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After Cheating: Restoring Relationship Trust

After so many lies and secrets, can trust ever be restored?

Key points

  • Cheating is the breaking of trust that occurs when one deliberately keeps intimate, meaningful secrets from one's primary romantic partner.
  • The antidote to cheating is rigorous honesty.
  • Instead of practicing rigorous honesty, some partners will tell partial truths or engage in other forms of lying.
  • Over time, if a cheater is rigorously honest on an ongoing basis, relationship trust may be able to be restored.
Source: Pressmaster/Shutterstock

How do you define infidelity? Does looking at porn count as cheating? What about webcam sex? If you play around on hookup apps but never actually hook up in person, are you cheating? If you’re chatting with an old flame on social media, is that a form of infidelity? What about playing virtual-reality sex games?

A universal definition of cheating

Do you think that you and your partner might have different ideas about the behaviors that do and don’t qualify as infidelity? With all of the uncertainty about what does and does not qualify as cheating, it’s high time we had a universal, digital-era definition. And here it is, as it appears in my book, Out of the Doghouse: A Step-by-Step Relationship-Saving Guide for Men Caught Cheating:

Infidelity (cheating) is the breaking of trust that occurs when you deliberately keep intimate, meaningful secrets from your primary romantic partner.

I developed this definition because it focuses not on specific sexual behaviors, but on what ultimately matters most to a betrayed partner — the loss of relationship trust. That is the crux of infidelity, and it is what must be repaired if cheaters hope to salvage a deeply damaged primary relationship. In fact, after more than 25 years as a therapist specializing in sex and intimacy issues, I can state unequivocally that the process of healing a relationship damaged by infidelity begins and ends with the restoration of trust. Moreover, to repair relationship trust, cheaters must not only come clean — in a general way, with the guidance of an experienced couple’s counselor — about what they have done, they must also become rigorously honest about all other aspects of their life, both in the moment and moving forward.

Needless to say, this type of rigorous honesty is neither easy nor fun. And many cheaters will opt for a different approach, which is to continue lying but to try to do it more effectively. This tactic can work, too — for a while. But it does not address the underlying issues that led to the infidelity. Plus, cheaters who fail to get honest about their behavior tend to continue that behavior, no matter how devastating it has already been to their primary relationship. So if a cheater wants to finish off his or her primary relationship once and for all, continued lying is an effective way to go about it.

Conversely, cheaters who truly want to save their primary relationship will opt for rigorous honesty and the restoration of relationship trust. And no, trust is not automatically restored simply because the infidelity stops or stays stopped for a certain period of time. Instead, trust is regained through consistent and sometimes emotionally painful truth-telling and accountability. Basically, cheaters must make a commitment to living differently and abiding by certain boundaries, the most important of which is ongoing rigorous honesty about absolutely everything, all the time. They need to start to fearlessly tell the truth no matter what, even when they know it might be upsetting to their partner.

When cheaters become rigorously honest, they tell their significant other about everything — not just the stuff that’s convenient or that they think will hurt their partner the least. There are no more lies and no more secrets. With rigorous honesty, cheaters tell the truth, and tell it faster, keeping their spouse in the loop about every aspect of life — spending, trips to the gym, gifts for the kids, issues at work, needing to fertilize the lawn, and, of course, any social interactions that their partner might not approve of.

[NOTE: Rigorous honesty is more about behaviors than thoughts. For instance, if a cheater slips and has a conversation with an old affair partner, this must be disclosed. If, however, the cheater simply thinks about the fact that he or she might like to call an old affair partner, this can be discussed with a therapist or a trusted friend, but not the betrayed spouse. If a cheater thinks about it but doesn’t do it, the cheater needs to talk about it, but with someone other than his or her partner.]

In their book, Worthy of Her Trust, Stephen Arterburn and Jason Martinkus refer to rigorous honesty as “I’d rather lose you than lie to you.” They write, “A shift must occur in your paradigm of honesty that puts the truth in a place of utmost importance and highest priority.” Even white lies are out of bounds, no matter your reason for wanting to tell one: “If your wife catches you in a white lie, she will likely extrapolate that to the whole of your life. She’ll think that a little lie here equals big lies there.” So when a betrayed partner asks if her favorite pants make her look heavy, the cheater had best answer honestly.

