Finding out your partner has betrayed you sexually is one of the most devastating experiences one can go through. It’s like they twisted a knife into your heart and left you there for dead. But what if the person wasn’t aware of the boundaries? Relationships are unique to the individuals within them, with each person having their own set of boundaries and comfort levels. So, what are the boundaries when it comes to cheating? Is it a kiss? Is it being on a dating site? Is it porn and cam girls? Is it strip-clubs? Escorts? Where does one draw the line? And what if I told you, once that line was crossed there is hope.
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Signs of hope can firstly be remorse once the cheater is caught or has disclosed, they get into therapy, and they answer every question you ask without defensiveness. Often, cheaters are not as open as the betrayed wishes they were, and mostly that stems from shame and embarrassment. But not all is lost when the cheater falls into the pitfalls that actually prolong recovery.
When there has been sexual betrayal and the boundaries were disrespected, and worse hidden with lies, the betrayal is excruciating. Having to find out about your partner’s infidelity is a million times worse than if they came clean to you, and were honest. If you’ve ever read any articles on infidelity and sexual betrayal, you’ll know many experts say infidelity is one of the worst experiences a couple can go through in regard to trust. Sadly, cheating is common. How common? Well, that depends on your definition of cheating. I can give you a statistic about how common it is for a man or woman to have sex outside their relationship but I cannot give you a statistic about the other ways you can sexually betray your partner. For those interested, 20% of men and 13% of women say they’ve had sex with someone other than their spouse (IFS), and 36% of affairs happen at work (Trustify). This begs the question, why are people cheating? Is it sex or emotional connection they are looking for? Maybe it’s an escape?
Cheating occurs for varying reasons. Often the main belief, when someone cheats, is that their partner did something to make the other cheat. The betrayed wonders if they aren’t “sexy” enough, that they are lacking something. What if I told you that’s not the case. What if I told you cheating can happen because they are looking for excitement, a lost part of themselves. Esther Perel’s book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity and her Ted Talk she changed my view on why people cheat (she might just change yours too!). I often thought cheaters simply didn’t care about their partner. I never considered that they were struggling with their lost parts of themselves. But I can see it. As I’ve grown up and become a mom, there are aspects of myself that I’d like to reclaim and feel are lost, but I want to reclaim them with my husband (if he’d go out dancing with me!). I follow Esther Perel and her work to this day, always learning every time I read her books, watch an interview, or get an email from her subscriber list. For anyone who has experienced infidelity, you can learn so much about human sexuality, cheating and the many reasons that it happens, and how cheating can actually lead to a better relationship long-term.
When cheating has happened, the relationship can survive or can crumble, that all depends on the individuals. Some factors to consider after discovery:
- Are you both invested in working through the relationship?
- As the betrayed, do you want to leave?
- Does the cheating partner want to leave?
- Can you forgive this offense?
- Are they remorseful?
Agreement About Reconciling
If both desire to work on rebuilding the relationship, and desire to work on individual recoveries, then staying together is a valid option. The betrayed partner, for their own recovery, should find all the support they can get during this traumatic time. Whether that’s finding a local therapist, a trusted friend, or an online forum, support is crucial during healing. The cheating partner should be working on themselves as well. Get into therapy. Truly reflect and figure out the root causes and develop healthy coping and communication skills. Cheaters need to find out why they chose to cheat on their partner, and yes, cheating is a choice.
Once each individual has worked on themselves and they are in a stable and safe place, they can think about couples therapy as part of the relationship healing. But, couples therapy only works when there is a safe environment, and that means that the cheater is being 100% faithful and dedicated to recovery. If they are still lying, gas lighting, hiding, or worse, still engaging in the sexually betraying behavior, couples therapy would not be a good option at that time. As someone who tried couples therapy before the lying, hiding, and behaviors stopped, all couples therapy did was hurt the relationship healing because of the dishonesty in the room.
This is one of the most challenging and, honestly, unfair aspects of the aftermath of cheating. The cheater might finally be happy that they no longer have a secret weighing on them, and suddenly they are getting healthy and their life starts taking off. The betrayed, on the other hand, is left shattered, in shambles, a former shell of the person they used to be.
Recovering the relationship can be really challenging because the cheater knew what they were doing, whereas the betrayed was blindsided and is shell-shocked and disoriented, unable to trust their instinct to distinguish truth from lies. The betrayed partner has every right to set up boundaries to protect themselves with consequences. I.e. “If you see or talk to your mistress again, I will sleep on the couch until I feel emotionally safe,” or, “Until you start being honest and dedicated to recovery, we will have to separate and you will stay in the guest room until you can prove that you are serious about recovery.” Boundaries and consequences are not punishments for the cheater, but protection for the betrayed, and an essential part in healing.
Healing takes time, and in all honesty, I wish I could give you a timeline. Lots of experts give out numbers (most agree on the 18-month mark), but Dr. Kevin Skinner makes an incredibly important point when talking about timelines: there are so many factors like if the unfaithful is still acting out, that re-open the betrayal trauma wounds which keeps the betrayed from ever truly healing. For instance, within my own life, I’ve experienced these things and can tell you that the recovery timeline doesn’t even begin for the betrayed until the unfaithful gets into active, consistent recovery. My experience in healing post discovery day didn’t start until two years after discovery because the person didn’t face what they did, got angry and defensive, continued lying and hiding, and found other ways to escape.
If the unfaithful doesn’t want to face what they’ve done, the relationship isn’t even on the table. Ideally the unfaithful won’t avoid talking about it, won’t hide things only for it to come out later and re-traumatize the betrayed, and hopefully the unfaithful gets into therapy immediately. The longer those are postponed the longer recovery will take. Truly, recovery and the relationship survival falls on the unfaithful after discovery.
The betrayed should not “just get over it,” “forget about it,” or, “move on.” That is highly unrealistic with the amount of trauma they are going through. They need time to process the reality that someone they trusted more than anyone else in the world, thought was safe, thought “wasn’t that type of person” to cheat, is exactly the opposite of what they thought. The idea of who they were in a relationship with or married to has been shattered.
Honesty, Remorse, and Openness
If the unfaithful cannot be honest, open, and patient then the healing for the couple will not begin to take place. Until the unfaithful can be 100% honest and answer any and all questions the betrayed has, then trust cannot begin to heal. The betrayed deserves to know the details so they can have an accurate sense of reality after the unfaithful distorted it. Details are crucial because if an unfaithful physically had sex with a prostitute, then the betrayed needs to know that for their own health so they can get tested for any STDs. The unfaithful should not be defensive, angry or blaming toward the betrayed, but rather empathetic and understanding of the pain they’ve caused. The more defensive and angry the unfaithful is, the more it communicates to the betrayed that they are unsafe and untrustworthy and could be hiding things still.
The unfaithful ideally should be showing remorse for their actions. To the betrayed, remorse tells them that the unfaithful won’t repeat their actions, that they truly regret their infidelity. Remorse, and “getting it” is absolutely key to the relationship healing. If the unfaithful do not understand the amount of pain they caused, how their betrayed partner’s daily life has been impacted, then the betrayed won’t feel safe. There needs to be empathy from the unfaithful to heal the relationship.
These are the bare minimum aspects of the start of healing. If these aspects of honesty, dedication, thoughtfulness, empathy, and understanding are being met, then you’re on a good path. When infidelity or sexual betrayals occur, usually couples are not equipped with the skills to navigate this alone, and I always recommend a therapist, at least for the unfaithful so they can truly work on becoming a healthier person. If you cannot afford therapy, I wrote a series on the 8 types of affairs that can happen if you want to check that out to see which affair you’re dealing with.