There’s not much that can damage, and sometimes destroy, a relationship as efficiently as cheating. The consequences of a single night—let alone many—of betrayal can last months or years, even if both partners are committed to getting through it and staying together.
If you’ve been cheated on and are struggling with whether or not—and how—to move forward in the relationship, it helps to start with a few questions. They may not be easy to answer, but they’ll get you a lot closer to figuring out whether staying together is a positive and realistic choice for you.
Certified sex and relationship therapist Marissa Nelson, LMFT, explains what basic questions you should ask yourself, and answer honestly, before even considering diving back into a commitment with a lover who betrayed you. At worst, you’ll save time and heartache by acknowledging that getting back together may not be the best choice; at best, you’ll have new insight about moving on.
Here, seven key questions to ask yourself:
Why do I want to give this another shot?
Take a hard look at your motivation for continuing the relationship and make sure your M.O. is solid. Nelson suggests considering whether you were truly happy before the cheating, or whether you were just going through the motions; whether you’re staying because you’re truly in love, or are more afraid of leaving to start over on your own; and whether your partner is willing and able to give you the love and loyalty you deserve moving forward (more on that later). “Many women are torn between the love they once knew with their partner and the hurt of the affair,” says Nelson.
Am I willing to rebuild from the ground up?
No matter how long you were together before the cheating happened, it’s important to think of this as a new relationship of sorts, and that comes with much of the time and effort it took when you were first dating. “The relationship as you know it is over,” says Nelson. “There is no trust and not much emotional safety left. All the elements of a healthy partnership need to be rebuilt, and that takes time, patience, hard work, and commitment to each other.” 100 percent worth it for many couples, but don’t kid yourself: It’s going to take as much work on your end as on your partner’s.
Can I live with not knowing everything?
If and when you make the decision to get back together, know that the time for grilling your partner for every dirty detail about his or her mistakes has passed—and if you still don’t feel that you have all the information you need in order to make a decision, then have that conversation now. Otherwise, pressing for more information and dredging up the sore subject time and again may just be masochistic on your part.
“This behavior only makes you spiral, and feel more angry, vulnerable, and wounded,” says Nelson. “The goal in rebuilding is less about the details of the cheating and more about what it all meant to the person.” In other words: Why did the cheating happen? Regardless of what you find out, it doesn’t justify your partner’s actions, but it can provide a way forward by helping you figure out the issues at the root of the betrayal. Remember, cheating is often just a symptom of something deeper that is ailing a relationship, so don’t get overly caught up in the specifics.
What’s my definition of forgiveness?
Consider and name the specific ways in which you’d like to move forward in a healthy way—even if you’re not there yet. Do you need total transparency and access to your partner’s texts and emails for a little while? (It’s not sustainable to do that forever, but it can be helpful in the short term.) Do you need to see your partner being attentive to you in ways that he or she wasn’t before? Are you willing to work towards a future in which you don’t bring up the cheating during fights, as a trump card to show you’re always right and your partner is wrong? ‘Forgiveness’ as an abstract term is all well and good, but it’s key to understand exactly what you mean by that—and make sure your partner understands your vision, too.
Can I let myself off the hook?
While it’s helpful to examine your own role in the dynamic in order to heal and address whatever drove you apart in the first place, your own accountability only goes so far. Cheating is never an okay way to deal with relationship problems, and no matter how imperfect a partner you may have been, the decision to cheat falls squarely on the cheater’s shoulders, not yours.
“I have seen women beat themselves up over what they did or didn’t do to cause their partner to cheat—insecurity about their bodies, attractiveness, or even feeling stupid for believing their partner’s lies instead of their gut,” says Nelson. “It’s important for women to free themselves and understand that nothing justifies their partner betraying their trust. Let go of that burden and it will help you have a clear head about your relationship choices moving forward. Forgiving yourself is the ultimate act of self love and compassion.”
Is my partner open to hearing all my feelings?
As painful and difficult as it may be for your partner to sit there and be emotionally walloped by your anger and sadness, if he or she can’t do that, there’s not much hope that you have a future together. Anyone worth forgiving will understand that you need—and have a right—to air your grievances and your feelings, as uncomfortable as they are to hear. “It’s important that the cheater not only listens, but is really invested in understanding how much of an impact this had on you,” says Nelson. In other words, make sure your partner isn’t just paying lip service with apologies and going through the motions of remorse—true remorse means sitting in the hot seat for awhile, while you figure out what you want.
Is my partner willing to work hard to rebuild trust?
Again, do a gut check and note whether your partner seems committed to starting from the ground up together. “That means being accountable, creating open and honest dialogue, and possibly going to couples counseling to unpack what the cheating was about,” says Nelson. “It’s important for your partner to do his or her own work and figure out what feelings are buried underneath that may need to be aired. His willingness to dig deep into the shame, remorse, and guilt shows his commitment to changing and being there for you in a new and deeper way in the future.”