A Guide To Life After Being Cheated On

It can happen to the best of us. It happened to JLo and Lady Di, and you most likely know at least one person in your life who you watched experience it firsthand. The heart-wrenching emotions that follow the betrayal leave you questioning reality as you face the fact that the world you thought you lived in is based on lies and deceptions.

By Johanna Duncan5 min read
Pexels/Megan Ruth

The reality is that the aftermath of infidelity is a very complex situation, as many factors are at play. Whether you stay or leave is also a decision made in a time of vulnerability, so my hope is that this guide will help you navigate your thoughts and feelings and help you find your path forward. 

Step 1: Grieve and Face the Shock

Whether you stay or leave, you must first grieve. Affairs bring up the reality that the relationship has failed as the betrayal marks the end of the trust and mutual care that makes a relationship. Now is the time to ride the waves of grief. Go through the phases of anger, sadness, and even delusion. 

Take your time to process what has happened and understand that you can’t beat the process. You need to cry, as you have just lost something of great sacredness. Give yourself time, and spend this time showering yourself with love and grace. Ride the rollercoaster of emotions and avoid being reactive. 

Make a decision for yourself and your family. Many couples stay together through rough patches for the children, and there is validity to this, but don’t simply suck it up. If you are to stay, you must stay for a new relationship, and the old one must be grieved. 

Relationship therapist Dr. Esther Perel suggests in her popular TedTalk that some of the happiest couples attribute their success to their own ability to renew their relationship. 60 years of marriage can be the composition of five different relationships with the same person. It makes sense if you consider how much we and our lives change. That couple kissing at their 50th wedding anniversary are different people than when they first wrote their vows. 

Step 2: Find a Support System 

Telling people is a hard step as it makes us verbalize what has happened. Choose carefully who you share this with. A good criterion would be someone who is an outsider, i.e. a therapist, but also friends and family who have most likely already gone through hard things with you. 

This is a very intimate matter, so don't advertise it on social media or talk about it with the general public, especially during this time. You can later decide if and how you’d like to share your story, but as a general rule, don’t do it while it’s still fresh. 

People’s advice is largely based on their own experiences. Those are valid, but they’re someone else’s reality, not yours.

As your loved ones listen to you in your grief, they will most likely give you advice. Listen, but take it with a grain of salt. In these sorts of topics, people’s feedback is largely based on their own personal experiences. Those are valid, but they’re someone else’s reality, not yours. Keep in mind that you’re in a vulnerable state, and it’s easy to be pushed one way or another. Try your best to remain still and don’t make any drastic decisions until you have reached a more emotionally stable place. 

Step 3: Make a Decision

Whether you leave or stay, you will have to go over the two paths mentioned below. Put yourself in each position and think through the steps to help you discern what you should ultimately do.

I once heard someone say “What you have to do to get them back and what you have to do to move on are the same thing.” The advice below is just that, so regardless of your long-term intentions or plans, do what is right and healing for you through this journey. 

If You’re Leaving 

We often leave motivated by self-preservation and with a lot of hurt. That is valid, but understand that leaving doesn’t fix nor erase the hurt caused by a betrayal. You still need to look in the mirror and recognize when and how things went wrong. 

Conduct an autopsy: Betrayal is inexcusable and should not be justified, but you can conduct an autopsy on your dead relationship and seek to understand the red flags, or even the pink flags. More often than not, affairs are the last straw after the relationship has already faced a demise. If the friendship isn’t there, if the trust and respect were already missing, if our goals and values were getting harder and harder to align, then affairs are more likely to occur. Take this as a learning experience for nothing is wasted and the love you gave is still preserved as a memory that is most likely not all so terrible. 

Forgive: This pain doesn’t define you. It’s only by truly forgiving that you can set yourself free from the hurt. You may still cry about it for a long time, but remind yourself of the fact that you took the risk of loving and being vulnerable, and that is admirable. You were brave and free, and all good troopers get hurt from time to time. 

