One of the most frequent questions we get asked goes along these lines: "My partner cheated on me. What should I do?"
Of course, cheating is a fact of life—whether a couple is married or not. What do you estimate to be the prevalence of cheating? Take a guess. The best estimate at this time, at least in the United States, is 25% over the course of a relationship, although this estimate may be conservative because some people will not admit, even anonymously, that they have cheated on their partner.
Perhaps they are afraid that a survey is not really all that anonymous, or maybe they don’t even want to admit it to themselves that they have cheated. They may view it as a one-time (or two-time or three-time!) aberration that is better forgotten.
If, for some religious or other reason of bedrock principle, you believe that a partner’s cheating requires that you leave, you need read no further. Just go.
But for most of us, the decision of whether to leave or stay is more nuanced, and in such cases, it is worthwhile to consider options, starting with why people cheat and continuing with what to do about it.
Janet and William in Trouble
Janet and William have been together for almost 10 years. They are viewed as a model couple by their friends and they, themselves, have told friends that their relationship is as solid as a rock.
They have fun together, they have serious conversations, and they realize that the time for them to have children has come, lest it get too late. Other couples fight and holler: They just enjoy their time together.
Janet was therefore dumbfounded, shocked, and utterly destroyed when she found incontrovertible evidence that William had slept with another woman on a business trip.
Well, the evidence was maybe not doubt-proof, but understandably, William was having serious trouble explaining how a piece of intimate women’s apparel tumbled out of his suitcase when he opened it with Janet right there.
And then he admitted to the one-night stand, which he said occurred when he was drunk.
Janet wonders what the undies were doing in the suitcase. Did William put them there as some kind of souvenir or remembrance? Did the woman put them there as a souvenir, or to send a message either to William or to Janet? Was it accidental or on purpose?
William claims not to know why they were there.
William has promised that it will never, ever happen again. But what is his promise worth? A few days ago, it would have been worth a lot. Now, Janet is just not sure. Janet is thinking of walking out. She certainly wants some “time off.”
Why Do Partners Cheat?
First, you need to understand: Why do partners cheat? There are a LOT of reasons. Here are some of the most common ones.
1. The relationship was seriously or perhaps irretrievably damaged before the cheating even occurred.
Although this explanation may occur as one’s first thought upon learning that a partner has cheated, it actually is an uncommon reason. You would know best if you are in a horribly failing relationship. But if you thought things were going at least reasonably well before the episode, you also should consider more common explanations.
2. The passion in your relationship has been faltering.
If the passion in your relationship has been faltering, you want to ask what kinds of things you can do to restore the excitement of the past. I will be writing a separate post about this topic.
Passion can be restored. If lack of passion is the issue, you might want to see whether you can restore it before you make any irrevocable decisions about the future of your relationship.
3. The intimacy in your relationship has been faltering.
Sometimes, partners seek out affairs because they miss the intimacy they once experienced with their partner. As time goes on, couples sometimes find that intimacy flags because they are too busy with other things and do not pay attention to the deep communication, shared activities, and fun times that they used to seek out.
Intimacy, like passion, can be restored. An affair may be a cry out for the reestablishment of intimacy.
4. The commitment in your relationship has declined.
As time goes on, we may feel our commitment begin to waver. Some of us may even have trouble remembering why we committed ourselves in the first place or we may feel that the commitment was premature.
Couples can turn a crisis into an opportunity if they use the crisis to recommit themselves to the relationship.
5. Your partner has a collector story.
A collector story is one of an individual who collects lovers much like other individuals might collect coins, stamps, or pieces of art.
If you are with a collector and knew it all along, then you should not be surprised that your partner had an affair. Rather, it was almost inevitable.
But if your partner was a collector and you didn’t know it, now is the time to find out. Is this the first affair? How many other extra partners have there been? For how long?
You have to decide whether you can live with a collector. Stories are hard to change.
6. Your partner believes in polyamory and “forgot” to tell you.
In many societies, polyamory (love of, and usually, sex with multiple persons simultaneously) is typical and societally condoned rather than atypical and societally condemned.
