My husband cheated on me last summer and we’ve never been the same. He just expects me to pretend the whole thing never happened. Can a couple ever truly recover after someone’s cheated or am I just wasting my time?
Thank you for writing. I’m sympathetic to how painful it would have been when you learned of your husband’s infidelity. At that moment, who he is changed in your mind. That’s always a shocking sensation when it’s someone very close to us.
As shocking as anything like that is, we do not want it to erase every bit of the other person’s value. He’s still who he was, it’s just that now there’s this other new aspect to him stored in your brain as well.
Obviously, your brain associates that aspect with a lot of pain. That makes it a sensitive issue. You can think about some things and not get much of a reaction. But if you’re thinking about being cheated on then that’s very likely to be painful.
So where does this leave you as a couple? To answer your question specifically: yes. Yes, you can recover and be extremely happy even after someone’s cheated. I’ve known many couples who’ve been through it and I had to myself. But how is this done?
In truth, we can’t really ‘deal with’ cheating. The simple fact is that it’s happened. It cannot be taken away. And as much as we might want certainty about whether or not it will happen again —such certainty simply does not exist. But it’s important to note that it never did.
Even if our partner promises the most sincere promise ever, there is nothing saying that they couldn’t cheat again in a different moment. They can be entirely sincere when they make the promise and they can still end up not fulfilling it. Any of us could potentially do that if we’re honest. None of us knows who we will be in the future.
In the end, there isn’t, nor was there ever, any way to guarantee anything. There just isn’t, and we have to accept that. And if we can do so with a particular kind of grace, that is a legitimate breakthrough in understanding. So in a weird way, this terrible experience is also a good spiritual opportunity to potentially create more peace in your life.
As we can now see, any certainty you previous had was obviously illusory. But this means your reality hasn’t really changed, just your thoughts about it have. You thought ‘the relationship’ was the guarantee against this sort of experience. Now you’ve learned it wasn’t. So where does that leave you?
You’re trying to figure out if the relationship can survive. The answer is that it can if that’s what we make happen with our choices. You can choose to focus on the past cheating, or any future cheating you’re worried about, but if you do that then things will end.
Even we started with the two greatest people ever, blame and worry are no basis for a long lasting relationship. If that’s our plan, then we’re really ending things, but we’re taking our pound of flesh on the way out.
That doesn’t sound all that appealing or noble, and it still leaves us alone and hurt once things finally end. So leaving is like a big mess, followed by a hollow spot. Then in a year or two you start over, slowly and nervously, because you’ll have the same fears about a new guy as the old guy.
Your brain knows cheating can happen but your ego still wants to live in world where it doesn’t have to worry about that. This is the crux of where the breakthrough in understanding can occur. We need to spiritually mature about how harsh reality can be.
What we need to truly understand is that, having no guarantee doesn’t negate the value of having a relationship. We are with partners because they bring value into our lives. And it’s important to keep track of that, even after something like this happens.
If you end the relationship, you not only rid yourself of the fear of being cheated on, but you also rid yourself of all of the wonderful parts of being with that person. And all you can really do in the wake of that is to be single, and any attachments you do make in the future will still include this possibility. Acceptance will be required no matter who we’re with in future.
Everyone has the ability and capacity to cheat. It’s not like we can find some magical person that isn’t fully human and has no hormones or drives. People are people. Everyone’s capable of everything under the right circumstances.
This means that engaging in a relationship is (and always was) a Risk vs. Reward value judgment. How much does the person’s existence cost you versus what do they bring into your life spiritually, intellectually, creatively, socially, financially, domestically etc. etc?
If you decide that you really do want to be with your partner then what to do becomes easy: As much as possible do not think about the cheating. The past is the past and your present moment is the only thing that is real. That is the only place life can be lived.
Alternatively, if you’re continuing to bring the cheating up months or years later, then it isn’t the cheating that’s ruining your relationship, it’s the fact that you’re always thinking about it. We cannot live assuming then will become now.
The only way past cheating enters a relationship is if the cheating is repeated, or more likely, if the person cheated-on chooses to volunteer to go back and grab some then and start dragging it into now by forcing it into the reality of our partner.
As understandable as that can emotionally be, that is entirely unproductive. It’s allowing the past to affect the present and it does not have to. As hard as this responsibility for reality can be to face, the cheater can do nothing to fix our worries. That pain is coming from our thinking, not their initial cheating.
This is not the storybook romances we believe in when we are young. Real life includes some complex events. But that does not have to sink our entire life’s happiness. Every ship will travel through some tough waters. But just because you travelled through stormy seas does not mean there’s something wrong with your boat, or your course.
You have travelled through a terrible storm in the past, and now you are here, in the present. Fortunately, what happens in-the-now is entirely up to you. You can turn your boat around and painfully sail back into your painful thoughts about your past, or you can stay on course for sunnier skies by focusing your attention on today instead.
It’s normal to ask, why would you do that? Why would you ignore cheating and go on as before? Because today is when you are alive. And today, it won’t be what happened a year ago that dictates how happy your marriage is today. That will be dictated by how you behave in these moments, now.
Our decisions to be with people should not be complicated. Either we still want to be with them or we don’t. If they’ve caused so much pain that they balance out as negative to your life then leave and accept that pain.
If however, they’re a positive force in your life and you truly want to stay, then the accept that you will occasionally have worried thoughts, but that those are not your partner’s fault. Those are psychological experiences of yours.
Of course, your partner would be very wise to be gracious about dealing with your fearful thoughts because they incited them. But remember, this is not a licence for a drawn out punishment. Our goal in leaving or staying should be to have a more rewarding life, not exact revenge.
As painful as these things can be, your past does not have to be any barrier to happiness today. You simply have to leave the past alone so that you can focus your energies on today, and on making the most productive choices you can for your marriage in these new, post-cheating moments.
If you do want to be together after this has happened you have to stop thinking about it as much as possible, and your partner has to accept that sometimes you won’t be able to do that. As long as you’re both striving to respect each other and to reach a place of peace, the rest is just the cause-and-effect cost of the cheating.
And if you don’t want to be together, then leave and go build another life. It’s not like the happiness is all one direction and the sadness all the other. Your enjoyment of either route will not depend on the route, but rather on the perspectives you choose to take while you’re sailing them. Just be realistic about the fact that you’ll still be sailing toward that same uncertainty no matter which way you go.
No matter which direction you go, you might as well get good at consciously choosing what you think about in-the-now. Because no matter who you’re with, that will be what leads you to happiness.
I wish you every good fortune.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.