To Stay or Go? Deciding What to Do When a Partner Cheats
“Should I stay or should I go?” It’s a question that many partners ask themselves after the discovery of infidelity in a relationship.
Whether you got caught cheating or learned about your partner’s cheating, deciding what to do when a partner cheats is no easy task.
I’ve been encountering this question frequently with some of my clients. The revelation of infidelity in a relationship creates a pressing crisis, throwing the relationship into turmoil.
If you’re like most partners who have either cheated or have learned of your partner’s cheating, you’ll likely have one of three possible reactions:
- You clearly know you need to stay and work on the relationship.
- You clearly know you need to go. The relationship is over for you.
- You’re not sure what the affair means for you or your relationship.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably in camp number three: You’re not sure whether you should stay in or leave the relationship, and you’re trying to figure that out. Before we dive into that, though, let’s talk through doors number one and two first.
Possible Reaction No. 1: You’re Sure You Want to Stay
If you got caught cheating, discovery of your cheating was probably a relief. You may have felt terribly guilty about your affair in the first place. Or you simply realized that you were risking everything that matters most to you by having the affair, and you’ll do anything to work it out.
You really do care about your partner, and the affair has made you realize that you truly love your partner and want to do the hard work of healing the relationship. You’ve come to know through and through that you want to be in this relationship.
If you discovered your partner’s cheating, there’s no question it’s been agonizing and painful, but you’ve realized that it really doesn’t change how you feel about him. You deeply care for your partner and are wanting to work on the relationship too.
Possible Reaction No. 2: You’re Sure You Want to Go
If you got caught cheating, perhaps you understood quickly that you should have ended the relationship a long time ago. The relationship may have been over before the affair even began. The affair may be a way to say to your partner what you weren’t able to find the words for before: You’ve not been happy; the relationship is unhealthy or toxic; you don’t see a way to work things through (or don’t want to). So, you’re committed to ending the relationship as well as it can be ended—with compassionate, direct communication about what you want.
If you found out about your partner’s infidelity, you may be having this reaction because the affair has confirmed that you’re in an unhealthy relationship and have been for some time. The affair simply reflects what you’ve felt but haven’t said: You’ve needed to end the relationship for your well-being but may have been uncertain or afraid.
Regardless of whether you’re the partner who cheated or who got cheated on, if this reaction fits for you, seeking out a therapist who can help you cope with the end of your relationship, to care for yourself, and make better relationship choices in the future is a good idea.
Possible Reaction No. 3: Indecision
If you’re reading this blog post, you probably fall into this camp. Discovery of your partner’s infidelity or that your partner found out about your infidelity has filled you with uncertainty and doubt. Perhaps you’ve been unhappy in the relationship for a while now, but your partner is still very important to you.
Making the right decision seems impossible, especially as you’re probably in a crisis with your partner over all of this and there are plenty of painful, heated conversations going on right now.
If You Go
You should know that the decision to stay will be painful, but so will the decision to leave. Many partners I meet with have considered simply walking away from their relationship thinking that doing so will spare them pain. It’s not so. Divorce or ending the relationship seems expedient, but it’s very costly emotionally (and often financially).
Here’s what I mean. You can blame your partner. “I cheated because she blah blah blah, and now it’s over.” Or, “It was my cheating husband’s fault our marriage ended.” Blame, anger, and resentment can help us distance ourselves from the pain of the end of a relationship, shielding us from our grief and hurt.
If you stay angry and don’t work through those deeper feelings, they will follow you to your next relationship and sabotage it. That’s why getting the help of an experienced therapist can make all the difference.
If You Stay
If you’re leaning toward sticking around, get ready to do some hard work. And please, invest in the help of a caring professional. Couples counseling with the right therapist can help; you’ll need your partner’s perspective, to get to know your own pain, and the therapist’s knowledge and skill set to navigate this crisis and heal your relationship.
You should know that repairing a broken relationship is a lengthy, painful, and difficult process. It’s not going to be easy for either of you. Both of you, the cheater and the cheated on, will have to be honest with each other in ways that you may not have been before. Learning to lean into this honesty is risky and takes time.
Deciding What to Do When a Partner Cheats: Questions to Ask Yourself
There’s no formula for making this important decision, but in a book I often recommend to clients struggling with infidelity, psychotherapist and author Rob Weiss offers some helpful questions to consider:
- Do you enjoy spending time together?
- Do you trust each other? Are you willing to work on restoring trust?
- Do you play well together?
- Do you share core values and beliefs?
- Do you have kids?
- Do you and your partner usually find a way to resolve conflicts?
- Are you free to be your own person in the relationship?
- Do you respect each other?
- Do you still enjoy sex with each other?
- Do you support each other emotionally?
- Does your relationship adapt well to change?
- Are your relationship expectations realistic?
- Have you cheated and ended relationships before? (If so, it’s time to take a long look in the mirror.)
- Are you both invested in saving the relationship?
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