One of the big questions a faithful partner often asks after an affair is how to move their relationship forward after their partner has cheated.
There is a myriad of information available to help answer this common question that might contain some (or all) of the following advice, all of which encourages the faithful partner into interminable Pixie-dom:
- Forgive the cheater
- Go to couples therapy
- Identify and meet your cheater’s needs
- Give your cheater more attention
- Spice up your sex life and increase the frequency of sex
- Focus on your marriage, not the affair
- Improve your communication skills
- Stop bringing up the affair
- Understand your own failings and how they contributed to the cheater’s affair
What is surprising about this oft-repeated and pervasively popular recipe for a perfectly recovered marriage is how much it panders to the cheater. Understand that affairs are the product of a cheater pandering to their own whims; advising further indulgence and appeasement damages the chances of a successful reconciliation.
Of course no relationship or person is perfect, and of course each partner contributes to the tone of the relationship. However, the tone of the relationship doesn’t CAUSE infidelity. Tone, difficulties, and struggles don’t drive, force, impel, or propel someone into cheating – if they did, then both parties in the relationship would cheat. No, the cheater’s own issues, thinking, and view of life is what leads them to decide to cheat.
The traditional formula for ‘affair recovery’ burdens the faithful partner with the idea that if only they had been ‘better’ the affair wouldn’t have happened. The problem is that if we subscribe to this skewed idea, then we’re left with the conclusion that if the faithful partner doesn’t do ‘better’ to please their cheater in future, they will ’cause’ yet another affair.
This is dangerously cheater-centric thinking, handing the cheater a carrot and stick to control and manipulate their partner: “My fidelity is in your control not mine: If you do not behave as I expect, you force me to go elsewhere to have my desires met. If you behave as I stipulate then I shall not cheat, until such time that you again fail to please me.“
Advising a faithful partner to behave in ways that either ignore or reward bad behavior for fear that a cheater will leave, is unhealthy and dysfunctional.
The Cheater’s Role in Reconciliation
Unfortunately there are many faithful partners who are hell bent on trying to hold a marriage together with glue and a prayer, martyring themselves to their marriage, despite their cheater’s clear lack of intent to do any work themselves. Something that is sorely lacking in so much of the ‘how to heal from an affair’ information is that the cheater has the greater amount of work to do in repairing the damage.
The cheater has a far greater ability to influence and direct the relationship to health than the faithful partner. Many cheaters simply find themselves at a loss when faced with trying to repair the damage they wrought upon their partner and their relationship. The usual checklist looks a little like this:
Transparency and honesty
Go to therapy
Prayer, repentance, remorse … check, check, check …
It’s hardly surprising that a cheater can feel lost and bewildered about how to improve the state of the post-affair relationship when they’ve already gone through the checklist and done everything on it. It can feel as if their partner will never get over it and seems intent to hold the affair over their head for eternity. This can lead to the cheater feeling that they are faced with two courses of action:
- Watch their partner in pain, accusing, angry and holding onto the affair for the duration of the marriage
When all seemingly concrete actions have been exhausted, what other actions could help?
The past cannot be changed and the affair will be a real and painful part of the relationship’s history. The faithful partner will have so much anger, pain and resentment about the devastating choices of their cheater that it can be debilitating. It is common to hear faithful partners saying that the pain they feel (even years after the affair is discovered) is as real and as acute as it was on the day they discovered it. This can further lead the cheater into thinking that no matter what they do, it won’t be good enough to make up for what they did.
The cheater has a very clear choice ahead of them: Either continue to do what they’re doing and have their hurt partner still mired in pain, or to understand that what they’re doing hasn’t alleviated the upset felt by their partner, and ask why.
Hurt partners need to know that their cheater empathizes with what the affair did to them. They need to know that the cheater truly understands, and feels some shared pain for the emotional distress they caused someone they profess to love. The hurt partner wants their cheater to fully comprehend how this affected their self-esteem, their security, their belief that they are loved, protected, nurtured, and how it unravels their understanding of the relationship’s history.
The faithful partner wants the cheater to know some of their pain and fears, and to absorb some of the shaky insecurity that will be part of any reconciliation. They want their cheater to genuinely feel and understand the effects of a shared injury in the relationship, and to want to shoulder the burden of being the cause of that pain, with a commitment to repairing what they smashed into pieces. They want the cheater to show strength, resilience and fortitude enough to get the relationship past the initial (and worst) pain and stumbles.
A devastated partner wants their cheater to WANT to deal with the pain they’ve caused, however frustrating, upsetting, and difficult it is. A hurt partner wants to know that they are worth sticking with, even when times are really challenging … because even after the cheater brought the affair to the relationship, the hurt partner didn’t bail.
The Faithful Partner’s Role in Reconciliation
None of this gives a faithful partner license to be an ‘Affair Bitch’ in perpetuity. Yes, it’s normal, healthy and natural to express rage, pain, and distrust after an affair has been discovered in a monogamous relationship. However, staying rooted in this mindset, while valid, leaves little room for growth or change with the cheater.
It’s perfectly valid and rational to hate the cheater for what they did, and it’s natural to want to exact some form of personal vengeance for it. You won’t ever hear me saying that you should turn the other cheek. I might say that revenge is a futile exercise that invests your energy into someone undeserving of it … but it’s your choice.
However (and it’s a big however), if this is what you want to do, why be with the cheater? If you want to punish the cheater for their affair and the hurt it brought you, you have a far better and personally healthier option: Leave.
Reconciliation with a cheater does not excuse you from the hard work that you too will be required to undertake. The cheater has responsibilities to you during the process of reconciliation and, in agreeing to reconcile, you have an obligation to at least want and try to work towards repair.
Simply touching a difficult memory with some slight willingness to heal begins to soften the holding and tension around it.
~ Stephen Levine
Wanting your cheater to have some empathy towards the emotional challenges that they have caused you (and the relationship) makes sense if you’re going to work together to move past it. It’s okay to want your cheater to know some of your pain and upset so that you both understand what you’re facing, and it’s okay that sometimes lashing out is the way you will communicate that pain and upset. However, if that lashing out is coming from a place of quid pro quo punishment, it’s time for a serious rethink.
Reconciliation is not a one-person task, on either side.