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How to Respond to a Partner's Infidelity

... and 3 steps to take if you decide to stay.

Key points

  • Infidelity destroys trust, one of the lifelines that sustains relationships. How one responds will impact their well-being for many years.
  • Although multiple factors may influence infidelity, only one person is ultimately responsible: the one who strayed.
  • Responding effectively to infidelity requires weighing multiple considerations, including one's ability to put it in the past.

Studies show that 20 percent or more of men will be unfaithful to their spouse or love interest at some point in their life. For women, the statistic is 15 percent. These are conservative estimates, with some reports of infidelity being much higher.

What’s more, after someone has been unfaithful, they are three times more likely than others to become a “repeat offender.” That makes sense. If you are willing to break the promise you made once, you’ve then shown yourself to be among those who are willing to stray.

Clearly, as a general rule, that person is at higher risk of breaking promises in the future.

Very often, infidelity spells the end of a relationship. In fact, more often than not, this is the case. Even so, it is worth noting that some remarkable couples manage to mend their relationships and move forward in life.

That’s the exception, not the rule.

When your spouse or love interest is unfaithful

If you are in a romantic relationship (married or unmarried), and your partner is unfaithful, you are left at a crossroads: Do you stay in the relationship and try to make it work, or part ways and be free of the person who has betrayed you?

There are, of course, many different things to consider when making this decision. Are you married? Do you have children? Was the person who cheated under unusual stress and acting in a way that is inconsistent with his/her character? Are there financial reasons to stay in the relationship?

Everyone, and every relationship, is somewhat different. The particulars of your relationship need to be considered carefully.

But in the end, there is an unalterable fact that cannot be explained away. Your partner broke your trust. Made the decision to betray you.

Infidelity is not an accident. It’s not at all a mistake that can be excused by “Oh, I forgot,” or “I didn’t know what I was doing.” Someone may forget to bring milk home from the store, but forgetting that you are in a committed relationship is an altogether different story. One cannot be that casual with infidelity. “Oops, honey, look what I did by accident: I ended up sleeping with my co-worker. Boy was I surprised when I discovered what I had done.”

Nope. The one who is unfaithful may say that he or she did not plan it and never intended it to happen. But that’s not 100 percent true: They may not have gotten out a spreadsheet and spent hours developing a detailed “Master Infidelity Plan,” but they certainly were aware of the type of relationship that was forming with the person with whom they cheated.

That’s true whether the relationship grew over the course of a single evening or over the course of months. The failure to step away as the relationship became overly intimate is a sign of planning.

Some planning is a matter of taking action, but other planning is a matter of deciding not to stop something that is emerging. If you wish to lose weight but don’t object when the waitress brings you a large slice of cake, then you are planning on breaking your diet. You could tell the waitress you are not interested in dessert and have her remove the cake. But if you let it remain and then pick up a fork, you have made a plan. It's an impromptu plan, not involving a lot of forethought, but still a course of action that you decided upon. Not removing the cake, and then picking up a fork, reflects planning in that moment.

Likewise, the person who cheats and then claims, “It just happened; I never planned for it to occur,” is merely making an excuse.

There are numerous exit points on the road to infidelity. The unfaithful partners who claim otherwise are simply flaying about in an attempt to avoid taking responsibility.

What to do

Although there is no “one-size-fits-all” best response to infidelity, there is a “one-size-fits-most-everyone.”

In general, the best course of action is twofold: forgive, and then move on—separately.

Why take this approach? Think of it this way: A person who has cheated is more likely than most other people to cheat again. Also, consider what was mentioned before: Even when people try their best, most relationships do not survive infidelity. Living with someone who has betrayed your trust may create a degree of caution and long-standing resentment that are antithetical to a deeply satisfying long-term relationship.

Some will consider the advice just given, mull it over, and consider it wise. They will then proceed to discard it altogether. Leaving is painful. Sometimes it feels too much to bear. Or perhaps the unfaithful partner is seen as “the best” you will ever find, even with this flaw. It might also be that the unfaithful partner appears vulnerable and evokes pity. Or there are children involved who would be devastated by a divorce or separation.

The reasons for remaining are endless and often lead people to stay. For many, it feels less painful in the short run to remain in a relationship, even a badly fractured one, than to leave and start anew.

Most of the time, the decision to stay leads to even greater heartache and simply delays the inevitable separation.

If you decide to stay

If you decide that you will stay in the relationship and try to work things out, there are a few principles to consider in order to give yourself the best possible chance of being successful.

1. Enter couples counseling, right away. If your relationship were a patient headed to the hospital, the ER would be your first stop. There are serious problems that need to be repaired. Get thee to a marriage counselor.

A caveat, however, is in order: Some therapists like to ask the faithful member of the couple, “What was your role in pushing your partner away?” If that is a question your therapist asks in the first few meetings, get up and walk out the door. Yes, you may have had a role in creating friction or unhappiness in your relationship. So what? That is an issue to deal with down the road. Had your spouse or partner gotten angry and plunged a knife in your leg, would you expect the ER doctor to ask, “Hey, what was your role in provoking this attack?” No.

Later in therapy, after the unfaithful partner has taken full responsibility and some semblance of stability has returned, this question may emerge and be helpfully addressed. But when it is raised early in therapy, it simply provides an escape hatch for the guilty partner. It makes it easier for him or her to avoid taking responsibility.

If you hope to rebuild your relationship, trust will need to be re-established. That will be impossible if the person who violated that trust does not take ownership of their actions.

2. Don’t rush the process. Reconciliation takes time, sometimes years. If you are the one who broke the relationship, then you will also be the one who needs to be most patient. That does not mean you become a doormat, but you need to appreciate that from your spouse’s (or partner’s) perspective, you’ve shown yourself to be untrustworthy and selfish. They will want reassurance that trusting you again does not open them up for a repeat performance. When it comes to infidelity, encores are not appreciated.

If this makes you feel resentful, get over it. You broke it, so you own it. Give the process time. Lots of it.

3. Realize that many relationships never fully recover. They may reform sufficiently to enjoy a pleasant sense of harmony, but never again experience the sort of passionate intimacy that had been known in the past.

Others will find that the best they can do is form a tenuous peace with each other that is neither satisfying nor unbearable. The relationship becomes “comfortable” but unfulfilling.

The least fortunate are those who remain in a relationship marked by perpetual bitterness and resentment—an unending struggle between two people who had deeply loved one another in the past but now stand in the ashes of that once-satisfying romance.

If your relationship falls into one of these categories, you need to be prepared to ask yourself whether this is the best way to live your life. If not, it’s time to reconsider an amicable parting of the ways.


Infidelity is not the norm, but neither is it rare. When one partner decides to be unfaithful, it’s important to step back and calmly consider how to respond. The choice that needs to be made boils down to leaving the relationship or attempting to salvage it.

No one solution works for everyone. Although some couples are able to move forward and rebuild a beautiful relationship, most are not.

For the majority of couples the best thing is to forgive and get on with life—separately. Who knows? You may eventually form a wonderful friendship.

Whatever course you decide upon, it is important to put things in perspective. Despite the immediate pain infidelity creates, it need not be the defining event of your life. Many, if not most, of the goals in life that once excited you remain to be pursued.

It will take some time, but with persistence, you will regain your footing and may find that this experience, however unwanted, has made you stronger and more resilient.

Facebook image: Dmytro Zinkevych/Shutterstock

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