Everything You Ever Wanted to Know (or Didn't Want to Know) About Infidelity

A relationship can survive infidelity—but it takes serious commitment to rebuilding trust.
Infedelity in Relationships
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Alyssa Mancao - The Knot contributor
Alyssa Mancao, LCSW
Alyssa Mancao - The Knot contributor
Alyssa Mancao, LCSW
Therapist & The Knot Wellness Contributor
  • Alyssa Mancao is a licensed psychotherapist with a decade of experience working with individuals and families.
  • She is now the group owner of a private practice on the West Coast.
  • Alyssa specializes in treating anxiety and trauma, while helping her clients set boundaries and improve their communication skills.
Updated Apr 10, 2023

For many, there are few relationship experiences quite as heart-ripped-out-of-your-chest painful as infidelity. Characterized by acts of betrayal and dishonesty, when a person experiences infidelity, they grieve the relationship that they had before they had learned the truth—as well as the trust that they once had for their partner.

While each case of infidelity—varying from emotional transgressions to physical infidelity—is different, they're all upsetting, and, oftentimes heartbreaking. So, how do you move forward after such an indiscretion?

Here's what you need to know about infidelity and how to possibly begin to heal your relationship.

Meet Our Expert:

Alyssa Mancao is a licensed psychotherapist with a decade of experience that ranges from treating anxiety, trauma and depression to supporting her clients with setting boundaries and improving their communication skills.

In this article:

What is Infidelity?

At its core, infidelity is defined as the act of being unfaithful to your partner. But remember: a partner does not need to have a sexual relationship with someone for the transgression to be considered infidelity. The act encompasses crossing the lines emotionally or sexually with another person without your partner's consent or awareness.

To be more specific, emotional infidelity includes having inappropriate conversations (which may be sexual, flirtatious, or emotionally intimate in nature) behind your partner's back. What makes these conversations most painful is the secrecy, lies and lengths that the perpetrating partner goes into hiding the relationship.

Physical infidelity is when a person engages in sexual interactions with someone outside of their relationship. The secrecy and violation of trust can be a major blow to the integrity of the partnership, and often leads to feelings of shame and deep rejection.

But no one type of infidelity is more or less painful than the other.

What Makes Cheating in a Relationship So Painful?

In short, infidelity is so particularly hurtful because it violates the bounds of trust established in the relationship, leaving behind feelings of intense doubt and insecurity.

Stuck in a state of confusion, you may be left trying to reconcile what you know about your partner (loving, kind, communicative, etcetera) with their actions (dishonest, deceitful, uncaring, etcetera). And this can lead to anxiously questioning almost every aspect of the relationship.

These anxiety-provoking questions might sound like:

  • "How well do I really know my partner?
  • "Was any of our relationship real if they were able to perform these acts behind my back?"
  • "If they have lied about this, what else are they lying about?"
  • "What if it happens again?"
  • "When they said they had to work late Thursday night two years ago, was that really what they were doing?"

You get the idea. The mind goes into an interrogative mode to try to put the pieces of the puzzle together. However, for many, this only leads to additional emotional stress and pain.

Behaviorally, the mental and emotional consequences of infidelity are also poor sleep, rumination, and anxiety about the future. The person on the receiving end of the betrayal experiences a type of mental torture, characterized by thoughts and images of what happened between their spouse and the other person.

With trust being at the foundation of a relationship, infidelity essentially dismantles this trust in one swift motion.

Can a Relationship or Marriage Survive Infidelity?

In order for a relationship to survive infidelity, the person who committed the affair has to demonstrate genuine and authentic remorse. Not the type of remorse that shows up only because they were caught, but the type of remorse that shows empathy for the hurt that they have caused their partner.

There's no one-size-fits-all solution here: A marriage can survive infidelity—but the outcome greatly depends on each individual's commitment to repairing and rebuilding trust.

In order for this to happen, the affair has to end first. Now, the question is: is the offense that your partner committed forgivable and do you feel you will be able to move toward a path of reconciliation knowing what you know now? It might take some time to sit with this decision. Forcing yourself to forgive someone before you are ready can lead down a path toward anxiety and resentment.