In our society, there are any number of people who believe, at one level or another, in polyamory. Dr. Terri Conley at the University of Michigan has studied polyamorous relationships and believes we all could learn something from them.
But you have to decide whether polyamory ever could fit you. If not, you may have an incompatibility with your partner that will be challenging to overcome.
7. Your partner was stone drunk or high on something and hence lost their usual inhibitions against a one-night stand.
It happens. The thing for both of you to realize, of course, is that inebriation may be a partial explanation of a one-night stand. It is not an excuse for it. If that is part of the explanation, that explanation is good, at best, for a one-time event. It won’t work next time.
8. Your partner is “torn between two lovers.”
Popular singer Mary McGregor sang a hit song, “Torn between Two Lovers”, that describes a woman who is in love with two men at once and finds that each provides something that the other does not and perhaps cannot provide.
She finds that the lover provides something the partner cannot, but that her primary love always will be her partner. She does not plan to leave either one.
You have to decide whether you can handle that. A lot of people either leave, stay but in sadness, or else start seeing someone else themselves. These cases do not always end all so well.
9. Your partner is getting some kind of reward for being in the alternate relationship.
Sometimes, it comes down to a tangible reward—money, jewelry, or vacations (perhaps covered up as “business trips”).
But the reward also may be intangible—respect, being listened to, being treated as smart or attractive or just worthy of care.
If your partner is getting some kind of concrete reward, is it something you can provide? Or is there another way to get it?
10. Your partner was coerced or even forced.
As you know, forced sex happens—all the time. People who are coerced or forced into sex often do not want to admit it even happened.
You need at least to consider the possibility that a sexual encounter was not voluntary. Do not immediately conclude that it was voluntary. And don’t be a jerk.
If your partner was forced, she (or he) needs help and compassion, not blame. They also need to see a doctor and perhaps the police.
My Partner Cheated on Me. Now What?
The point is that a partner’s having an affair can mean a lot of things. You need to have as much information as you can get before you decide how to act. Which of the reasons above played a role in your partner's cheating?
You have many options. Which one you choose will depend on your partner's underlying motivation as well as your own attitudes and goals for your relationship.
1. You can file for divorce.
Just remember the proverb, “Act in haste; repent at leisure.” Are you sure this is what you want?
2. You can turn a crisis into an opportunity and work to improve the relationship.
This is an attractive option, but you need to understand, as precisely as possible, what happened and why.
3. You can take some time off to think about it.
In my view, this is a much better option than immediately seeking a divorce. Your partner should understand why you need some time to think. Take enough time to think, but not so much time that you irretrievably grow apart.
4. You can seek relationship counseling.
This is probably a good idea, in any case. Just make sure you find a good counselor. And remember that, for counseling to work, you both need to want to work things out.
5. You can seek individual counseling.
You may feel like you need help to deal with the situation. Get it! Find someone competent. Don’t find a know-it-all ideologue who will want to tell you what to do. You have to decide what to do.
6. You can “even the score.”
You may feel a need to retaliate—to even the score. If you need to do this and your partner agrees, go ahead.
This does not tend to be a successful way of resolving the problem, however, because it does not provide understanding of what happened and how it can be remedied in the future.
7. You can live with the bitterness and distrust.
It is not for me to tell others what to do, but this is, I believe, a really bad idea.
You have learned nothing from the event; your partner learns nothing; and you further corrode not only your relationship, but your own life.
8. Seek help in your religious or other faith.
For some people, seeking help through religious faith can help get through hard times. But this course of action probably needs to be supplemented by other courses of action, such as working on the relationship.
What distinguishes people who make a success of life from those who do not is not whether bad things happen; it is what they make of them.
Ultimately, the thing to remember is that in life and in relationships, bad things happen to good people. You already know this. What distinguishes people who make a success of life from those who do not is not whether bad things happen; it is what they make of the bad things. This is your chance to make your life much better, or ever so much worse.