How to Survive (& Thrive) After Cheating

Refinery29By Leila Brillson, Refinery29

Infidelity - the subject of countless movies, songs, and tearful discussions with friends over wine. In some way, everyone has been affected by cheating, whether it be a clear-cut case of crossing boundaries or by dabbling in a nefarious gray area. Whatever it is, the revelation of cheating will always rock a relationship's foundation - often past the point of no return.

We spoke to 10 people in various stages of dealing with infidelity, including those who watched their relationship crumble, partners who let the incident strengthen their bond, or a few individuals who are currently reeling from its effects. Each of our subjects spoke honestly, be they the transgressors or the betrayed. No matter which side of the coin each respondent fell (and, believe us, it is never cut-and-dry), each one shared a powerful lesson. One thing was certain: Once infidelity surfaces, its effects cannot be undone.

Refinery29Behavior, statistics, gender, and personality aren't bulletproof indicators that someone has a tendency toward infidelity. Though studies often suggest that people cheat when they "are feeling unfulfilled," that behavior seems often like a justifier - even though a cold-relationship climate is often a two-way street. Yet, sometimes, cheating is a huge mistake, one that helps refocus the priorities of the relationship and allows the transgressor to gain perspective - and remedy their flaws.

Chris, 31, got caught red-handed by his girlfriend engaging in some extra-curricular texting. "I meant to show her a text message about a common friend, and one with a girl she had been suspicious of popped up. She was immediately - and understandably - put off, especially since I referred to the other girl as 'babe.' Even though I didn't engage in anything physical with the third party, I was definitely sending some misleading text messages, and my girlfriend demanded that she see them. (Truth be told, at first I acted indignantly about her request, but who wouldn't be upset by seeing their significant other call an already-suspicious person 'babe'?) So, I showed her, and she was furious."

Chris was immediately repentant and felt horrible. Though friends pointed out he didn't actually engage in anything sexual, it was the idea that he was late-night texting with another girl that made his girlfriend feel uncomfortable. However, before then, he wasn't quite sure how he felt about this girl. "Suddenly, the impact of losing her was real, and I realized I had to make a change. At first, I came totally clean - with both people. I told my girlfriend that I wasn't going to speak to the third party anymore, and I told the third party that my girlfriend was made really uncomfortable by our communication. Then, I decided that I wasn't going to give her a timeline to be mad."

It was this understanding that saved, and then improved, their relationship: "When I committed to let her feel anger on her own terms and accept that anger, I think I managed to do a lot of growing. I worked hard to communicate and assuage her fears, exposing a tender side to her that she had never experienced. But, what worked was that she was also committed to attempting to forgive me, even if her hurt feelings sometimes surface. It was the dual decision for me to stay in the doghouse and her to let me out of the doghouse that helped us get over this."

"Also, by exposing myself and letting her know how I felt - and that losing her would be horrible - our relationship deepened. It was a huge growing moment for me, and I had to eat some crow, for sure. Lastly, I realized: I don't want to engage in any behavior that would make her uncomfortable, ever again. And, that was a painful, but effective, way for me to learn, sort of a litmus test."

Refinery29Finding out that your significant other has been sneaking around in whatever form is heartbreaking. But, what happens when the pain of the transgression is only seconded by the notion of ending your relationship? The truth is, studies and research on the psychology of cheating are meaningless when dealing with intangible factors like trust, pain, and repentance. No one can give you a statistical breakdown on whether or not it'll happen again, so here are several men and women who went with their gut and opted to forgive.

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Stephanie, age 23, is still with her boyfriend. She discovered his infidelity via "less than honest means" and that "made the many ensuing fights a lot more bitter": "The strange thing about being cheated on, for me, was that I never expected it. Not because I trusted my boyfriend so unconditionally, but because it had never even occurred to me that cheating would ever happen in real life, to me, right under my nose. Because of how - naive? innocent? confident? - I was, it was all the more shocking when I turned into a paranoid monster after the fact. And, while things are better now, it has been a long road. And, nothing in my life has been the same since."

For her, the realization allowed for much-needed improvement on both her and her partner. Both partners were angry at each other for betraying the other's trust, but the only reason they each moved forward was due to a shared commitment to change. "While we loved each other, it wasn't a good relationship before he cheated on me. He treated me horribly right up until that point. And, while I was fundamentally different (in many ways, for the worse) after that, he also changed completely, for the better. He showed kindness and affection and willingness to accommodate my needs - things that I never thought existed in him before, in any capacity."

For Stephanie, her story ends happily, while many in this article do not, but not without serious growing pain. "You might be wondering why I was dating such a horrible person, and honestly, so did I. But, that person disappeared around the same time my inner monster came out. It was such a marked and sudden change in attitude that I was convinced he loved me and regretted what he had done, and it has lasted to this day, years later."