More than this, cheaters must learn to actively tell the truth. If there is something a cheater thinks his or her partner might want to know, the cheater must volunteer it, and do it sooner rather than later. Yes, the cheater’s betrayed partner might get angry about whatever it is that he or she did, even if it’s something that seems minor, but that partner will be a lot angrier after finding out the cheater did something hurtful and then tried to cover it up.

Pitfalls when attempting rigorous honesty in a relationship

Unfortunately, cheaters can (and do) mess up rigorous honesty in numerous ways, even when they’re highly motivated. The most common pitfalls include:

  • Passive truth-telling. This forces the betrayed partners to do the work. If a betrayed partner suspects the cheater has done something problematic, the partner must ask about it. And when the question is asked, the cheater tells the truth about that specific thing but fails to volunteer other pertinent information. Cheaters sometimes try to convince themselves they’re no longer lying because they answered their partner’s question(s) truthfully, but this is a sham: Cheaters need to understand that failure to disclose pertinent information (i.e., keeping something secret) is just another form of lying.
  • Partial disclosure. Many cheaters reveal only some of the truth, gloss over certain details, or outright lie to keep the worst of their behavior secret. This typically results in a series of partial disclosures — some information today, some tomorrow, and more a few weeks from now. Over time, this becomes a nightmare for the betrayed partner, and it wreaks havoc with the rebuilding of trust.
  • Playing the child’s role. The cheater says, “There is something I need to tell you,” and then waits for their betrayed partner to ask questions: “What is it?” “Is that all?” “Are you sure there’s not more to it?” This turns rigorous honesty into an inquisition, which does nothing to restore relationship trust.
  • Minimizing. Sometimes cheaters are rigorously honest, but try to dismiss or de-escalate their betrayed partner’s reaction. They might even do this out of love, not wanting to see their significant other suffer. However, feeling the pain is part of a betrayed partner’s healing process, and cheaters need to allow it to happen.
  • Getting defensive/attacking. Betrayed mates understandably get angry when cheaters tell the truth about what they’ve done, and it’s a natural reaction for cheaters to become defensive or go on the attack when faced with this anger. However, defensiveness is counterproductive to healing relationship trust. If/when a cheater says, “Yes, but,” in response to a betrayed partner’s anger, the train is about to jump the tracks.
  • Expecting immediate forgiveness. After being rigorously honest, cheaters sometimes feel as if they deserve instant forgiveness. This minimizes their betrayed partner’s experience and does not allow their spouse to fully feel and process the pain of the betrayal. Betrayed partners tend to resent this.

Cheaters often complain that even when they’re being rigorously honest, their spouse doesn’t believe them. What they fail to understand is that after months or even years of lying and secrets, it’s almost impossible for their partner to automatically trust and accept their newfound honesty. Restoring relationship trust takes time and ongoing effort. The only way to speed the process is to engage in total voluntary honesty, telling the truth about not just what a betrayed partner already knows or strongly suspects, but everything — even little stuff like “I forgot to take out the trash this morning.”

What a cheater can do

If a betrayed spouse’s continuing mistrust seems like a problem, a cheater can voluntarily offer up his or her calendar, install tracking and monitoring software on his or her phone that his or her partner can access at any time, provide full access to his or her computer, completely turn over the family’s finances, etc. Basically, cheaters can voluntarily become fully transparent. If a cheater does this without complaint, his or her significant other may be more likely to gradually come around.

And cheaters should not, under any circumstances, withhold basic facts in an attempt to protect a partner from further pain. If a cheater wants to save the relationship, it is unwise to deny or withhold any part of the truth. Rigorous honesty is not easy. Cheaters don’t enjoy it. Partners don’t enjoy it. It can be emotionally painful. However, it is a necessary part of healing, and relationship trust cannot be fully restored without it. The good news is that, over time, if a cheater is rigorously honest on an ongoing basis, his or her betrayed partner should start to appreciate this, eventually believing that the cheater really is living life openly and honestly.

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