The sex might be good, but what happens next is not: a broken relationship.
Few of us believe that cheating is good, but the brutal truth is that sometimes infidelity happens. Temptation is all around us, and we are human. When there are underlying issues in our relationship, sometimes we succumb to infidelity in our need for connection, understanding, touch, validation or a number of other core needs.
In a perfect world, we would not go around our partner and meet these needs through cheating. But this isn’t a perfect world, and few among us are perfect. Sometimes this imperfection sets in motion a chain reaction that can ruin the relationship with our partner even if our mistake was only a momentary lapse and we really, truly don’t want our relationship to end.
The trouble is that once we cheat, we’re stuck. There is no Undo button.
“It is definitely a feeling of being trapped,” recovery coach Tray Lovvorn told me during a recent conversation on my YouTube show, Talking Love. “You’ve got this huge, enormous secret. It’s terrifying because you don’t know the consequences, you don’t know how your spouse is going to respond.”
But you pretty much know how they will respond and what happens next. The relationship is over. So you hide, you avoid, you outright lie if you must because a lie in the relationship is not as bad as losing everything.
This hiding is a cancer, though, something Tray knows firsthand because he lived it. Tray helps couples with infidelity because he himself was unfaithful; he saw how it slowly ate away at him and his marriage. The cancer from infidelity didn’t go away, it grew and hollowed out the relationship.
“Because of what had happened and the enormity of that secret, it was impacting the way I was relating to Melody on a daily basis,” he told me. “We would start to have a deep conversation, but I would back out. I would pull out because if I went down that path, the likelihood of the secret coming out went way up. So I couldn’t do that.”
Tray’s momentary weakness dug away at the relationship and then cost him everything. Like a beach ball we try and hold under the water, secrets have a way of surfacing eventually no matter what we do.
“I was never courageous enough to share the truth,” he said. “I was found out; I was caught. I would not recommend that path.”
If we cheat and still want our partner, the first impulse is to hide. This is rational, because cheating can and very likely will detonate our relationship. We have no choice—or so we think.
The problem is that hiding only makes the situation worse. There is the momentary infidelity from going outside the partnership, but then there is the ongoing infidelity of keeping it from our partner. As bad as cheating can be, keeping the secret afterwards is worse. This hiding doesn’t work in the long run anyway, and the cost of momentary sexual or emotional infidelity combined with the ongoing infidelity from keeping the secret almost certainly spells doom for the relationship.
“In the back of the mind of that spouse who has been betrayed is, Okay, I’ve discovered this, but what else have I not found yet?” Trey noted.
That’s why the only way out is through the front door. We must tell our partner. We still might lose the relationship, but when we confess our mistakes we give the relationship a fighting chance. There’s no way we can change the past and our mistakes, but we can show our partner that we’re doing the best we can and still working with them from inside the partnership.
Timing also matters, because the sooner you tell your partner the better. Infidelity cannot be undone, but you limit the damage and act in good faith when you tell your partner about the transgression as soon as possible.
The reason is obvious if you imagine the difference between confessing willingly versus being discovered. By confessing, you show your partner that you’ve made a horrible decision but are still more or less a good-faith partner, albeit an imperfect one. If you hide and are eventually discovered, on the other hand, you plant seeds of doubt that are hard to uproot; by hiding you show that you are acting independently, and that there is reason to not trust you about other issues going forward. As Tray noted, what else might you be keeping from your partner if you have kept the infidelity secret?
So if you have cheated, tell your partner right away. If you can’t tell them right away because you’ve already started down that road of secrecy, tell them as soon as you can—before they find out on their own!
Admittedly, honesty is no guarantee that your relationship will last after infidelity. You will have many hard moments ahead, and your relationship will be shaky and on life support for the foreseeable future.
To build back trust and connection, you will need to work hard and have both patience and genuine contrition. But if you go from bad partner to good, from breaking partnership to wholeheartedly making amends and working with your partner to fix the mess, there’s hope and a fighting chance you can save things. You just have to be as good a partner after the infidelity as you were a bad partner during it.
Tray lost his marriage after infidelity, but he didn’t give up as a partner. Slowly he rebuilt his relationship with Melody, and six years later they remarried. Tray went from bad partner to good, and ultimately he saved the relationship with time.
So if you cheated but want to save your relationship, all is not lost. You’ve certainly made a mess of things, and the connection with your partner is now at an all-time low even if that is not evident yet. But with honesty, time, and much work on rebuilding the connection, recovery is possible.
The first step is acting like a good partner again by owning up to your mistake. This is painful but fast. The second step is getting good at reconnection and healing the damage, which is slightly less traumatic but a lot more complex and time-consuming.
If you need help with this rebuilding process—and you almost certainly do if there has been infidelity—reach out to us at Kowalke Relationship Coaching and we can help or connect you with the right person who can. Building deep connections is our business, and that includes rebuilding those connections.
We also can help if you are feeling temptation but have not yet crossed the line into infidelity, or if you suspect your partner is unfaithful or close to it. These are all signs that something is wrong in the relationship, and we can both help you identify the real issues and work on overcoming them.
If ever there is the need for a helping hand with your relationship, it is when physical or emotional cheating is involved. So don’t go it alone.
Peter is founder of Kowalke Coaching. He also is founding director of the Philia Mission, a small charitable organization. Contact Peter.