How Your Relationship Changes After Someone Cheats
Do you—or your partner—have a cheating heart? You’re not alone: Research shows that infidelity rates may be as high as 60 to 70% (but it’s tough to get an exact number because it’s all self-reported). And you can’t just blame the guys: One Indiana University study found that women and men cheat at the same rate. But the reasons why men and women are unfaithful tend to differ. “Most women cheat because they feel emotionally deprived, and men are unfaithful because they often feel sexually deprived,” says Tina B. Tessina, PhD, psychotherapist and author of Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting about the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage.
But here’s the deal with cheating: No matter who does it or why, it’s going to seriously impact your relationship. Here’s what kind of changes you can expect.
You can’t trust anything anymore.
Not surprisingly, not only will a victim of infidelity mistrust their partner sexually and emotionally, he or she might also begin to doubt them in other areas. “In the wake of an affair, more and more lies come out, and that makes trust very difficult,” says Ian Kerner, PhD, LMFT, a psychotherapist who specializes in sex and couples therapy and author of She Comes First. “It then becomes easy to feel dubious toward your partner in other aspects of life, such as finances or parenting,” he says.
Your confidence plummets—or soars.
“Part of the reason many people cheat is because they felt unwanted or unloved in their relationship. Then they discover sexual or emotional appreciation in the affair which, in turn, bolsters their confidence,” says Kerner. The flip side: The person who is being cheated on will suffer a major blow to his or her self-esteem, points out Tessina. “After being cheated on by my husband, at first I felt embarrassed and like I just wasn’t enough. Not attractive, smart or funny enough,” says a mother of two from Brooklyn.
The unexpectedly good news is that those feelings of inadequacy didn’t last long—at least for her. She and her husband spent some time apart and once she started dating again, she was reminded that she was lovable and desirable. “Oddly, getting cheated on completely changed my self-confidence for the better, and I’ve been able to hang onto that feeling ever since,” she says. In fact, she points to her renewed sense of self-confidence as one of the reasons she was able to eventually reconcile with her husband.
Your focus totally shifts.
Cheating can create a level of stress and anxiety that can trigger a depressive episode. “For some people, an affair can make them lose focus on other aspects of their life. Self-care, their career trajectory, friendships and thoughtful parenting can all take a backseat,” says Kerner. His advice: “Take it one day at a time and start prioritizing healthy habits, like going to the gym and starting therapy, to help you rebuild your life and your relationship.”
On the other hand, the wake of an affair can actually help you focus on yourself. “People who recover from infidelity are usually able to go within themselves and recapture their center of power,” says Kerner. “They actually end up stronger and more resilient than before the affair.” One New York City woman who discovered her husband was cheating feels like she finally found herself once her unhappy marriage came to an end. “For the first time in years I was able to dedicate time to myself—going the gym, wearing better clothes, focusing on my health and putting on makeup—simply because I wasn’t depressed that I was stuck in a terrible marriage anymore,” she says. “I finally had the energy to start fixing myself instead of devoting my efforts to fixing my marriage.”
You may not even recognize your libido.
For some people, infidelity can destroy their sex life. “If your partner has cheated on you, even if you are working hard to forgive and rebuild the relationship, sex is often the last piece of the puzzle,” says Kerner. “You’re sorting through all kinds of emotions—depression, anger, betrayal—and that just kills your sexual desire.”
But an affair can also bolster your libido—even if you’re not the one doing the cheating. One mom of two from Connecticut found that she was more attracted to her husband than ever when she discovered he was having an affair. “It was almost as if I felt in competition for my husband’s affections and I had to win him back from her,” she says. “We had a lot of wild sex, often following explosive arguments about the affair, she says. And that’s not surprising. “Sex can be a powerful way to heal after cheating,” says Kerner. “It helps make an insecure relationship feel temporarily safe and intimate.”
Or perhaps after living in a relatively unhappy relationship your sexual appetite will be boosted simply by the excitement of being with a new, more attentive partner. “Because my husband and I had been together so long, and from such a young age, I didn’t realize that I was actually attractive to other men and that I could be attracted to them, too,” says one woman from Annapolis, MD. For her, dating and sex with new partners after her husband’s affair boosted her sex drive.
Your commitment to each other might become stronger. Infidelity will test even the most resilient relationships. But cheating, despite the many problems it can bring, isn’t necessarily the kiss of death. “An affair can actually be the thing that saves a relationship,” says Tessina, who believes that cheating can be a huge wake-up call to both partners and a test of their commitment. “If the cheater realizes it’s a big mistake and seeks to understand why he or she was tempted, and the betrayed spouse is willing to look at what might have been missing in the relationship, both of them can repair the damage and actually make the relationship stronger,” says Tessina. (Try incorporating some of these tips to stay connected with your partner.) She says that infidelity is often what gets troubled partners into therapy, where they can learn how to communicate about uncomfortable topics, like sexual satisfaction, emotional needs, and hidden motives. “Understanding these dynamics and learning to discuss what went wrong in the relationship, apologize and make changes will give both partners much more insight into themselves and their marriage—and might even help to make their relationship affair-proof in the future,” she says.