Infidelity is one of the worst events that can happen in a relationship. Still, many partnerships can survive an affair — if the cheating partner takes action. Here, Janis A. Spring, a clinical psychologist and author of After the Affair: Healing the Pain and Rebuilding Trust When a Partner Has Been Unfaithful, takes us through how to start mending your relationship.
1. Admit what you did right away: Unfaithful partners should not delay admitting their infidelity with the excuse that they’re trying to figure out why they did it. That’s something both partners will have to work through together. Although Spring says it’s more rare, disclosing is better than being found out. This can be a first step toward building trust, whereas the longer cheating is kept secret, the more trust is degraded.
2. Words you can use to admit you cheated: What a person should say to their partner about their cheating will vary with each individual situation. As a starting point, Spring offers this:
I have something I want to tell you that I know will upset you tremendously. And it’s something that I feel very ashamed of but I love you very much and I have done something wrong and I want to do what’s right and I think you deserve to know.
No matter what a person says, Spring says their partner is unlikely to show much gratitude for the disclosure.
3. Create a “Hurt List”: Spring says she sometimes has both partners list the ways in which they feel the other partner has hurt them. These may include situations or characteristics of a relationship that directly led to the cheating.
4. Show you’re listening: During much of this process, including discussing the Hurt List, both partners need to show they’re listening. Focus should not be on defense or explanation. “Unfaithful partners have to understand that nothing justifies their affair,” says Spring. “Nothing justifies an affair.” One of the best ways to be a good listener is for each partner to mirror each other. This means repeating back what the other person says to show active listening, let the other person hear their own words, and encourage further speaking.
5. Tell them why you did it: Spring says that commitments to never cheat again are practically empty promises if the unfaithful partner doesn’t know why they cheated. Here is another place where a list might be useful. The partner who cheated can write down factors that they think could have contributed to their actions, such as feeling like he is at the bottom of his partner’s priorities. “The person who had the affair, they have had the affair partly because they have felt uncared for or unloved, uncherished,” says Spring. “And that’s part of what motivated them or what made them vulnerable to the attention of someone else.” She adds that there are some people who are simply rebellious, and cheat without being able to pin down their motivations.
6. Take action: “Trust is not built on verbal reassurances,” says Spring. “Trust is built on concrete behaviors.” Examples include letting their partners check-in on their whereabouts via text and email, stopping traveling (if affairs occurred while away from home), and going to therapy.
7. Get professional help: “Infidelity is not just an interpersonal wound but a psychological trauma for many people,” says Spring. She recommends that couples seek professional help as soon as possible if they are trying to navigate an affair. With therapy, a couple can have a trained, experienced person guide them through this ordeal.
8. What to do if you have children: “One of the most important points regarding children is that kids suffer not so much because of conflict between parents, or even divorce, but when they feel caught between warring parents, and they’re put in the middle, pressed to take sides,” says Spring. Her advice is for people to learn how to love their children more than they hate their partner — or, if at all possible, not hate their partner at all for the children’s sake.
9. Get tested: Even if they used protection, the partner who cheated should be tested for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and the couple should practice safe sex until the results come back. Condoms are often misused and STIs can be transmitted through various types of sex where people often forgo protection, such as oral sex. The process of getting tested can be long and drawn out — remember a person may need to get tested at two to four weeks, three months, and six months to be sure of their HIV status — so the couple is going to have to deal with this looming over their relationship. Hopefully, the partner who did not cheat can understand how much the unfaithful partner is doing to assure safety and rebuild trust.
10. Prepare for the long haul: “Affairs happen to good people in good marriages too, and there’s an awful lot to be learned to grow the marriage,” says Spring. She says marriages can improve after an affair, becoming something like a second marriage between the same people. It will take hard, emotional effort, but relationships that survive infidelity can be stronger than ever.