There are many factors that come into play when choosing between separation or reconciliation. Some key elements to consider may include:

  • Had the infidelity been occurring during the entire relationship (or most of the relationship)?
  • Was your partner able to come clean about their acts in an effort to attempt to establish the process of repair, or was there a series of denial and gaslighting that had to occur before you discovered the truth?
  • At the core of the relationship, is there a sense of friendship, sincerity and safety that can help you with moving forward after betrayal?

It's also important to ask yourself how much you want to know about the specifics of the infidelity and for your partner to commit to being honest about it—as opposed to omitting or denying requested details. (Having such information re-emerge down the line can interfere with the healing process.)

Consider Individual and Couples Therapy

Experiencing infidelity can be a traumatic experience. The person who committed the act needs to be willing to sit with their partner in their pain and take responsibility for their actions. And they should also be committed to making changes that help address the underlying issues that are influencing their behaviors. This may mean seeking professional help, such as individual or couples therapy.

Surviving infidelity also requires leaning into your sources of support. While sharing your story with a therapist or a friend may feel re-triggering, the long-term effects of receiving support demonstrate relief in emotional symptoms over time.

It is important to note that in certain circumstances it can be more difficult to survive infidelity, particularly when infidelity is a function of pathological lying, domestic violence, emotional abuse and manipulation. There are certain instances where your physical and emotional safety are at risk and leaving the relationship may be the best choice for your personal health.

10 Post-Infidelity Mistakes to Avoid

While there isn't a specific blueprint to surviving infidelity, there are some common pitfalls partners often face when navigating the aftermath. Below, see 10 common mistakes couples often make post-infidelity, so you can avoid them during your own healing journey.

1. Not asking your partner for help

Because the anger toward your partner can run deep, you may not want to reach out to them for help or support. However, since the rupture occurred within the relationship, then repair and reconciliation needs to happen within the relationship as well.

2. Not talking about what happened

Avoiding talking about what happened will not resolve your feelings. There is a deep intimacy and repair that occurs when talking to your partner about infidelity, so while it may be painful to do so, it is beneficial to discuss.

3. Not seeking support in general

Shame and embarrassment make people not want to share what happened with their close friends. However, sharing your story softens the shame and helps you cultivate hope in the future. If you don't want to share with a close friend or family member, consider disclosing to a professional therapist.

4. Blaming yourself

Questions about your own adequacy and "enoughness" may come into play when you've been cheated on. Remind yourself that what your partner did is not your fault and that you are always enough.

5. Seeking revenge

It's common to want revenge: This is your body's way of trying to identify where to put the hurt. You might have thoughts of wanting to be with someone else in order to hurt your partner, too. Have the thoughts—but give yourself plenty of time before deciding to act on them, and really ask yourself if this is something that will help you feel better and move forward. (Spoiler alert: in most cases, it's not.)

6. Rushing to forgive

Sitting in the discomfort of the unknown is painful. The limbo of not knowing how, when or if you want to move forward is uncomfortable. Acknowledge that it is okay to not know what your next steps are and give yourself permission to take things one day at a time.

7. Contacting the affair partner

You might want to call them to give them peace of mind or to gather more information about what happened. Be sure to redirect these conversations between you and your spouse or partner. If you do decide to speak to them, know when enough is enough.

8. Comparing yourself

Don't compare yourself to whoever your partner was unfaithful with. Obsessing over their photos or daily life doesn't help you heal: All it'll do is help you create false narratives about yourself or lead to feelings of inadequacy. (You are not inadequate.) Before you compare, ask yourself, "Is this really a good use of my time?"

9. Telling everyone you know

While seeking support is encouraged, telling every single person in your circle what happened can have a negative effect on the reconciliation process as peoples' thoughts and opinions can interfere with your own. Mutually select a core source of people that you are willing to go to individually and as a couple.

10. Hiding information

The person who committed the affair should never lie to their partner as they ask questions. It's common to fear that their partner will leave them the more details that they know; but that needs to be that partner's decision and left up to them. Omitting or lying about information and risking that the truth emerges later will lead to more severe consequences in the relationship. Be honest the first time.

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