Maybe the infidelity was committed by a serious partner you trusted. Or your significant other confessed that they were previously unfaithful in an earlier romance, or that their marriage had ended because of their affair. Amid the shock and pain, that age-old cliche was probably running through your mind: “Once a cheater, always a cheater.”
Is it accurate—can someone who admits to two-timing (either now or in the past) be trusted again, if that’s what you both want? If a person makes a mistake, owns up to it, pleads for forgiveness, and looks like they’re striving to make real change in your relationship, could that person successfully keep their promise?
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It’s a tough situation to size up, especially when feelings of betrayal and anger make it hard to think rationally and make the right choice. So we turned to relationship experts for their insight on what drives partners to cheat and if there’s any truth in that saying. The short answer: not necessarily, but it takes work to get back to a place of trust. Here’s how.
Why people cheat
First, it helps to get an understanding of all the reasons that drive people to be unfaithful. A partner may feel dissatisfied in their relationship and look to someone else to achieve what they think is missing—such as emotional intimacy, sex, or validation that they are attractive and desired, says Terri Orbuch, PhD, author of 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage From Good to Great and professor at Oakland University in Michigan.
Another explanation has to do with the passion dying down in their current union, which it inevitably does. In response, a person might initiate another relationship to maintain that feeling of excitement. An affair can also signal a desire for change if the person is unhappy in life or in the current relationship. “Rather than confront the fact that a relationship isn’t working, an affair forces the issue and brings things into the open,” explains Orbuch.
Sometimes people cheat because they desire a different kind of sex than their partner does. They suspect their partner will turn them down or make them feel bad for asking for it, sex therapist Sari Cooper, director of the Center for Love and Sex in New York City, tells Health. Emotional neglect can also trigger infidelity, “if a partner is working too many hours, rejects their partner’s bids for closeness repeatedly, or worse, bullies or abuses them,” says Cooper.
The case for giving a cheater a second chance
If you’re dating someone who copped to infidelity in a previous relationship, don’t assume they will be unfaithful to you. “For some people who cheat, they feel tremendous shame and disgust in themselves and for these feelings,” says Cooper. She suggests that a person who has cheated address these issues with a professional, which will help them come up with ways to avoid repeating the behavior in their current relationship.
It’s possible for people to change, Orbuch believes. “I think the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, but that doesn’t mean that once a cheater always a cheater, in my opinion,” she tells Health. People can learn new patterns or behaviors, they can learn to communicate with their partner, share expectations and needs, and move forward. “Just because you once crossed the line, does not mean you will do it again in the future,” she adds.
If the infidelity happened many years earlier, and you have no reason to suspect they’re cheating on you now, you might want to assume your partner has matured and learned from the fallout of their affair—and is taking steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
What to do to get over the betrayal
If your current partner recently came clean about cheating on you, know that you can recover from the betrayal while keeping your relationship intact, says Florida psychologist Rachel Needle, PsyD. “Reestablishing trust is one of the most important yet difficult tasks lying ahead of a couple where one partner has been unfaithful,” she says. Sometimes a relationship becomes stronger after an affair, especially when partners learn to communicate in a healthier way and become more connected and unafraid to be honest.
Orbuch agrees. “Trust is difficult to rebuild, but possible,” she says. While you may be able to forgive, you still may never forget what happened. She advises seeking counseling from a therapist to help guide you on a path to rebuild trust, given the anger and hurt you’re experiencing.
“The hardest thing is a feeling of the ground you thought you knew has now totally become pulled from beneath you,” says Cooper. It may prove difficult or embarrassing to tell family or friends, and sharing news of the cheating could make your loved ones despise your significant other—so it’s even more of a challenge if you decide to forgive them.
Making your relationship cheat-proof
Making an effort to strengthen your relationship and address the reason your significant other cheated can go a long way, says Needle. She recommends checking in with your partner regularly and voicing your own needs, always keeping the lines of communication open. Consciously work on the relationship every day to make connecting a priority. This means scheduling time as a couple, planning a weekly date night, or blocking off Sunday afternoons for just the two of you, using the time to talk, listen, and be focused on each other.
Maintaining both physical and emotional intimacy may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s easy to be consumed by work and other responsibilities and unintentionally let your sex life to fall by the wayside. Introduce something exciting and out of the ordinary once a month in the bedroom to refresh your sexual connection.
Finally, Needle points out that our own mental health is often overlooked, so taking care of oneself is crucial. And pay attention to your own emotions and gut feelings. If you’re consumed by anger or distrust, or your intuition is telling you things are still not right, you might want to honestly reevaluate the relationship and whether it’s worth continuing. Talking to a therapist can help guide you.