When someone says they’ve been cheated on, it’s easy to react with empathetic outrage and imagine a reality TV-style confrontation. But infidelity is not a new concept—as long as relationships have existed, someone has been transgressing whatever “rules” had been set up for them. Heartbreak-rage-move on is a formula that has fed every kind of pop culture for centuries, from the Bible to movie melodramas. Lifelong monogamy is still a cultural ideal.
It’s easy to assume that infidelity would spell an automatic end to a partnership, but it’s not that simple—and that’s a good thing. Greater social equality between men and women, the rise of relationship and sex experts like Esther Perel, and diminishing stigma around going to therapy have all made it easier for couples to think beyond a binary “stay together or break up” choice in the wake of an intimate betrayal.
But that doesn’t mean it’s actually gotten easier to move forward when one partner cheats on another. If there is one thing experts agree on when it comes to dealing with infidelity, it’s that while recovery is possible, rebuilding a healthy relationship is hard work.
“It is a long road to recovery when one partner cheats,” licensed marriage and family therapist David Klow, owner of Skylight Counseling Center in Chicago, tells SELF. “Couples do and can stay together after an affair, but it takes a lot of work to repair broken trust.” Klow says most couples don’t recover when one cheats but “those that do can emerge stronger from having gone through the process of recovering from the affair.”
It takes time, however. He says he’s seen it take at least a year, but it’s usually up to two years for a couple to heal.
Manhattan-based licensed clinical psychologist Joseph Cilona, Psy.D., tells SELF that, due to the sensitive nature of the topic, it’s hard to know for sure how many couples stay together after infidelity. “Despite the ambiguous statistics, it seems reasonable to speculate that more couples are staying together after infidelity than not,” he says.
There are a few factors that make a couple more likely to try to work it out, psychologist Paul Coleman, Psy.D., author of Finding Peace When Your Heart Is In Pieces, tells SELF—namely, whether they have strong commitments to one another like children or a house. “If a couple is dating or just started living together, there is less of a need to go through the work of rebuilding trust,” he says.
The cheating has to stop.
Experts say there are a lot of things that need to happen in order for a couple to move on. The first, and most important, is for the cheating to stop. “The person who cheated cannot see the person they cheated with again,” says Klow.
Washington, D.C.-based Lena Derhally, M.S., L.PC., and certified Imago therapist, agrees. “I think it’s a waste of time if you’re working through an affair and the person is still seeing the other person, because there’s no trust there,” she tells SELF.
Total honesty is essential.
After it’s clear that the affair is over, Derhally guides her clients through a process in which the person who was cheated on can as as many questions as they want about what happened. This can take multiple sessions, and it depends on complete honesty.
“Some people want to know everything about the affair,” Derhally says. “They want to know where it happened, how many times. Some people don’t want to know as much information. What’s scary about affairs is there’s a lot of unknowns. Then you kind of move the process of being able to vent your feelings to your partner and the process of your partner being able to receive that forgiveness.”