You are jeopardizing your relationship. What now?
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you messed it up You broke an agreement. You are jeopardizing the relationship.
You may vacillate between shame, wondering, “How could I have been so stupid?” and defensiveness, thinking, “Well, if they hadn’t been like this (insert frustrating behavior), this never would have happened!”
And now you have to confess. You know you come across as sensitive and anxious. You sense that your partner knows, or at least suspects, that something is wrong.
When we hear “infidelity,” most of us imagine having sex outside of our relationships. But there are many ways to cheat. For example, in my couples therapy practice, financial infidelity (lying about expenses, concealing financial debts, dishonesty about assets) and emotional affairs are at least as common as sexual infidelity. Disloyalty and cheating of any kind means lying, concealing, and breaking explicit or implicit agreements.
While sexual infidelity is usually pretty obvious, with both financial and emotional fidelity it can be murky to see exactly when you’ve crossed the line. You’ve always minimized your overspending, but now it’s evolved from a meal or household purchase to online gambling. You’ve always been flirting harmlessly, but now you’re sharing text messages and intimacy with a sexy co-worker. Is it just flirting or emotional infidelity? Rather than pointing out specific actions that might be right or wrong, it’s more helpful to ask yourself this question: Am I keeping secrets? If so, it sounds like you have a confession to make.
Step 1: Come clean
It’s common to imagine that there’s a way to get clean that does minimal damage and annoyance. Often people hesitate when it comes to speaking an uncomfortable truth because they are trying to find the perfect way to get clean.
Unfortunately, there is no perfect way. You broke a contract and caused pain. Your best option is to be direct, concise, and apologetic. Don’t apologize or provide endless context. If your partner has questions, answer them, and if they need space, give them space.
You may feel desperate for an immediate solution or for immediate forgiveness. You may think that you are in excruciating pain and cannot contain your emotions. Pull yourself together. Your job is to stay tuned into your partner and try to meet their needs, not your own.
However, if they get mad at you or you feel unsafe, be sure to walk away. But aside from that, stay committed and keep your focus on your partner.
Step 2: Take your medicine
Allowing your partner to have their feelings. Being on the receiving end of shock, anger, and disbelief, answering painful questions, and having your character challenged is essentially your penance for lying.
Now is not the time to address the issues that you believe led to the betrayal. Instead, sit down, listen, answer questions, and apologize.
You will be tempted to push your partner through this process. You’ll feel like you’re having the same conversations over and over again. You may feel unfairly slandered, defensive, or embarrassed. But to have any chance of repairing the relationship, you need to be able to stay with your partner, listen, and empathize with their feelings for much longer than you would like. Your partner will want to see that you really “understand” the pain you’ve caused them. Meaningful understanding requires multiple conversations.
Whether it’s an emotional, sexual, or financial affair, some partners won’t want to discuss the details of the infidelity at all, while others will want to hear every detail. In sexual affairs, how much to share can be a minefield. You need to be open and transparent, but at the same time you don’t want to infect your partner with disturbing images that they can’t get out of their head. If you’re not sure you’re using good judgment about what should and shouldn’t be shared, or you’re concerned your partner will ask for details that will distress them later, consult a couples therapist.
Step 3: Make amends
You and your partner should work together on a plan that will help your partner feel safe and cared for. For example, they could demand full transparency on financial matters, improved communications about your whereabouts, and a full electronic password disclosure policy.
In addition, your partner may want to discuss other issues in the relationship after the relationship has broken down. For example, they may want to reprioritize time together, realign your expectations of each other, or ask for more emotional or sexual intimacy. When a relationship falls apart and you and your partner consider staying together, you have an opportunity to create the relationship you both want.
If these requests feel intrusive to you — if you’re resentful of your partner’s request for transparency or change — you need to be honest with yourself about staying in this relationship. It makes sense not to want to be closely monitored forever, and your partner probably doesn’t either. See if you can negotiate policies to restore trust.
Step 4: Go forward
First of all, if you want to break up, just break up. Sometimes an affair is a way out of an unsatisfactory relationship. Staying together because you feel guilty is the worst option – dragging your partner into a relationship that you eventually leave (or stay in out of obligation) prolongs the agony for both of you. You are doing your partner a disservice by staying with them when you are unhappy. Instead, keep her from finding a better relationship. The grenade was detonated. If you want to go away, go now. It’s better for your partner to be angry and grieving than to spend years working on a doomed relationship.
I have also experienced situations where a partner was mistreated or even abused and had an affair. Then, because they’ve lost the moral high ground in the relationship, they feel even more trapped and unable to take a break. If this is you, allow yourself to save yourself. Yes, you didn’t handle the situation ideally. But don’t punish yourself by staying out of guilt or penance. You can leave even if you made a mistake.
Even if you rush into working on the relationship for your partner, it could break beyond repair. You cannot force someone to forgive you, no matter how sorry you are. Their treachery could give them the emergency exit hatch they need. Be graceful and let her go. Not all relationships last forever. Use this loss to become a better person in your next relationship.
But if you want to stay together and your partner is willing to give you another chance, take heart—many relationships survive infidelity. According to a review of the literature and research on infidelity by Ofer Zur, Ph.D. According to the Zur Research Institute, most marriages survive all forms of infidelity, and many couples report that their relationships are stronger than they were before the betrayal.
Relational breaking points are an excellent opportunity to learn about yourself. You could find a therapist, keep a journal, or do a retreat. Take this time to understand what drives you. If you lied about money, what underlying beliefs guide your financial decisions? If you’ve engaged in an emotional affair, what do you need and aren’t getting from your partner? If you’ve cheated sexually, was it a one-time thing or a pattern? What are you looking for? Is it excitement, novelty or affection? Are you violating your values by behaving like this?
Just because you did something bad doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. You can take responsibility for your actions without slipping into a spiral of shame. Having a little compassion for yourself will even help you be more present with your partner. Curiosity and compassion always lead to a better place than judgment and self-flagellation.
Trying to forget the affair and carry on as usual is a waste of a crisis. Whether the relationship survives or not, use this opportunity to start fresh and move forward in your life with purpose and confidence.
To find a therapist, please visit Psychology Today’s Therapy Directory.