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What It’s Like to Stay in a Relationship After Cheating

Can you work it out after someone steps out? Sophia Benoit talked to a bunch of couples who tried.

Original Post By GQ Health Sophia Benoit August 28, 2019


Next to instructions on how to move your ass and young love, one of the most popular topics for hit songs is what to do when someone cheats on you.

Most recommend some combination of tequila, several one-night stands, and property destruction. Very few suggest trying to work it out, having hard conversations, and practicing the painful art of forgiveness.

Unfortunately, even in a post-Lemonade world, there is a lot of stigma around staying. People often are judged for not standing up for themselves, not having boundaries, or for “letting” themselves be treated disrespectfully. There’s also a common belief that “once a cheater, always a cheater”—that it’s only a matter of time before it happens again. Assumptions like these ignore the complicated web of considerations that go into deciding what to do after infidelity is revealed.

Esther Perel, noted relationship therapist, wrote a book called State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, encouraging people to try to understand how and why affairs happen, but also how a relationship might get better—with lots of work—after infidelity. In practice, it tends to be uncommon for a relationship to survive instances of cheating.

One study found that only about 16 percent of couples who’d experienced unfaithfulness were able to work it out. (Although, of course, this is a hard metric to measure—how long after an affair does a couple need to stay together to claim “success”?)

Some statistics put that number much higher, especially when it comes to married folks; clinical psychologist Joseph Cilona, Psy.D., told SELF that, “Despite the ambiguous statistics, it seems reasonable to speculate that more couples are staying together after infidelity than not.” In order to get a clearer picture of the aftermath of cheating, I talked to a bunch of people who stayed in relationships after infidelity, and here’s what they had to say. How did you decide to stay together and try to make it work? “We both could recognize our own role in it, and that the cheating itself was not based on spite or anger, but because she was missing something she needed that I hadn’t been giving her. For her part, she was afraid of confronting me about it.”—Scott, 45, Philadelphia, PA. “I loved her, so I knew I wanted her back [after she cheated], but we had to talk about everything that would happen. We sort of talked, I took her back, and we started going out again. Looking back, I think that was a mistake. We should have had a much longer conversation about what made her want to cheat, why she decided to do that in the first place, and what could be done in the future to prevent it from happening again.” —Mike, 33, Dallas, TX

“I knew I didn't [cheat] because I wanted out of the relationship or because I wanted the other person—even at that age I knew it was about how much I didn't love myself, and how much validation I needed. I was honest about everything and I think they appreciated that they didn't have to search for the truth. They asked a ton of questions and had a ton of emotions. I felt they had the right to all of them. I was selfish and took immediate validation when it was available to me, so I should be as selfless as possible to provide them with as much validation as they needed for as long as I could.” —Bea, 32, Detroit, MI

How do you maintain trust after an affair? “We agreed not to go through each other’s phones, as you find trouble when you’re looking for it, but as it’s been 2.5 years and no other incidents have happened since. He trusts that I love him and that I won’t cheat again.” —Leah, 31, Chicago, IL

“[After she cheated], we agreed that we’d each do things differently, and we were each getting a clean slate. It was as simple as that; we each thought the relationship was worth saving, and there was no way to save it without trusting that the other person would do their best.” —Andre, 33, Los Angeles, CA

“We made some agreements about more communication and going to parties together more often. After the third time she cheated, we added rules about drinking. We had been together for about three years at this point, and were going through issues, her drinking was part of that, and these rules seemed like it could make a difference.” —Paul, 32, Chicago, IL

If you’re still together, how often does the cheating come up? “I literally will go months without thinking about it. Then something will spark my memory, or she’ll come home an hour later than she planned to, or I’ll have a dream—and I can’t get it out of my mind. I won’t sleep for the whole night. It doesn’t come up very often, but it never goes away. But, most importantly, when it comes up, we talk about it.” —Scott, 45, Philadelphia, PA. “When it first happened, it would come up in fights frequently, as it was a huge hit to his ego and I think he wondered what I was missing from him. I made it pretty clear when we were starting over that I’m not going to have that over my head our entire relationship, and he needs to accept that it happened and make it work with me, or just break up with me. So I think that keeps any comments to a minimum.” —Leah, 31, Chicago, IL

Before this happened, what was your attitude towards “once a cheater always a cheater?” Now what is it?

