“Human relationships are strange. I mean, you are with one person a while, eating and sleeping and living with them, loving them, talking to them, going places together, and then it stops.” ~ Charles Bukowski
Why do relationships stop?
Well, one reason is infidelity.
I am not a relationship expert. I have cheated and been cheated on multiple times. I don’t live to make someone else happy, and I spend more time in therapy than I like to admit.
I fall in love with falling in love, the idea of being in love, the attention and adoration. To know that someone thinks about you most of the time is intoxicating—a high that’s hard to replicate. But it’s also fleeting. And those constant thoughts can become an obsession, which isn’t good for either person.
Even though relationships are strange and complicated, there are some that seem able to weather any storm. I have seen a few of these myself, and always wondered how they held it together so well. People who rarely fought or who fought all-out with anger and passion and then were suddenly fine with one another. Couples who seemed to adore each other, and those who were aloof with one another in public, but behind the scenes were actually quite in love.
But one thing that has always intrigued me was how couples stayed together after infidelity.
When I first found out that my parents’ marriage was plagued by infidelity, I thought, “That would never happen to me,” because I felt confident at the time that I deserved better, and I would find better, and that person would be loyal to me forever.
But if it does happen, what then?
I still remember the painful sting of my first cheating boyfriend; I was 18 and he was closer to 25. I fell head over heels for him, quickly and easily. The love affair lasted only a couple months, during which time he proposed and we made plans for a life together. I was madly in love with him, willing to follow him anywhere and do anything to make him happy.
When a close friend called to give me the news, I could barely believe it. The pain was the worst I’d ever felt in my young life—worse than broken bones, worse than nearly dying of spinal meningitis at the age of 10, worse even than the death of a loved one. I felt lost, betrayed, useless, and completely alone.
What can we do after suffering through infidelity? How do we pick up the pieces and move on when the trust is gone? This is a person we’ve laughed and cried with, loved, traveled, maybe had children with. It may feel like we no longer know them, or like a death has occurred. Grief, anger, and disbelief are common.
One person may instantly end it, finding ways to get sweet and angry revenge as they do. Others choose to stay and try to work it out, try to understand why it happened. And the universal question: why don’t people just end a relationship instead of cheating?
When kids are involved, it can seem easier or better to stay together for their sake. But it seems that more and more these days, men and women are trying to show their children a better example of what should and shouldn’t happen in relationships. They want a chance to be happy with someone who can be faithful. And happier parents lead to happier children, whether the parents are together or not.
Perhaps the worst part about cheating though is what we make it mean about us. We take it personal when we really shouldn’t.
Many factors contribute to people being unfaithful, and for the ones being cheated on, blaming themselves seems like the natural conclusion. Maybe they did or said something wrong, they weren’t present like they should be, or there was something unsatisfactory about them. We then turn this action into how we view the world—no one can be trusted, everyone will hurt us. We don’t deserve love. Maybe we’re just not meant to be in a relationship. And the worst one: we somehow deserve to be cheated on.
For the person doing the cheating, there’s a whole other set of denials and regrets.
I have been unfaithful when I felt insecure, or angry, or not loved by my partner. It was seldom about who they were as a person. My reasons for cheating could all be traced back to me and my inability to communicate or set boundaries. I wasn’t able to trust, which is the cornerstone of a successful relationship.
The act of cheating can be as devastating to the cheater as to the one being cheated on. While there’s no excuse, we also can’t deny that there are many painful reasons behind why we cheat—and discovering these reasons can be the thing that ultimately saves us. In the end, choosing to stay after someone cheats is a personal decision that should not be taken lightly.
So how do we move forward with a relationship after we’ve been cheated on:
1. Establish Trust. This is a crucial part of any relationship, so it requires that both partners be willing to work on the relationship and move past the infidelity. Be open and honest about how you feel, who you talk to, and where you go. This does not mean either partner has the right to become an obsessive stalker, needing to know where the other is at every minute of the day, because obviously that’s not healthy. But if trust is difficult to maintain, or someone is unable to be honest or transparent about their actions or whereabouts, this could easily pose more serious problems for the relationship.
2. Communicate. Most of us are not mind readers. Perhaps some of the reason people drift apart is their inability to connect and communicate effectively. Don’t worry if you’re not an expert at this, most of us aren’t. It takes practice, it can be uncomfortable, and it doesn’t always produce the desired results. But when it does work, it’s like magic for a relationship.
3. Create Boundaries. Sometimes people can feel overwhelmed by the intensity of a relationship. Even when we love someone, that doesn’t mean we want to spend every waking moment with our significant other. Spending time apart can be good for a relationship. However, once infidelity happens, boundaries may need to be adjusted. If the person who was cheated on doesn’t feel comfortable with their partner going certain places or spending time with certain people, particularly those who may have been involved in the cheating behavior, those boundaries should be discussed and respected. This can help build trust and establish better communication as well.
And if we’ve been cheated on and decide not to stay, there are still some healthy ways we can go about healing our pain and building ourselves back up:
1. Connect with a Support System. Reach out to family, good friends, and new friends. While it may be tough for others to directly relate to what we’re going through, I have found some of the nicest and most supportive people after a breakup. We just have to be open to the possibilities.
2. Take time for yourself. Take a bubble bath, watch a funny movie, get pampered at the spa, or take yourself out to eat or go shopping. Yoga, meditation, walks in nature, and self-reflection are all extremely valuable tools. Sit at home reading a good book. Take naps and be gentle with yourself. Breakups are hard no matter what the reason. Take as much time as you need, and do not rush this part. There is no set time for grieving the loss of a relationship.
3. Don’t jump into another relationship right away. This is an important and often overlooked stage as we struggle to feel whole, complete, and worthy again. We all want to feel like someone wants us, and having someone pay attention to us after our heart has been broken is a heady temptation. Often though, these relationships turn into rebounds for a reason, and it’s usually because we aren’t ready for something new quite yet. Taking the time to get step one and two established will make this one much easier.
Last of all, and this might be the most important part of healing: honor yourself. When we are cheated on, our whole life can change in an instant. But that doesn’t mean we should let anyone blame us for their actions or guilt us into staying just because we’re afraid we can’t be alone.
Whether we decide to stay and work on our relationship or walk away, this is a time for healing—and a lot of good work can be accomplished here. So pay attention to your needs, respect your inner voice, and make decisions from a place of self-worth. No one can tell you what’s right for you, but loving and listening to yourself always can.