Start fresh: You probably have many friends and activities in common. You can keep them up if you’d like, but also add a sense of newness to your life. Join a class and make an effort to make new friends there, or simply make plans that are out of the norm for you. Rely on your friends for this as they are probably eager to support you and are happy to do fun things with you. 

The change of scenery will help your brain deal with the larger changes going on in your life. You can make it fun, but it won’t be easy. Give yourself time, but be sure to spend this time doing things that excite you. Staying focused on the good things that remain in your life, and the hopefully even better things you are adding, will make a world of difference. 

If You’re Staying 

Understand that you’re staying to build a whole new relationship. The previous relationship failed, and it must be grieved, not revived. If you stay, there are a few things that must be in place for things to work:

Is he asking you to stay? You may feel inclined to cling and try to make it work, but the reality is that if the other party is not committed to change their behavior and prioritize this new relationship, it’s better for you not to stay. Two things can happen with the betrayer: He will either choose to continue this behavior or he will be regretful and want to change for the sake of a new relationship. He must make this decision on his own, and hopefully that’s what he’s thinking about while you’re reflecting on what you’d like to do. Don’t try to persuade him one way or another. Whatever he decides must truly be his own decision. 

What would you like your new relationship to be like? The last relationship failed, so whatever is next is a shiny new thing. What would you like it to be like? What would work best for you? I want to encourage you to think of this with detachment. Try to vision this with both someone new and your potential ex. This detachment is important in order for you to make a decision based on what you truly want and need, and not based on emotions and pain. More often than not, if the party who caused the pain is truly regretful, they’re more likely to do whatever it takes to rebuild a new relationship, so the heavy load actually weighs on the wronged party. 

If you’re forgiving and starting a new relationship, then it’s wrong to hold the past pain over your spouse.

Can you truly forgive and commit to not bringing up the past? One of the hardest things about this situation is avoiding the temptation to grow suspicious and hypervigilant. You also can’t bring it up every time your spouse does something wrong. There is a time and a space to talk through the pain caused by the betrayal, but if you’re forgiving and starting a new relationship, then it’s wrong to hold the past pain over your spouse. If you don’t think you can do this, maybe you just need more time to heal, or simply staying together will not work for you. Nonetheless, I strongly suggest you do your best not to bring it up unnecessarily and be mindful of how you speak about it in the future, because whether you stay together or not, this experience should not define your future relationships nor sense of self. 

It Matters Whether You’re Dating or Married 

Dating is about getting to know the other person and setting the dynamics of a long-term relationship; therefore, a betrayal can be a clear indication that this person is simply not trustworthy or doesn’t value commitment and the relationship as you do and expect the other to do. So if you’re planning to stay with your boyfriend together after a betrayal, I would suggest you take a break because, in order to work it out, the unfaithful party would have to prove his character and commitment in both words and deeds over a period of time. Apologies are wonderful, but words alone don’t suffice for long-lasting romance. 

Marriage is a different matter entirely because those vows are significant. There is a bigger promise and personal investment in marriage, so speaking in general terms, a married woman would have more reasons to choose to stay or at least try her best to make it work. It’s to be expected for marriages to have rough patches, and it’s for you to discern if this is truly just a rough patch that can be overcome, or if it’s better to leave this relationship. Marriage therapists are happy to help couples overcome rough seasons, but if micro or macro betrayals continue, many will stop meeting with the couple under the understanding that when there are continuing betrayals, there is no relationship to work on. 

Whichever direction you choose to go in, a trusted therapist can be a helpful coach throughout your healing process. It would be unethical for the therapist to make the decision to stay or leave for you, but they will be able to go over all these steps and assess the tough questions alongside you. This can be very helpful for matters of accountability, as the hurt and pain of a betrayal may make us see things with less clarity. 

Closing Thoughts

This is a painful journey, and sometimes one of the most impactful experiences of your life, but when done well, it can be a time of incredibly positive transformation. Dr. Perel compares going through an affair to going through cancer. It’s sad and painful, but oftentimes people come out of it with healthier habits and a larger appreciation for life. You wouldn’t recommend it nor wish it upon anyone, but making this experience fruitful is on you. 

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