In my years as a therapist and advice columnist, I’ve seen countless people through the sometimes devastating aftermath of infidelity. Of course, no two relationships are alike, and the immediate days and weeks following the discovery can be full of extremely strong emotions that vary by the minute. Will your relationship survive– and should it? Will you every be able to trust again– and would you want to? What does all of it mean, and how did your relationship get to this point? Was it ever what you thought it was? All of those questions will take time and exploration to answer. Here and now, however, are some steps you can take to get yourself on a solid path after you feel like the ground has been shaken under you.
1) Address your physical and logistical needs. If there was an argument, do you have a safe place to sleep? Are there close friends or family that need to be on standby to help with logistical issues if you or your partner have decided to get some space from each other? Are there children or pets that need to be prioritized in order to not let things get outwardly explosive? The more intertwined your lives have become, the more mindful you need to be that as emotional as you may be feeling, there are logistical considerations to be taken care of so that you keep the nuts and bolts of your daily life stable.
2) Mobilize your coping strategies. Though you may not be ready to make any decisions yet, you need to lay a solid foundation where you can think decisions through, enact a plan, and begin the healing process. This means doing everything you can to get sleep when you can, get fresh air and exercise, decide who in your social circle might be helpful to have know about this, and try– even in the chaos– to make time for things that usually help you relax, like exercise, meditation, artistic hobbies or yoga. Don’t look at it as getting through one event, but rather taking care of yourself through a period of life that will have several different stages.
3) Plan communication. Depending on how the discovery of infidelity happened, and how much you are entrenched with your partner in terms of living situation and family, you may be doing anything from pretending everything is normal while you have breakfast to your children to screaming at each other nonstop to giving each other the silent treatment. Whatever you do, make sure it is an autonomous choice, and that you are not being goaded into talking– or not talking– out of pressure. Do you want to sit down and have a conversation about it once you are feeling more calm? Do you want to talk it over in a therapist’s office? Do you want to meet in a neutral place to discuss a plan for the coming weeks while you get your bearings? Now is the time to figure out how to communicate in as reasoned a manner as you can muster, because games and stunts will not be helpful in the long run.
4) Enlist your support network. One of the toughest parts of the initial stages of something like this is that you may feel very alone. You may be embarrassed to talk about it to others, or you might want to tell everyone you’ve ever met– but know that you should not. Choose carefully. The decision of what to say and what not to say is a personal one, but you should keep several things in mind. Tell the people who you know will have your best interests at heart and be in the position to offer emotional support. The level of detail is up to you, but don’t tell someone solely out of anger. It might come back to haunt you if you decide to make amends with your partner. And make sure that you remind yourself that just because a loved one has a certain opinion about your relationship or your partner– for better or for worse– doesn’t absolutely mean you should agree with it.
5) Avoid make any rash decisions. Just like you shouldn’t disclose what you are going through solely out of anger, so too should you use caution in how you decide to move forward. Of course, in some situations, you may know that this is indeed a deal-breaker and your relationship is over, and that is completely valid. Other relationships that are longer-term and more complicated will be better-served by a less black-and-white perspective, at least in the beginning.
6) Resist the urge for escalation or revenge. When we are hurt, we may feel the very natural urge to go on the attack. Most of us can imagine this in the physical sense, when we may try to fight back if we are being physically assaulted. In the emotional sense, this may look like trying to “get back” at the person who hurt us, even if we loved them dearly up until this betrayal (and perhaps that’s what makes us want to hurt them more.) Take a breath before you do anything irreversible, especially when it comes from a place of intense, “hot” emotions like anger or pain. Fast forward to a few months ago, and think about what damage can and cannot be undone, and what you want to be able to say and think about your conduct during this time.
7) Don’t assume you know the whole story until you do. And even then, watch your assumptions. If you are going by hearsay or stray pieces of evidence to assume that your partner has been unfaithful, it is possible that you are jumping to conclusions and letting your worst fears or fill in the gaps in what you know– especially if you are prone to catastrophizing. On the other hand, if you have talked to your partner about it, it is possible you partner has hidden or minimized what has happened in order to spare your feelings– or simply not get caught– and what you know now is only the tip of the iceberg. Keep attempting to separate fact from conjecture throughout the data-gathering phase. Though your instincts and gut feelings are important, make sure you are identifying them as such, rather than conflating them with the facts at hand. You will need to be as clear-headed as possible as you decide how to move forward.
