits-all sort of deal and, of course, there are plenty of people who do it once and never do it again. Unfortunately, though, there are serial cheaters. “Any time someone chooses to forgive a cheater, they are running a risk of being subjected to further infidelities,” it says on Regain.us.
When to break up with a cheater
When a partner cheats, it hurts your heart, ego, hopes, and trust all in one fell swoop; it can feel impossible to figure out if you should just walk away when you’re in the thick of it. While you’ll want to ask someone else to tell you what to do, only you can decide if the relationship is worth working on or best to walk away from.
If you’ve taken the steps above to heart and put in the work to fight for the relationship, but your partner isn’t doing the work too, you deserve to be with a partner who will put in what you’re putting in. If your partner rises to the task, listens to your feelings, is genuinely remorseful, and wants to show a team effort with couple’s counseling, then perhaps you’ve found someone you can push past this trauma with.
The bottom line
Cheating doesn’t have to be the end of the road for every relationship it impacts, just as not every relationship is salvageable from its wreckage. Forgiving a cheater takes honesty, openness, and communication. If you and your partner are willing to put in the work, it is possible to move forward in the relationship in a healthy way.