A Six-Step Path to Recover from the Trauma of Infidelity
The psychological approach to healing a betrayal of trust — with forgiveness.
Love is a risk. The willingness to open your heart, to love deeply and boldly, opens us up to the possibility of pain. There’s a reason vulnerability is often accompanied by a sense of anxiety, or tenderness. The potential for conflict, rejection or unmet needs, or misunderstanding can be disruptive. But when that pain comes from the actions of one person, through infidelity, it’s devastating.
When in a committed monogamous relationship, cheating is the ultimate betrayal. Some therapists have likened the pain to PTSD due to its impact. But is infidelity the end of a relationship? It doesn’t have to be. In this article, we’ll explore the nuances of infidelity, from the surprising reasons why people cheat to common misconceptions, and the steps it takes to heal, forgive, and grow through the experience.
Why Do People Cheat?
Esther Perel is one of the world’s leading experts on relationships. Part of Perel’s gift, and the reason for her popularity, is her willingness to explore complex topics with as much objectivity as possible. She explores everything, from desire, sex, and eroticism, to what makes committed relationships thrive over the long term. In addition to working with clients as a relationship therapist, Perel is a podcast host and the author of two books: Mating in Captivity and The State of Affairs.
The State of Affairs is Perel’s deep dive into the nature of infidelity, written with Perel’s trademark willingness to avoid black-or-white thinking. She writes:
“The intricacies of love and desire don’t yield to simple categorizations of good and bad, victim and perpetrator. Not condemning does not mean condoning, and there is a world of difference between understanding and justifying.”
Perel’s research is so illuminating because it turns lots of common misconceptions upside down. According to Perel, the core motivation for people to commit infidelity has nothing to do with their marriage or committed relationship. Instead, it’s a personal exploration, an opportunity for the cheater to discover parts of themselves they feel to have lost, or never experienced.
The Misconception of the Symptom Theory
The symptom theory describes how, a typical approach to exploring infidelity is to see the affair as filling a void, making up for something lacking in the relationship. There are many reasons people cheat. Motivations for infidelity are varied. Common themes, such as a lack of passion, lack of fulfillment, or need for excitement, all occur. Perel notes a number of issues with the symptom theory, based on her experiences working with clients.
She says the idea of people committing infidelity because something has gone wrong reinforces the “perfect marriage,” which is mistakenly believed to protect people from acting out sexual fantasies with others, or from relationship dissatisfaction. In her practice, Perel notes that many cases of affairs don’t fit the box of dysfunction. Many people who commit infidelity say they are even happy in their relationships.
So why do happy people cheat? “For these seekers, infidelity is less likely to be a symptom of a problem, and more likely an expansive experience that involves growth, exploration, and transformation,” she writes. That might not ease the damage for the injured partner, but it does create a wider understanding of why people behave in ways that are hard to make sense of.
The allure of someone new can be exciting. But that excitement comes with a huge cost. In reference to one of her clients, who was having an affair that she was struggling to end, Perel reflected that “she is really afraid to lose is not her lover — it’s the part of herself that he awakened.” When people are unaware of lost parts of themselves they project onto an affair partner, or mistake love for limerence, they set themselves up for self-discovery in an incredibly damaging way.
The Emotional Damage of Infidelity
Perel is careful to note that there is no way of condoning an affair. Notions of expansion and self-discovery become insignificant when compared to the pain of the person cheated on. As Perel writes:
“Generally, there is much concern for the agony suffered by the betrayed. And agony it is — infidelity today isn’t just a violation of trust; it’s a shattering of the grand ambition of romantic love. It is a shock that makes us question our past, our future, and even our very identity.”
Other leading therapists have compared the trauma of infidelity with PTSD. Infidelity is a huge act of betrayal, especially when placing trust in someone, becoming vulnerable, and developing emotional bonds and sexual intimacy. Dennis Ortman, a former Catholic priest and clinical psychologist, created the term Post-Infidelity Stress Disorder. Although Ortman wasn’t identifying this as a distinct disorder, he notes that people who have been cheated on often display all the signs of PTSD.
That includes painful ruminations, panic attacks, dissociation, and emotional numbing. And then there’s another painful stage, where the person cheated on obsessively looks to the past, to try and spot clues that were missed, questioning every aspect of the relationship. Recovering from infidelity is one of the toughest emotional challenges to face.
Can a Relationship Recover from Infidelity?