8) Be mindful of social media. Thirty years ago when someone was dealing with the shock of their partner’s infidelity, the concern about whether to change their relationship status on Facebook— or post a vague, pensive picture on Instagram to hint at what they are going through– simply didn’t exist. Now, it’s yet another consideration and a very important one at that. Be mindful of what you do that can’t be undone. As much as you may be tempted to put all kinds of things on social media that refer– directly or indirectly– to the swirling storm of emotions you are feeling inside, many people have come to regret sharing too much too soon, especially given that you and your partner may share various friends and online contacts. That said, there is wisdom in not pretending that everything is okay either, with fake-happy photos and a false persona. Don’t be afraid to take a break from social media altogether to give yourself the time and space to not have to worry about what image you are putting forth.
9) Think about what your partner is really saying. Are they sorry, or sorry they got caught? Do you they even still want to try to work the relationship out, or is it your assumption (and hope) that they’d want to fight for you? Is it the sex that is most bothersome, or was there a long-standing history of deceit? Are they blaming you– even subtly– for their actions? Do they seem truly ready not just to take responsibility for their actions, but for the work that it will take to get back on track– if that’s what you want? Are they rushing you toward putting this behind you? Have they really told you the whole story, or is there more they seem to be hiding? Are they willing to answer your questions openly, or is there a limit to what you’re “allowed” to find out? And how did you find out– did they tell you to hurt you, to absolve their guilt, or to truly move forward and rebuild? Or if you found out, do you have reason to believe they ever would have stopped if they hadn’t been caught?
10) Be a pattern detector. Even more questions arise when you attempt to look at the bigger picture of their behavior. Is this latest transgression another action on your partner’s part that is dishonest, selfish, or disrespectful? Are there patterns of behavior where your partner always need to be admired or desired by others, at any cost? Might the infidelity indicate deeper-seated issues with sex, substance abuse, deception, controlling behavior, or gender roles? Sometimes what the behavior means or represents is even more important than the behavior itself. And a one-time transgression– though still perhaps grounds for a breakup on its own– may be qualitatively different, not just quantitatively, from a fuller pattern of cheating behavior.
11) Be mindful of your feelings. Really. Some people are surprised by the range of emotions that they have in the aftermath of a partner’s betrayal, including ones that feel “wrong” or surprising. For instance, you may be shocked and frustrated that you have a sudden urge to forget the cheating entirely because you feel very lonely and sad and just want things to go back to how they were. Or you may be annoyed with yourself that you feel so blindsided and lost; you think you should have been wiser, and now your anger is directed at yourself. You may be embarrassed or blame yourself, no matter how little rational reason there is to feel that way. The healthiest way through these feelings is to acknowledge them and let them have their moment. Some people find it very helpful to journal during this time, or to have unstructured conversations with trusted friends who will listen and validate feelings without pushing you toward immediate action. Of course, individual therapy can be helpful as well. The key is to acknowledge those emotions and let them work their way out, so they will no longer have power over you by threatening to explode from under the surface. (Understand that this is different, of course, than acting on them.)
12) Get a plan in place to think. As much as you don’t have to figure things out right now, it will be in your best interest to come up with a plan of how to figure things out. Will you seek individual counseling? Do you want to give couples counseling a shot? Are there conditions under which you will give your partner a chance? Is there further information you need to find out? Making a decision about how to move forward will take some time, but the sooner you can figure out what you need to get there, the better.
13) Remind yourself you are loved. An extremely painful part of the aftermath of infidelity is that it threatens to erase what you thought to be true– that you were loved and admired as the one and only sexual and romantic partner in someone’s life. It was you that your partner was supposed to be longing for and thinking about. It was you that you pictured them fantasizing about, and being in love with. Having that foundation shaken can put you in a place to doubt that anyone loves you at all. Counteract that as much as possible, by letting others support you– and by reminding yourself of that when you need to.
14) Keep up with Self-Care. As you’re going through this, you’re going to be tempted more than ever to give up on taking care of yourself in the ways that matter most– exercise, social time, sleep, and eating well. That’s the awful paradox that happens when we’re faced with tough times– we take care of ourselves much less when we need it the very most. Don’t let self-care slide. Enlist your friends to keep you accountable for it. You wouldn’t choose to send an army into battle who hadn’t slept all night and was subsisting on a diet of Doritos and vodka for the past three days, would you? The same is true with an emotional battle– the better you can take care of yourself, the more chance you have of emerging from it triumphantly.
15) Do the work– wherever that leads. At last, you’re here. You’re ready to see the information for what it is, acknowledge your feelings, mobilize your support and choose to do the work of moving forward– whatever that may entail. Maybe your work is moving forward past a breakup that you have now initiated, or your partner initiated, or both. Maybe your work is finding a marriage counselor and attempting to rebuild. Maybe, instead, your work is continuing to figure out what you want– and perhaps seeking individual therapy to get there. Whatever comes, make sure to keep taking care of yourself.
Have you moved on following infidelity? How did you do it? Let us know in the comments below!