Relationships

12 Expert-Approved Ways To Mend A Relationship After You've Cheated

All hope is not lost.

Here's what to do when you cheat on someone you love, according to experts.
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Cheating was probably not on your agenda when you got into a relationship, but — it happens. Maybe you craved the adventure, or perhaps it was the result of underlying relationship issues. But what do you do once you've cheated if you want to move forward?

Every relationship is different, so there’s no one-size-fits-all game plan for how to proceed after infidelity, says sexologist Dr. Jess O’Reilly, PhD. But it’s important to first remember that cheating doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, she says, nor does it necessarily spell the end of your partnership. “We hear language like ‘once a cheater, always a cheater,’” she tells Bustle. “But ‘cheater’ is not something you are — it’s something that you've done. It could be an opportunity to grow your relationship or to be a better person.”

The good news is that your partnership isn’t necessarily doomed — the key is just to work on repairing your relationship properly and with extra care for your S.O.’s feelings. To help, Bustle spoke with experts about what to do when you cheat on someone you love — here are 12 steps you can take to move forward, both as an individual and in your partnership.

1

Tell At Your Discretion

Though the assumption is that you confess to your partner when you’ve cheated, O’Reilly says that isn’t always the way to go. Instead, she recommends first questioning whether you want to tell them to assuage your own guilt, or whether you think it’s an important piece of information to move the relationship forward. If it’s the former, then telling them may be more selfish than productive.

Confessing can also be especially harmful if you don't plan to do it again, adds psychotherapist Deborah Duley. “Sharing indiscretions is extremely damaging to hear about and work through,” she says. “You've essentially passed the baton of pain to them when it's not fair to do so.”

Others say that you should tell your partner because then they can make an educated decision about whether to stay in the relationship. Intimacy expert Miyoko Rifkin falls into this camp. “Telling them gives them the option to see your willingness to be vulnerable, to make mistakes, but also your commitment to being in a trusting and honest relationship,” she tells Bustle.

A good litmus test for whether or not you should fess up? Telling someone else, says O’Reilly. Share your experience with a trusted friend or therapist. If you immediately feel better, maybe you just wanted to get it off your chest, she explains. But if there’s still a nagging feeling that you need to tell your partner, then that might be the best move for you and your relationship after all.

2

Take Responsibility

Regardless of whether or not you decide to tell your partner of your indiscretions, you need to take ownership of your actions, says O’Reilly. Admitting to yourself, “I cheated on my girlfriend or boyfriend,” can be tough. But acknowledging that you did something wrong without making excuses sets the foundation for change, and is the first step if you want to avoid cheating in the future, she explains. Deflecting blame can make you feel that you were powerless in the decision to cheat, which she says can set you up to repeat your mistakes.

3

If You Do Tell, Give A Sincere Apology

If you end up telling your partner you cheated, don't just say, “I cheated, I'm sorry.” These words are meaningless without any real commitment to change, says Rifkin. Instead, she advises using your apology as an opportunity to learn and grow. “Understanding why you did what you did and explaining it to them is worth more than a basic ‘sorry,’” she tells Bustle. “If you don’t know what and why you acted, you’ll never be able to promise that it won’t happen again.”

4

Listen To Your Partner

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If you decide to share with your partner, it’s as important to listen to their reaction as it is to give an apology in the first place, adds O’Reilly. Really understanding how the cheating affected them can help you both make an informed decision about how to proceed. “Give them permission and support to express how they feel and what they think,” she tells Bustle. “It’s important to understand how your behavior made them feel. What are the underlying feelings that you’ll both need to address in order to move forward?”

5

Forgive Yourself

Some people tell their partners they've cheated to be forgiven, but what's more important is that you forgive yourself, says Rifkin. Carrying that emotional burden can impact your ability to be the best you, and in turn, be a good partner moving forward. "If you punish yourself for your choices, so will your partner," says Rifkin. "Neither of you will have the opportunity for growth, love, and self-acceptance."

