There are few greater triggers in life than infidelity. Cheating in relationships brings out the deepest fears and insecurities, while also creating its own kind of trauma.

Because of this, and the general monogamistic approach to relationships that humanity has had for most of recorded history, we view infidelity as a very black and white subject. It is wrong. The cheater is scum. The person cheated on is a poor victim.

However, as with most things in life, the older we get the more we realize there is a lot more grey area than stark black and white. Infidelity is one of the subjects that lives in that in-between.

An interesting perspective I heard on a podcast was that monogamy is one of the very few areas in life where we expect people to be perfect all of the time and to never slip up. Any mistakes made tend to be final and result in labeling and judgement that are difficult to get rid of.

Being that relationships tend to be high stakes (emotions, trust, and future are all on the line), it makes sense that veering, even briefly, from the path of monogamy while in a relationship can lead to major repercussions. But does it have to lead to the ending of a relationship? Can two people come back from a break in trust? Do individuals and couples have to cave into peer pressure in order to “save face”?

I want to start off by saying that there is a difference between a momentary lapse in judgement and a behavioral pattern. Sometimes, life just happens. One thing leads to another. Mistakes happen. That being said, the saying “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” can be all too relevant if a partner has selfish, careless, or overall unhealthy habits.

For someone to cheat, it usually means there is some need not being met in the relationship. This does not mean that the partner cheated on is to be blamed. Instead, it simply means something just isn’t right.

Sometimes couples fall into the trap of not communicating openly and honestly which leads to a build up of tension, frustration, and resentment. This is why communication is so important. When communicating with one another, both partners have a responsibility to make the conscious decision of either continuing to work on the relationship in a healthy manner or parting in as amicable a way as possible.

If infidelity does occur, the best course of action is to be open about it immediately so that both people in the relationship know the truth and can then decide how to act according to what they believe is in their respective best interests. Hiding or lying about cheating just makes everything worse.

What I’m about to say is important so please read carefully. Staying with someone who cheated on you does not make you naive or dumb. There is also no shame in walking away if you feel that the trust has been broken and is irreparable. This is, of course, on a case by case basis. Know that people CAN change. Relationships CAN be healed. If staying together is a course you are both willing to take, then some professional counseling and therapy as both individuals and as a couple would be beneficial.

That being said, there are individuals out there who act in a narcissistic and selfish manner. They don’t feel the weight of the consequences of their actions. They are not remorseful, but may act like they are because they have a comfort zone with the partner they cheated on. It is up for you to decide what you are dealing with in a partner and whether there is a realistic possibility for change. Do your best to take a step back and observe other past behavioral patterns. Have they done this in previous relationships? Are they frequently lying about and hiding things? It becomes more difficult to assess impartially the more affection, time invested, love, and co-dependency there exists in a relationship.

The following is for those who have cheated or might do so:

  • Don’t. Just don’t.
  • Yes, sometimes events happen and control can be lost. However, if you practice mindfulness and attempt to be in the present and have even minimal awareness, you will be able to think about the person you are in a relationship with and how devastated they will be as a result of your actions.
  • If you are unhappy, communicate this with your partner. Give them the opportunity to work on things with you. If that doesn’t work or is not an option, then leave.
  • Cheating on your partner or worse, having an affair, is committing to a path of knowingly selfish and damaging behavior. It is a complete lack of compassion.
  • The effects of cheating on the partner do not subside quickly. This is true even if there is forgiveness and a commitment to working things out. The image of someone they care deeply about being intimate with someone else, the betrayal of their trust and love, will haunt them for months and even years. It is trauma.
  • Take some time to reflect, perhaps with a therapist. Look into what made you act this way. Remember, hurt people hurt people. This isn’t an excuse, so don’t you dare go using it as one, but it is a reason to look in the mirror and do the work to figure out your own issues and unhealthy thought and behavioral patterns

The following is for those who have been cheated on:

  • Any emotion you are feeling is ok and natural.
  • Do not let peer pressure dictate your choice of staying or leaving.
  • Do your best to take a step back from the situation and be discerning as to whether this was a one time slip-up, or part of a larger behavioral pattern. Get help from an impartial advisor if you can.
  • Realize that, while there may have been a lack in the relationship that you contributed to knowingly or not, no one forced your partner to cheat. That was a decision they made on their own and is reflective of them and their values (or lack thereof) rather than it is of you and yours.
  • Remember, you are worthy of love and affection.
  • Forgive when you are ready to and remember that forgiveness is more for you than it is for them.
  • Broken trust will take time to rebuild. This lack of trust might sometimes follow you into another relationship. Take the time needed to heal properly while practicing self care and love.
  • Do work on yourself. You are not a victim unless you allow yourself to be one. There might be a pattern that you are unaware of which attracts you to unhealthy or volatile relationships. A therapist can help.
  • You will be ok.

Infidelity is a sea of grey. Every relationship is different. Because of this, the circumstances that led to the cheating, the cheating itself, and the potential paths forward must all be observed and decided on through a case-by-case basis. Be discerning and realistic.

While infidelity is selfish and incredibly damaging, people are human and, as such, liable to mess up. Individuals can change and grow if given the chance. But this is only possible if they are truly willing. Be wary of those who display unconscious and unhealthy behavioral patterns. It is not your job to “save” or “change” them no matter how much you care. The only person you can really change, after all, is you.

Our society and culture like to act as if there are rulebooks for how we should live our lives and how relationships are “supposed” to look. While these rules might be useful as a general guide or template, they do not take into account the complexities of human nature and of love. Do whatever is best for your health and wellbeing in a way that is least harmful to those around you.

Below are some other articles that could act as good companion pieces to this one:

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