The thing about cheating is that, unless you’re going to handcuff yourself to your partner and literally spend every second of every day of the rest of your life at their side, you can’t prevent it. If someone wants to cheat, they will. You don’t have a choice.
Where you do have a choice, however, is in what you do after someone cheats. And the choices you make in response to being cheated on make a difference between whether you recover or whether you live in misery for years because of something you didn’t do and had no control over.
My ex-husband is the first person that I can specifically recall cheating on me — but he wasn’t the last. I recall him so clearly, though, because we were married and because I was pregnant the first time I found out he cheated.
Yes, I said the first time I found out. I stayed with him for a few more years and through other toxic behaviors before I finally left.
But the time wasn’t wasted. Because when it was all said and done, there came a point where I realized what I should have done differently. And now I want to share that with you so you can save yourself some unnecessary pain and heartache.
Know that recovery doesn’t always mean staying together
When I was in the thick of things with my former husband, I confused recovery with staying married. I believed that recovery meant working through it and being able to stay married — and be happily married at that. And if I left him, then there was no recovery.
But that was all wrong. Recovery from cheating isn’t necessarily about putting the marriage back together and coming out stronger than before. Sometimes that is what happens but not always.
Recovery, in the initial stages, is about you being able to put yourself back together. It’s about being able to remember, or realize, that your self-worth doesn’t come from having a faithful partner. It’s about recognizing that your partner cheating isn’t about you or because of you.
Recovery is being able to eventually trust again. To trust yourself to do what’s best for you if you’re ever in this situation again. To trust a partner, whether this same one or a new one, to be faithful. To trust that ultimately, things will be okay.
And in that recovery, sometimes you part ways. It doesn’t mean you didn’t recover. In fact, sometimes ending the relationship is the truest sign of recovery because it indicates that you understand that this particular partner isn’t the one for you and that you value yourself enough to walk away and wait for the one who is.
Know that it takes time
I was barely 22 years old, and 39 weeks pregnant, when I found out about my ex’s affair the first time. I’m not sure if it was my youth or my pregnancy hormones or a combination of both, but I had this ridiculous idea that getting past my spouse cheating on me should only take a few days. Maybe a couple of weeks.
In those first days, it never occurred to me that it might take months. Maybe even years. But it can.
You can’t expect to find out on Tuesday night that your partner cheated and wake up Wednesday morning with all forgiven and ready to move forward in blissful love. The wounds that infidelity leaves are deep and painful and they reopen with barely a breath.
Recovering from being cheated on takes time. Sometimes a lot of time. And sometimes you’ll go for weeks or months and think you’ve recovered because you’re happy and laughing and feeling good. And then it will slam into you again and remind you that maybe you’re not quite there yet.
There is no timeline on this. No one can tell you that it’s been X long and you should be over it by now. It takes as long as it takes for you and that time might be longer or shorter for you than for someone else.
Figure out how you can let go without knowing all the answers
Oh, I remember so many questions in the wake of finding out my ex had cheated. How did he meet her? Where did they sleep together? How many times? Did he even consider how I would feel? Did she know about me?
The list was endless. Honestly, to this day, I could probably add more questions to it if I wanted to. But why? He answered some questions and not others.
Some questions he could answer, like how they met or whether she knew about me. Other questions, he didn’t want to answer, like how many times they slept together or if he considered how I’d feel. And then there were questions he couldn’t answer because he either didn’t know or there was no answer, like why he did it.
Whatever the questions are, whether they are few or many, you will likely never get the answers you’re seeking. Not to all of them anyway. You might get some answers, but you won’t get all. And to truly recover, you’ll need to figure out how you can let go of what happened without getting all those answers.
It won’t be easy. And you might even be tempted to make up your own answers just to have something to tell yourself. I don’t recommend that method, but if it’s what you need, at least it’s a plan.
You might try journaling, counseling or therapy, working with a coach, meditation, or art practices to help you let go without answers.
Give yourself distance from your partner so they can’t influence you
After I confronted my ex about the evidence of his affair and we argued, I left our apartment. I was barefoot, 39 weeks pregnant, in denim shorts and a t-shirt, wandering the streets of our city. But then I came back home and stayed with him while I tried to figure things out.
And that was perhaps my biggest mistake.
He was the first person to suggest that I shouldn’t make a decision while pregnant. Staying in the home with him also gave him free access to manipulate me with more lies and pleas and attempts to persuade me that it was a one-time thing and would never happen again. And it worked.
Even if you think you want to work things out and stay with a partner who has cheated, you should give yourself some distance from them. It’s not forever and it doesn’t have to be a huge distance. But staying with a friend or relative, getting a hotel room, or asking your partner to stay somewhere else for a few days or a few weeks can give you the space you need to think clearly.
And you do need that space. I was leaning heavily toward ending my marriage in the wake of learning he’d cheated. I firmly believe if I’d given myself some space from him, I would have seen the marriage and his affair for what they were and ended things.
And if you’re worried that spending time apart will make you want to end things even though you want to work them out? Don’t be. If your heart is truly in that place of wanting to work things out, time away from your partner shouldn’t change that. All the time apart will do is give you the clarity of knowing that you’ve made your own decision without their influence.
Be honest with yourself
When I found the proof my ex had cheated, I was surprised. I don’t know why I was surprised because I had had feelings before that moment that maybe he was unfaithful. I had no proof but I had my gut feeling. And with that came the deep knowledge that our marriage wasn’t going to last.
But I denied all this. I pretended I didn’t have these feelings that he was unfaithful. I pretended not to know our marriage wouldn’t last. I lied to myself about leaning toward ending the marriage and about whether the things he said and did after I caught him influenced me to stay with him.
Being honest with yourself is crucial to the recovery process. Trust between you and your partner has been broken and you may not want to tell anyone else what happened. So that safe space in yourself where you can be honest and open about what happened, what you feel, and what you want might be the only place where you can be honest.
Be ruthlessly truthful with yourself. How much does it hurt? What do you want to do? How do you feel toward your partner? Can you forgive and move on? Get it all out in the open with yourself so you can make decisions that are best for you.
It doesn’t matter if this is the first time someone’s cheated or if it’s happened in other relationships, recovering from cheating is always necessary. What that recovery looks like may look different in each relationship and for each individual, but one thing remains the same: if you don’t take the time to truly recover, you’ll bring the pain and unhappiness from it into any future romantic relationships. And that doesn’t bode well whether you stay with this partner or move on.
Wendy Miller is a Single Mom Coach & meditation teacher. She helps moms use mindfulness and meditation to create the life they really want. She lives in Florida with her two sons, where she homeschools while solo parenting, while surrounded by what feels like a zooful of animals.
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