6

Figure Out Why You Cheated

Figuring out what drove you to cheat can help you resolve the issues that led you to do it in the first place, says Rifkin. Most people don’t cheat because they’re no longer in love with their partners, she tells Bustle. Instead, it’s often the result of negative emotions, like feeling trapped, unloved, overworked, entitled, bored, or lacking emotional connection. A one-night stand or fling won’t permanently resolve any of those problems, she says, so getting to the bottom of your feelings can help you tackle the issue at its source.

“What an affair truly does is illuminate a need. What is the need?” she says. “It might be as simple as a quick release for anxiety and stress. It may be deeper, like a need to reclaim a certain part of [yourself].” Once you’ve identified your needs, you can then find healthier ways to fulfill them.

Cheating can also be a form of self-sabotage, adds licensed counselor Nawal Alomari. This often takes one of two forms in partnerships, she says: Destroying a relationship that you wanted to end anyways, or ruining a relationship that you’re afraid is too good to be true. If that hits home, she recommends looking into why you feel the need to take drastic action when your relationship gets hard or when you feel afraid. Understanding the cause of self-sabotage patterns can help you break the cycle, she says.

7

Assess Your Relationship

Sometimes infidelity points toward underlying relationship issues, so identifying these problems can help you move forward in whatever way is best for you and your partner, says family and relationship psychotherapist Dr. Fran Walfish, PsyD. Ideally, it's good to talk early on about things like whether you'd each want to know if the other cheated and what counts as cheating in the relationship, adds O’Reilly.

However, if you haven't yet, cheating could provide the impetus to have these discussions. Maybe, for example, you don't want to be monogamous. Talk to your partner to see if there's a way you can both get your needs met. “By putting our honest needs on the table from the beginning, we can still evolve as individuals within a relationship,” says Rifkin. “This way, an affair doesn’t just happen. You respectfully discuss how to care for others' needs within a partnership and the boundaries of each other's limits.”

8

Cut Off Contact With The Person You Cheated With

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If you want to stay in your current relationship and be monogamous, it’s important to set yourself up for success, says Walfish. One tip? Cut off all contact with the person you cheated with. Maybe even block their number and social media accounts if you feel like they’ll tempt you. Having them out of sight, out of mind can help you move forward with less baggage.

9

Check In With Yourself And Your Partner Regularly

Communication is the foundation of any solid relationship, cheating or no cheating, says O’Reilly. She recommends planning monthly check-ins with your partner to talk about how you’re feeling individually and as a couple so that you don’t only have important conversations when tensions are high. This can help you move forward as a couple respectfully and productively, rather than bringing up past transgressions in the heat of an argument, she explains.

10

Track Changes

Journaling is a simple but effective way to hold yourself accountable as you move forward after cheating, says O’Reilly. She recommends writing down the ways you’re trying to change your thinking or behavior when it comes to your relationship. It also gives you the opportunity to regularly take stock of how you’re feeling, and can be a helpful way to show your partner the effort you’re putting in to avoid cheating in the future.

11

Get Help

Understanding what prompted you to cheat and deciding how to proceed can be difficult. Luckily, there are professionals to help, says Alomari. A therapist can help you identify the patterns or underlying issues that contributed to your infidelity and help you settle on a path forward, she explains.

Therapy can also be beneficial for your partner, adds O’Reilly. Having a safe space to process their emotions and air their concerns — whether that’s alone or with you — can help them heal.

12

Take Time To Grow

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Sometimes taking time apart from your significant other can be what’s best in the long run, even if you want the relationship to continue, says Alomari. That way you have the time and space to equip yourself to be a better partner during round two. “It's like getting hired for a job that you know you're not going to do well,” she tells Bustle. “Why run yourself through the dirt? Take time to develop your skills romantically.”

Experts:

Nawal Alomari, LCPC, a licensed clinical professional counselor and life coach based in Chicago

Deborah Duley, MSW, LGSW, psychotherapist

Jess O’Reilly, PhD, sexologist and ambassador for sexual wellness and sex toy brands We-Vibe, Womanizer, and Arcwave

Miyoko Rifkin, intimacy expert

Dr. Fran Walfish, PsyD, family and relationship psychotherapist