"And, I still bring it up whenever I'm angry, or worse, when I've done something wrong and don't want to take responsibility for it. I'm not over it. I'll never be over it; that's impossible. But, what has happened to help me move on has been accepting that, accepting the fact, and facing it instead of using it as a weapon or a shield. "

For 25-year-old Cheryl, getting over cheating ended up being a marathon run, which ended in her boyfriend accepting responsibility, and according to her, maturing. "We were casually seeing each other, and I caught feelings. I told him I needed a commitment. He hesitantly made us exclusive, or so I thought, but only a few weeks later he was with another girl." Cheryl's feelings were hurt and she ended the relationship, but he decided to keep in contact with her while she healed. "I kept him at a safe distance while I dated other guys but remained friends with him, and our friendship eventually repaired the damage during our first go-around."

Yet, it was when he made a grand declaration, that's when she realized he was serious about reconciling. "Of course, once I was over him, he manned up, moved across the country to be with me, and dealt with all of my insecurities that came along with our rocky past. The phone checking, psycho freak-outs, overbearing girlfriend stuff that was warranted until he gained my trust back. One of the conditions of me trying again was that we would be totally open with each other, and all passwords and accounts were fair game. Eventually, the urge to check stuff went away, as he proved his loyalty and treated me well, again and again." For Cheryl, getting over infidelity was a several-year commitment, but for her, it was worth it.

Refinery29A lot of our respondents spoke on the condition of anonymity, because they are frankly embarrassed. Yet, every one of the individuals we spoke to who reflected on the mistakes that they made did two things that showed a willingness to change: They accepted responsibility, and they were able to commit themselves to never making the same mistake twice.

Robin, who is now 29, realized that her wandering eye was the result of the end of her relationship with her girlfriend. "What started out as innocent flirting and hand-holding turned into phone calls and a very emotionally intimate relationship. It wasn't too long after that that we crossed the boundary into physical intimacy. Even though we didn't technically have sex until after I had come clean and broken up with my significant other, all the stolen kisses and fooling around still equaled infidelity." Naomi, a 24-year-old in a similar situation, responded, "I was dating someone who was studying for the Bar. She was really busy and stressed...and I fell for someone else. I tried to break up with her, but she couldn't handle it because how stressful the rest of her life was, and I chickened out. I know I should have been firmer, but I just felt so guilty. So, I ended up cheating on her and breaking up with her afterward."

The decision to end the relationship resulted in a worst case scenario for both Robin and Naomi's girlfriends, who each found out she was being cheated on and were dumped in the same moment. However, the impact of the betrayal shaped Robin's perception of relationships moving forward. "After that experience, I decided infidelity is not an option for me." The guilt is still with her. "I wanted to be forgiven because I still cared deeply and loved my significant other (even though I was no longer 'in love' with her) and thought she deserved honesty and to be with someone better than me. I wanted a clean slate before I started something new with someone else."

As for Naomi? It's water under the bridge. "I also feel like she didn't do a good job of, like, keeping me, so it feels like it's on both of us. She couldn't make the time to keep me interested in her - who knows what would have happened if she had? I just wasn't her priority, so she couldn't be mine. I don't really care if she's still mad at me."

Cordelia, who is now 25, tells the tale of her life-altering decisions she made when she was younger, which she credits for helping her be in a mature, stable, and fulfilling live-in relationship today. "I had a high school boyfriend who I was completely intertwined with, but I'm a very intuitive person. So, when I met this other guy, I knew it was trouble. We started hooking up, and it turned into a whirlwind affair."

What Cordelia realized is something that plenty of cheaters have identified; she craved the attention that her DL relationship delivered. "Sometimes I feel like women can move on from relationships when they have someone lined up, while men move on because they crave independence." Of course, this isn't the rule, but for Cordelia, having a new beau helped ease the pain of releasing her longterm love. But, as it happens, her and her now-ex ended up in the same place, and her unresolved feelings had her returning to him. "My relationship with (the guy that I cheated with) was like the rebound that never ended," she confessed.

Today, Cordelia is really regretful about her past. "I think it's much harder for the cheater than the person that is cheated on, because you have to deal with yourself and realize that you are capable of doing something really horrible. I really made it a priority to prove the old adage 'once a cheater, always a cheater' incorrect. In some ways, I'm glad I got that out of my system when I was young...because now I know what not to do."