“I think once you've cheated in a relationship, you'll always be a cheater in that relationship.” —Rebecca, 37, Los Angeles, CA

“I used to think I would always be a cheater honestly, but after this whole experience, I’m just going to end it before I hookup with someone else. The emotional fallout was just too much for me, and I never want to deal with that again.” —Leah, 31, Chicago, IL

“The phrase seems kind of seems lazy to me. As if cheating is a disease and not a symptom of what’s going on.” —Scott, 45, Philadelphia, PA

“I have serious reservations about the integrity—in any context—of someone who cheats on a partner. It’s a big red flag that covers their entire personality.” —Andre, 33, Los Angeles, CA

“My attitude has been and still is that having cheated before doesn't necessarily mean someone will cheat again. People cheat for various reasons. Sometimes they are looking for something they can’t get from their current relationship, sometimes it's something they do once and immediately regret I would never say if someone cheated once it means they can never be trusted again. People do stupid things and should be given the opportunity to grow from them.” —Josh, 27, Manchester, UK

“For me personally, I do believe once a cheater always a cheater, because I can see myself doing it again, like a one night stand kind of thing where the chances of me getting caught were slim.” —Marianne, 41, Ledyard, CT

What changed about your relationship after the cheating?

“Now, we take chances with each other. Say things to each other that used to feel risky. Confront our fears and ask for the things we want. In bed and out of bed. Our sex life is kinkier by leaps and bounds. It feels weird to simplify this part because this has been a journey—couple’s therapy, individual therapy and lots and lots and lots of trust.” —Scott, 45, Philadelphia, PA.

“I was better able to talk about some of my needs that I'd been burying. I'm a people pleaser and extremely anxious person so it's really hard for me to advocate for some of my needs. When I cheated, it became extremely obvious to both of us that they weren't being met, and just wishing that away wasn't going to work. We both had to work on them.” —Bea, 32, Detroit, MI

“People say sometimes an affair makes their marriage stronger, and I think that's the case for us. We check in on each other more, we make time for each other now, we go away together a couple times a year alone, we grocery shop together every Sunday. It sounds corny, but it makes a difference. We're like a team now, whereas before we were just two people who happened to live together.” —Marianne, 41, Ledyard, CT

“Cheating does put a barrier up for sure. It's a clear violation, and like any violation, you have to deal with it, you can't just pretend it really wasn't that big of a deal. —Bea, 32, Detroit, MI

Do you have any advice for other people coming out of this experience? “Wants and needs are dynamic, they don't stay the same. You've got to be always communicating that with your partner or your needs will go unmet, and that can create an environment in which cheating is more likely to occur. You can't ever control or be responsible for someone else's behavior—it's madness to try. If someone wants to cheat, they will. It doesn't necessarily mean that you are inadequate as a partner or have done anything wrong.” —Mike, 33, Dallas, TX

“Stop trying to figure out why they did it, you'll just drive yourself crazy. Just know that it’s not your fault. ” —Marianne, 41, Ledyard, CT

“If you’re in a committed relationship, show some empathy. A mistake can happen, you don’t know everything the other person is going through. Therapy together might also be a great idea. If they’re a serial offender though, cut your losses, and just go. There are plenty of fish in the sea.” —Zak, 37, Portland, ME

“As hard as it is, if you can remember that most times it's not about you, it's about the cheater and their issues, that can help. If you can get to a place of real honesty, you can absolutely save things.” —Bea, 32, Detroit, MI

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