Why Did Your Partner Cheat? And 7 Other Questions About Infidelity Answered

Two sex therapists weigh in on ways you can strengthen your relationship after your partner cheated and more.

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There is no universal definition for cheating. It could mean anything from having an affair to texting an old fling to meet up for drinks. But either way, being unfaithful means going against the agreed upon terms of the relationship.

If your partner has cheated, or if you’ve been unfaithful yourself, it doesn’t mean your relationship is doomed. Here are two therapists’ takes on overcoming moments of infidelity, plus how to make your relationship even stronger.

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What is cheating?

The definition of cheating varies for every couple, says Maria Hanzlik, PhD, a clinical psychologist and certified sex therapist in Indianapolis, Indiana. For one couple it might mean flirting. For another, it could be having sexual relations outside of the marriage. “The biggest piece is that it tends to involve secrecy, and it doesn't include the other person's consent,” she adds.

To solve this issue, come up with boundaries when you first start dating. Many couples avoid having this conversation up front because they’re afraid of their partner’s answer. “We just take for granted what monogamy means,” says Tom Murray, PhD, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Greensboro, North Carolina. Address each person's limits before you get into a serious relationship says Dr. Hanzlik.

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Why do people cheat?

There’s not a universal answer for why some people are unfaithful. It’s a complex question with many different answers.

One possibility is lack of intimacy. A risk in dating someone long term is that the relationship can become “stale.” Murray says that when couples cheat, it’s because they have too much closeness or comfort and not enough intimacy or excitement.

So, what is a close relationship versus an intimate relationship? At first, they sound the same. But if you delve into the definitions of each, they’re vastly different. Intimacy is centered around high risk, high anxiety, low predictability, high spontaneity, newness and novelty. Having a close relationship is the opposite—meaning low risk, low anxiety, high predictability, comfort and familiarity. “Closeness without any intimacy is just an unspoken contract to die together,” says Murray.

“For other people, there are things from their histories, whether it's their early childhood history or past relationship history, that maybe haven't gotten fully worked out and that they're kind of re-enacting in the present,” says Hanzlik. People who cheat are often unhappy with a particular aspect of their life, such as work, school or home, which they then take out on their partner.

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Why would happy people cheat?

“Most men who cheat report satisfactory marriages, whereas most women, when they cheat, report unsatisfactory marriages,” says Murray. It might be surprising that someone in a relatively stable marriage would cheat, but couples often fail to see the problems within their relationship.

A couple who rarely fights isn’t necessarily in a “happy” or satisfactory marriage. Failing to address conflict can eventually lead to bigger issues. If your partner says they’re happy in the relationship, find out what that really means. Is that person able to share their hopes and dreams with the other person? Do they feel comfortable talking about their future?

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What should you do after you find out your partner was unfaithful?

Many couples create the conditions for an affair to happen. There could have been relationship issues for days, months or years leading up to the indiscretion. This means that in a way, both parties may be responsible.

“It really helps to process what happened,” says Hanzlik. One of the first steps you can take is to talk to a therapist. Hanzlik says you should do this even if your end goal isn’t to reconcile with your partner. These therapy sessions can help you process the traumatic event.

Once in therapy, there’s a three-step process to help you cope:

  1. Deal with the initial impact: It’s important to set boundaries with your partner. Decide how often and when you want to talk about the affair. But also realize that you can’t “un-know” certain information. Only ask if you actually want to hear the answers.
  2. Talk about what led up to it: Understand that the infidelity is now part of your shared narrative. Both partners should think about whether there were any contributing factors. This should not mean shifting the entire blame to the person who cheated. Both partners have to accept responsibility. Figure out if there was something lacking in the relationship. Was there a difficulty communicating? Were there external stressors like jobs or finances? Understanding what led to the infidelity can help alleviate any anxiety that your partner will do it again in the future.
  3. Decide how to move forward: If couples decide to stay together, they need to agree to continuously work on their relationship. This also means they need to stop punishing the partner who cheated for their past actions.
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Is it possible to forgive and forget?

Forgetting is very difficult. You can’t pretend that a moment didn’t happen. “It's a part of the couple's shared history at that point,” says Hanzlik. What you can do is work on forgiveness. And it is not just a one and done conversation. It’s a work in progress that takes full commitment from both partners.

“There's a difference between forgiveness and reconciliation,” says Hanzlik. The partner who has been cheated on has the power to choose. Even if your partner forgives you, they can still decide it’s time to part ways. If your partner wants to reconcile, they can work on making the relationship stronger so that cheating doesn’t happen again in the future.

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Why would someone stay with a partner who cheated?

There are so many different reasons a couple might stay together after a partner cheated. The first is because it’s practical. Some people choose to reconcile for health insurance, to keep a family together or to avoid a divorce. Others might be too embarrassed to split because they wish to protect their reputation.

The second reason is the hope that they can repair the relationship. Some couples are able to strengthen their connection and form new-found trust, says Hanzlik. Because the couple already has a shared history that includes friendship and love, they might try to move past the infidelity. “It is not a weakness or a limitation if someone stays in a relationship where there has been cheating that happened, but potential for the relationship to grow even stronger,” he says.

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What are some ways to make it work if you or your partner cheated?

“When someone has cheated, you certainly can repair the relationship,” says Murray. Here are some ways the relationship between you and your partner can still thrive:

  • Radical transparency: Be completely open and honest about everything that happened. This means answering all questions your partner may have. There are positives to this—like making trustworthiness a main priority.
  • Change “me” to “we”: It may not be one person’s fault that there was infidelity in your relationship. Instead of thinking about how your partner cheated on you, start thinking about what you both could’ve done differently instead.
  • Be compassionate: “Forgiveness is the biggest factor in terms of whether the relationship can repair,” says Murray. It might seem unfair that the person who didn’t do the cheating has to accept their partner’s mistakes. But it’s the only way to move forward.
  • Avoid comparison: Women especially tend to compare themselves to the affair partner. But understand that it’s not necessarily something you lacked, but instead something that was lacking from the relationship.
  • Schedule sex: Many couples resist scheduled sex because they think of it as being “unsexy.” But the truth is an affair is technically scheduled sex. Use it as an opportunity to bring intimacy and excitement into the relationship. For some couples, being open and honest after an affair can even help renew their sex life.
  • Decide if there’s anything you can learn from it: Cheating can lead to something called “post-traumatic growth.” A relationship can grow and flourish even after an upsetting event. It can help you learn how to be more assertive, address conflict head-on and learn more about yourself and your personal needs.
  • Keep your relationship fun: How do you prevent your relationship from becoming too predictable? Murray suggests asking your partner questions about themselves. Many couples don’t do this because they think they can already predict their partner’s answers, but it’s one of the best ways to get to know your partner better. “Intimacy is having a relationship with the person. Closeness is about having relationship with your thoughts of the person,” he adds.

Infidelity can put a strain on your relationship. But if you work together, you can repair your relationship—and possibly make it even stronger.

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