Refinery29We'll be honest: The largest amount of respondents who wanted to talk about their experience with cheating ended up being those who felt wronged - which may prove Cordelia right. Maybe the ability to cope with infidelity is harder on the cheater than the cheatee. However, one thing is for certain: Once you experience cheating, the sting of betrayal will always be with you. Fortunately, it can also inform what you can (and can't) handle in a relationship.

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Ann, who is 31 and currently in a "complicated" relationship, found out her significant other was cheating on her in a way that felt like a made-for-TV movie. There was an earring on the bed, and she doesn't wear earrings. As she says, "I think I was willing to keep trying because I didn't want to be alone. I also somehow wanted to prove to all those who knew about the infidelity that at the end of the day, I was the one this dude 'really' wanted." Because she forced herself into believing that things would change, she moved forward, even when all signs indicated that the relationship was winding down. She snooped again and found more evidence of infidelity. (Snooping, says Ann, is "terrible self-torture. If you snoop, there will always be something to second guess, always something to wonder about.")

This fact was particularly poignant for Fernando, a 41-year-old who is now married (to another person). His live-in girlfriend was displaying some seriously erratic behavior, and in the days before social media, he decided to sleuth. "Oh, it was a Batman-level investigation. I wish I had recorded all the details, because they're hazy and probably out of order," he says. "I was snooping, but I think she wasn't admitting to herself that she was leaving clues. She wasn't really strong enough to end the relationship on her own." The saddest thing, however, was that her betrayal had a lasting effect, causing him to be distrustful moving forward. "I learned that someone can cheat on you and still not want to hurt you, weird as that sounds. Even when caught, she didn't want to tell me. When she moved her stuff out of my apartment, she couldn't have been sweeter. I think she was really torn up about it, but karma eventually caught up to her when the guy left her."

After a two-year relationship, 24-year-old Sophia found out her boyfriend was cheating on her after a bender in Las Vegas. Unlike Sasha, who cheated on her boyfriend and mended her ways, Sophia's boyfriend wasn't ready to deal with the emotional consequences of his actions. "After some time and much groveling, I was considering forgiving him, until I realized that he didn't have it in him to give me space as I healed or to be 'in the doghouse' for a while." The "doghouse" term was one each respondent threw around a lot, and one of the things relationships that endured cheating all had in common was the simultaneous willingness for the wrongdoer to "be in the doghouse" alongside the cheatee's ability to "let them out." Sophia continues, "He couldn't handle me being a sad mess over something he did or me needing to hash our my anger in person (a lot)."

"Breakups over cheating are hard because the cheating makes you angry and disgusted with the person but doesn't turn off your love for them," Sophia adds. "To turn off my love, I just had to fake it 'til I made it. Luckily, I made it."

For Ann, however, it has changed her opinion on monogamy and forgiveness. "In a not-so serious relationship, there is obviously something missing if we want others, so why be exclusive? Now, if it were a longterm relationship, it would depend on how both parties felt and how it came about. Is it the worst thing in the world if you know you really love and want to be with this person?" In fact, she confesses to having her whole view of exclusivity altered after her experience.

Refinery29Discovering your significant other is cheating is a gut-wrenching realization. For those who are in the midst of it, it feels like everyone knows but you. But the truth is there is no surefire way to negotiate infidelity. Personality profiles, checklists, and statistics are no match for a gut instinct. Some people have the capacity for forgiveness, while others don't (just ask Gwyneth Paltrow). As Cordelia proves, a reformed cheater can be staunchly anti-infidelity, or for Naomi, it was just a sign that the relationship is over.

For 29-year-old Claire, social media is a huge curse. "I've been in a semi-open relationship that I have been trying to close for some time, but this summer I went through a traumatic experience with the guy. I had to return home one weekend to be with my family, and it coincided with his brother's wedding, and he took his ex-girlfriend with him." Like many of our respondents, it was social media that became the source of information. "When I posted a photo of us, he acted angry and begged me to take it down. I understand his need for privacy (he is a pretty private guy), but it immediately raised my suspicious, so I started digging around online. On Instagram, I saw that his sister posted a picture of them together from the wedding. Which was particularly painful given what I was going through during the wedding."

Claire confronted him, but he came up with a reason that she was at the event - she is friends with the bride. Yet, the entire thing seems suspicious to her, and the two of them are still in the midst of hashing it out. "On one hand, I feel totally upset and betrayed because I was really hurting during this time. On the other, we aren't in an officially exclusive relationship." For her, she keeps repeating that it feels like she can't trust him, but also, she wants to take his word for what it is. "I don't know, at this point, what to believe."

Whether or not the couple will stay together is still unclear to Claire, but one thing is for certain: She'll survive the ordeal. "I didn't expect to be in this position. But now that I am, I should try to make the best of it and learn."

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