You wake up one morning, rub your eyes and pray it was only in a horrible nightmare that you discover your lover has cheated on you with someone else. Reality sinks in, and your heart and soul are heavy. Why me? What will I do now? You’re not alone; many of us have been in that same place. More than half of men and women admit to either physical or emotional cheating in any relationship they’ve had. As difficult or impossible as it may seem, you can get through it. Here are some ideas that might help you figure out in which direction you’re headed and how you can best move beyond the betrayal.
The first thing you need to do is get tested for HIV and other STI/STDs. If your partner cheated physically, you’re at risk for contracting something, so it’s better to be safe than sorry. Get tested after you find out and again in six months, as some infections are undetectable immediately or have symptoms that remain dormant for some time. Use protection during any sexual activity in the interim.
Are You in or Out?
Eventually, you have to decide if you’re staying or leaving. Initially, you’re still raw and going through an emotional roller coaster, so take your time and try to avoid acting too quickly and making rash decisions. If you live together, you have to consider details like living arrangements and shared finances. If you have children together, you have to think of how they will be affected by either choice. Jessica* says, “When I found out he cheated, I moved out the next weekend and got my own place. We have a child together, so me having to deal with him on an almost daily basis was very hard.” Some people say they would never stay with someone who cheats, while others enter relationships with the “cheating isn’t an automatic deal-breaker” mindset. No one really knows which way they’ll go until faced with that reality, but being prepared for the possibility of a split can help make the decision post-cheating less stressful.
Healing and Forgiveness
Whether your stay or go, you have to find ways to heal yourself and forgive your partner. Ideally, your partner will own up to cheating, so if you’re thinking about making it work together, experts at the Mayo Clinic recommend relationship counseling. A licensed professional can help guide you both through the process of rebuilding trust and moving forward. Angie* says, “I’ve been unsure about bringing up counseling, I don’t know why. I guess it seems like a thing for married people. I haven’t totally dismissed the idea. I just don’t know how to bring the idea to him.
In counseling, you might find that there are underlying issues you’ve never openly discussed that could help you better understand each other and even bring you closer. Believing that your partner won’t cheat again may take some time, but you should remain committed to optimism, or else you’ll remain trapped in your suffering. Start by conveying your desire to keep the relationship together and see if your partner is on board. If s/he wants to remain together, suggest counseling as a way to get objective and informed help.
You’ll also need to work on healing and forgiveness if you decide to leave. Patrick D. Shaffer, author of Love Again: A Spiritual Memoir, says that ending a relationship is a turning point in your life. “Either you’re going to make a decision that you’re going to let this hold you for the rest of your life or you are going to dream again, live again, love again and be free again. It takes you a minute to get that point where you can you believe you can be happy again.”
You might blame yourself, as Delia* did. “I kept telling myself that if only I would lose weight, he wouldn’t keep cheating on me. I lost 82 pounds and he still cheated, several times. I knew I had to go because I wasn’t the problem.” The key is understanding that infidelity is almost always about the person cheating and not the one being cheated on. Blaming yourself only delays the healing process, so accept that it probably wasn’t anything you did or didn’t do, and focus on loving, trusting and believing in yourself.
These days, almost everyone is connected via social media, updated relationships statuses, tagged photos, retweets and “likes.” They’re all standard parts of communication in the age of instant information access. Is having 24/7 access worth it, especially if you’ve decided to leave a cheating partner? Some tips for dealing with social media post-breakup include taking a break from it while you work through things, and avoiding telling the world what’s going on via status updates. You don’t want to invite questions that might be too painful to answer, especially from strangers, when you haven’t quite figured out what you’re going to do. And you really don’t need updates about how she is having the time of her life with the man she cheated with, do you?
Whether you decide to stay with someone who cheated or leave, the best way to get through it is to focus on your happiness and self-worth. Only you know what you can and can’t handle in your relationship. While being cheated on isn’t the automatic end, and love remains strong for most, you have to consider the entirety of your well-being. Either way, focus on healing yourself, forgiving your partner, finding support among friends, family, or counseling, and trusting your instincts. You don’t have to be destroyed by infidelity, nor do you have to go through it alone.
Feminista Jones is a sex-positive Black feminist, social worker and blogger from New York City. She writes about gender, race, politics, mental health and sexuality at FeministaJones.com. Follow her on Twitter at @FeministaJones.