Trust is the foundation of any healthy relationship. It's what allows us to feel safe, secure, and connected to our partners. But what happens when that trust is broken? Infidelity can shatter even the strongest of relationships, leaving both partners feeling hurt, betrayed, and unsure of what comes next.
Rebuilding trust after cheating is not an easy process. It takes time, patience, and effort from both partners. But it's possible. With the right tools and support, couples can move forward and create a stronger, more resilient relationship.
The aftermath of cheating
When infidelity occurs in a relationship, it can cause a range of emotions for both partners. The person who was cheated on may experience hurt, anger, betrayal, confusion, despair, hopelessness, and a loss of trust. The person who cheated may feel guilt, shame, despair, hopelessness, and regret. Oftentimes these feelings will come in waves. For most people, the first three to six months after the discovery of infidelity is considered a "crisis stage." In this time, emotions can feel like they are all over the place. One moment you two are connecting and getting along and the next, your partner is triggered by some unknown factor and are crying, yelling, and hurt all over again. This is normal even if it feels challenging. A mistake that many people who have cheated make is getting impatient with their partner's lack of progress/moving on. This tends to be because at the beginning of healing, the person who cheated often feels relieved and is starting to take steps to be better. Since they are experiencing personal growth and forward momentum, they can become quickly frustrated if after several months the partner who was cheated on is still having a strong emotional reaction. Remember: you have known about the infidelity for a lot longer than your partner. They are going to need a lot of time to reconcile what occurred and make sense of their new reality. Many past memories are tainted by the infidelity and there are many situations/actions that can re-trigger the trauma of an affair. Patience is a key factor in rebuilding trust after cheating and is necessary to help you both move forward and heal from these emotions.
Rebuilding trust after cheating
Rebuilding trust is a process of restoring safety and security in a relationship. Here are some steps that can help in rebuilding trust after cheating:
- Be honest and transparent: The person who engaged in infidelity needs to be honest about their actions and take responsibility for their behavior. They should be willing to answer any questions their partner has and be open about their whereabouts and actions. Be mindful that too much detail can cause damage but not enough can cause us to fill in the blanks with stories that are worse than reality. Share what happened as honestly as possible - if the details feel like they may be too granular, discuss why it would be helpful to know them. If it seems like it’ll do more harm than good, table that particular question or detail for a later time.
- Give each other space: It's important to give each other space to process emotions and heal. This doesn't mean avoiding each other completely, but rather being respectful of each other's boundaries and needs. This could look like intentionally taking time each day to be alone in your own dedicated space in your living space. It might mean that you sleep in separate beds or even stay in separate living spaces for a period of time. Explore what you need in order to feel emotionally safe and to give yourself time to process. Spending all of your time together just to keep an eye on the person who cheated will keep you both from getting the space you need to explore the multitude of thoughts and feelings coming up for you.
- Seek professional help: Couples therapy or individual therapy can be incredibly helpful in navigating the complicated emotions that arise after cheating. A trained professional can guide both partners towards healing and reconciliation.
- Show commitment: The person who engaged in the infidelity needs to show a genuine commitment to change and to earning back their partner's trust. This means being consistent in their actions, staying accountable, and making efforts to rebuild the relationship. For example, if the affair partner reaches out again after all communication has been cut off, the person who cheated should come to their partner right away to tell them what happened. Don’t hide it or wait for your partner to ask/discover it. Every opportunity to be forthcoming about a circumstance that could be perceived as an ongoing deception is an opportunity to show your partner that you are truly working towards change, considering their feelings/needs, and will ultimately help rebuild trust.
Challenges and setbacks
Rebuilding trust is not an easy process and may involve challenges and setbacks. These may include triggers that remind the person who was cheated on of the infidelity, or doubts and fears on the part of the person who cheated. It's important for both partners to be patient and understanding during this time, and to communicate openly and honestly with each other. The rebuilding process is not linear. There will be times when doubt crops up and you might feel like you've both hit rock bottom all over again.
A common setback that I see time and time again with people in this recovery process is when there is the discovery of new information. Many times, the person who cheated will hold back certain details for fear that it'll make their partner even more angry and ultimately be the straw that broke the camel's back that ends the relationship. It is so much better to be forthcoming with all of the information that you think is relevant to the infidelity. I've never once heard anyone say "I'm so glad you didn't tell me that at the beginning and held it back until now." Revealing new information at a later date basically restarts the healing process all over again and can feel like a new betrayal. If your partner is going to leave, they're going to leave. Holding back information is only going to break trust further and could actually increase the likelihood of your partner choosing to end things. While it can be scary to lay everything bare, doing so in a safe space (i.e. with a therapist) can help keep healing moving forward.
Another common challenge I see is the acceptance of the contribution of both people to the infidelity. It can be unfathomable for the person who was cheated on to consider that they may have played any sort of role in the situation. Many times, the person who cheated felt abandoned/isolated in the relationship. There was a disconnection that they felt they could not voice. This doesn't mean that you caused the infidelity, but it is good to consider how you as a partner can show up differently moving forward to prevent something like this happening again.
Forgiveness is an important part of the process of rebuilding trust. It is an intention of allowing both partners to let go of the past and move forward. Your old relationship is not something you will be able to attain anymore - nor would you want to, given that whatever was happening then wasn't working - you are building something new. This is also not a linear process. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting. It might take a long time for a person to forgive their partner and no longer feel the need to ask questions about the infidelity or bring it up frequently. However, there is a point in the healing process where you will need to make the choice to let go of constantly reviewing the details of the situation and move on. Forgiveness does mean that you are no longer choosing to hold this over your partner's head and you are giving them the benefit of the doubt moving forward to choose better for your relationship. Mark that moment with intention so that you both know that you are entering a new chapter in your relationship.
Moving forward may also mean parting from the relationship. Sometimes we can forgive someone but are unable to restore trust enough to allow the relationship to move forward. That is okay. Knowing that you put in the effort to try and understand where your partner was coming from and taking the time to explore what you ultimately need and want in a relationship can give you the peace of mind to relinquish what once was.
In conclusion, rebuilding trust after infidelity is possible with time, patience, and effort from both partners. By being honest and transparent, giving each other space, seeking professional help, showing commitment, and being patient and understanding during setbacks, couples can create a stronger, more resilient relationship. And if the relationship ends, that doesn't mean you failed. You will have learned more about yourself through this process and can grow and move forward, seeking other opportunities that align with you.