Whether to give the relationship another go will depend on unique circumstances, whether it’s healthy or unhealthy. For example, abusive or manipulative dynamics as well as infidelity, such as gaslighting, and blaming the affair on the injured partner, are huge red flags. But that’s not always the case, and it’s impossible to tell how a relationship will weather the storm of infidelity. Perel writes:
“Catastrophe has a way of propelling us into the essence of things. In the wake of devastating betrayals, so many couples tell me that they are having some of the deepest, most honest conversations of their entire relationship. Their history is laid bare—unfulfilled expectations, unspoken resentments, and unmet longings. Love is messy; infidelity, more so. But it is also a window, like none other, into the crevices of the human heart.”
Perel notes that an affair ends the first marriage, but there is an opportunity to begin a “second marriage,” with greater honesty. Perel doesn’t give a definitive answer as to when or how someone should disclose an affair, but for the purpose of this article, we’ll make the assumption the infidelity is out in the open. Although many relationships (and the affair) end, some go on to become even stronger. It takes immense courage, but is possible.
The Six Stages of Forgiveness
In Transcending Post-Infidelity Stress Disorder, Dennis Ortman offers six stages of overcoming infidelity, which are listed below. Ortman’s focus is on the journey of forgiveness, which is the foundation of recovery. In his words:
“You forgive for your own sake, so you can mend your broken heart and find peace. Arriving at that place of forgiveness requires an extensive preparation of the emotions, mind, will, and heart. A forgiving attitude is the fruit of purposeful effort, a cultivation of virtues, and the healing of inner wounds.”
1. Calm the Emotional Storm
You can’t move on if painful emotions are suppressed or ignored. The worst outcome is trying to continue a relationship without addressing core wounds, and ending up in abuse or dysfunctional dynamics, filled with passive aggression or resentment. The choice to continue has to consider moving forwards in a healthy way — no matter how challenging that path will be.
2. Understand the Affair
This is the inquiry stage, part of the process of what Perel notes as “propelling into the essence of things.” This takes a lot of patience and restraint, to have incredibly tough conversations to shine a light on the cause of the affair. Most couples will need the support of a therapist at this stage, in order to get an objective view. For the injured partner, this takes huge amounts of compassion, in order to try to understand, rather than blame or insult the partner who had the affair.
3. Understand Yourself
Both Perel and Ortman encourage people to move away from black-or-white, victim-versus-perpetrator thinking. “Such a one-sided misrepresentation will only set you up to repeat the tragic drama of betrayal,” Ortman writes. There has to be a willingness to understand personal shortcomings, within self-blame or judgment. Were there areas of the relationship you were neglecting? Were you meeting your partner’s needs? Were you afraid to express your needs, or be vulnerable enough to have necessary but difficult conversations?
4. Make a Wise Decision
The top three stages are essential whether staying in the relationship or not. They’re prerequisites for healing. At stage four, Ortman encourages people to make a wise decision about the nature of the relationship. Do you end it, or keep going? To make a choice that’s in the best interest of everyone involved requires a decision made not in the heat of the moment, but from a calmer, more reasoned point of view. The greater understanding you have of yourself and the relationship, the clearer this decision will be.
5. Discover Self-Forgiveness
As these stages unfold, the injured partner (and the person who committed the infidelity, if working together), will have worked through a lot of painful emotions. The sadness, the fear, the rage (which Ortman notes as a primary symptom), all the emotions at once. At this point, it’s essential to forgive yourself for any perceived shortcomings, anything you “missed,” or any self-blame. That can involve feeling naive or stupid for “allowing” such a thing to happen — which is often the voice of self-protection.
6. Forgive the Unfaithful Partner
This is the final stage for a reason — it’s the most difficult. A Buddhist loving-kindness meditation always starts with the self, then moves onto someone you love, then an acquaintance, then someone you have difficulty with. Having compassion for someone who has caused a lot of emotional pain is a huge emotional challenge. Forgiveness is a natural extension of compassion. It doesn’t condone what happened, but it sets the intention to move forwards. Ortman writes:
“You recognize how your resentment saps your strength, peace, and contentment. You heal inwardly as the poison of anger is transformed into the medicine of compassion. Through recovery, your broken heart is opened up to love in a deeper way. You may also develop the virtues of generosity, gentleness, patience, and loving-kindness.”
It’s vital to note that these stages won’t unfold in an orderly, clean fashion. Like all aspects of relationships, it will be messy. It will take time. Infidelity is exceptionally painful, and the impact can have lasting effects. But remember that you deserve love, you deserve to recover, heal, rebuild trust and learn to open your heart again.
Whether that’s with your partner at your side or not is secondary to the process you’ll have to go through. It won’t be easy. But it will be worth it. It will, as Perel says, lead you into the crevices of the human heart, and your capacity to love, heal, and move forwards.