There’s no “right” way to respond after discovering your partner cheated. Whether you decide to stay or go, it’s going to be a long, difficult road to rebuilding trust and feeling OK again, said Laura Miolla, a professional divorce coach based in Boston.
“Your relationship is now compromised and tainted by betrayal and deceit,” she said. “It’s easy to wonder ‘what did I do wrong?’ but their infidelity is not a reflection of you. It was your partner’s choice.”
Below, Miolla and other experts share how to process and move forward after infidelity.
1. Give your partner a chance to explain what happened.
Don’t make a hasty decision on whether you’ll stay or leave, especially if your partner’s betrayal seemed to come out of nowhere. Carve out some time when you can calmly and clearly discuss what led your partner to cheating, said Helen Zielinski Landon, a psychologist based in Santa Monica, California.
“See if you can get your questions answered and if you feel that you can forgive and move forward with your partner,” she said.“Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting. There will be work to be done, but it’s possible to find renewed strength in the relationship with new honesty, an appreciation for what could have been lost and a new commitment to improving your bond.”
2. Remind yourself that you are not to blame for the infidelity.
Disavow yourself of the idea that you are in any way, shape or form responsible for your partner cheating. It was their major lapse in judgement, not yours, said Miolla.
“Regardless of the reasons why, your partner made a conscious decision to put their desires above the relationship and above you,” she said. “Separate yourself from your partner’s choice. Accountability lies squarely with your partner and their decision. There’s no need to own their issues.”
3. Prioritize your own needs and protect yourself.
Of course you still care for your partner. Right now, though, it’s critical that you put yourself first, said Tracy Schorn, the author of Leave a Cheater, Gain a Life: The Chump Lady’s Survival Guide.
“You still love this person and that’s tragic and understandable, but right now you need to love yourself more and start enforcing your boundaries,” she told us. “This is essential whether you reconcile or end it. Discovery does not always lead to unvarnished honesty on the part of the cheater so put your shields up.”
4. If you can, get professional help.
While debating your next move, get some outside perspective, said Leslie Petruk, a marriage and family therapist based in Charlotte, North Carolina. (And no, not just your friend who never liked your partner anyway.)
“This probably isn’t a journey the two of you can do on your own,” she said. “A trained professional can help guide you through the difficult process of rebuilding trust.”
5. Ask yourself: Was this the last straw or the first strike?
There’s a big difference between a partner’s first offense and the most recent betrayal in a long line of questionable behavior, Zielinski Landon said.
“If what happened to you is the last or the worst in a long string of smaller betrayals or abuses of your trust, then it’s probably time to go,” she suggested. “Often there are signs and indicators that a relationship has run its course, but we are afraid to move on. See this as a great opportunity to move on; finally you have something solid to help propel you forward and compel you to leave.”
6. Assess where the marriage broke down.
While you are categorically not to blame for your S.O. cheating on you, it’s very likely that the condition of your marriage was poor leading up to it. An affair is usually a symptom of problems in the relationship, where one person simply acts out, Petruk said.
“Both of you participated in the break down in the relationship, whether you stopped communicating honestly, didn’t resolve conflicts or just stopped caring,” she said. “Whatever you decide, assess the part you played first.”
7. Decide what moving on means to you.
Deep down, do the words “moving on” mean salvaging your marriage or leaving the relationship and your partner behind?
“Give yourself permission to feel what you feel, for however long you need to,” Miolla said. “Ask yourself, what’s most important to me in a relationship? What do I insist on? What are my boundaries and how much were they compromised by my partner’s decision?”
8. If you decide to stay, realize that your partner needs to be willing to change.
Remember: You and you alone can’t fix your relationship. The reality is, not all relationships should or can be saved, Petruk said.
“There needs to be a willingness of both parties to dig into the hard conversations and gain an understanding of what put the relationship at risk,” she explained. “Both partners need a willingness to recommit and rebuild trust.”
9. Don’t stay because you fear being on your own.
There’s nothing wrong with choosing to stay and working through your issues. But demand more from your partner (for starters, demand that they stay faithful) and never stay because you’re afraid of being alone or what lies ahead.
“Choose a path forward based on what serves you...and only you,” said Miolla. “Take the time to focus on yourself and what you need right now. Your best relationship should always be with yourself. And remember: there really are plenty of other fish in the sea.”