In today’s modern approach to dating and relationships, the rules according to monogamy can include some grey areas. This sentiment is particularly true when it comes to being faithful in an otherwise committed relationship.
First of all, as the once-wise Carrie Bradshaw may dare to ask, “What constitutes cheating?” And, perhaps more importantly, if a partner seeks an emotional or physical connection outside of a relationship, how do you know if you can forgive them? Are there signs, rules or specific boundaries to consider? If so, how can couples determine the protocols ahead of any potential heartbreak?
To unpack the signs that it might be OK to forgive a cheating partner, we spoke with couples’ therapist Marlee Rubel to gain an expert approach to this sensitive relationship topic.
Reinforcing the narrative that relationships are built on trust
We began our conversation with Rubel by asking the age-old question: are there signs that a partner might be cheating? However, while there might not be specific signs pointing to cheating, it seems that trust has the biggest role to play — and assessing trust may be a more valuable tool.
“There may be signs that trust feels low, and I always invite clients to inquire whether this is a more interesting question than whether a partner’s behaviour points to cheating,” Rubel explains. “If you think there is a lack of trust, it’s best to name this as such and see if there is a willingness to work through it together, as opposed to sniffing out clues and possibly deepening a lack of trust for all involved.”
On the topic of forgiveness, there are a handful of powerful ways to manage expectations between you and a partner. Here are six things to consider:
#1: You’ve pre-defined your perspective of cheating
Cheating terms can mean different things to couples, and although it might feel uncomfortable, defining what determines a crack in fidelity can help navigate difficult situations. This is especially true if debating the difference between emotional and physical cheating.
…emotional cheating can sometimes be defined very differently between partners
Rubel highlights the importance of this form of communication by stating, “While going against physical relationship agreements may seem to be a more concrete form of infidelity, emotional cheating can lead to just as big a rupture. However, emotional cheating can sometimes be defined very differently between partners, so it is imperative to discuss this ahead of time or allow room to process how not having discussed respective definitions may have led to a breach in one partner’s eyes without intentionally being deceptive in nature.”
#2: You are willing to try to forgive
Like anything else in life, the main key to forgiveness is a willingness to try. “Often, it isn’t possible to know if you can forgive, but it is certainly possible to ‘know’ if you are willing to try,” says Rubel.
“If a breach of trust has occurred in a partnership that has otherwise felt trustworthy, a repair can be a strengthening experience. It can help address whatever issues may have led to breaking agreements. If a person is confident they aren’t willing to find out if forgiveness and moving forward is possible, it’s best to cut the cheater loose to avoid holding both of you captive in your pain,” says Rubel.
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#3: You believe that trust can be rebuilt — together
Another hurdle to overcome in the case of a cheating partner is the ability to rebuild trust as a team versus a one-sided approach.
“Some folks have belief systems around infidelity that they are not interested in challenging, which might mean that cheating is a hard line that, once crossed, is irreparable,” Rubel says. “Forgiveness is more likely to be felt if there is a willingness to see the potential of repair and rebuilding beyond those beliefs. However, both partners must be willing to work towards understanding what happened and putting work into rebuilding trust.”
#4: You’re open to seeking support outside of the relationship
In some cases, Rubel suggests exploring support for overcoming infidelity with help from an expert who understands the complexities.
“Couples therapy can be a wonderful way to outsource the facilitation aspect of the healing so that partners can focus on their own feelings and needs without the compounded pressure of ‘doing it right.’ Allowing a couples therapist to support processing can also address the deeper issues often already playing out in a partnership before a breach of trust occurs.”
#5: You are willing to have meaningful conversations
Control often becomes a key driver in attempts to mend or rebuild trust after it’s broken, but according to Rubel, that approach isn’t the best path forward.
“Meaningful connection is based on trust, not control — even when boundaries have been crossed! It can be very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we must increase rules when trust has been lost, but unfortunately, that only eliminates the possibility of trust being rebuilt. It is far more impactful to have meaningful conversations to understand how and why the infidelity occurred and how the relationship can support clear agreements and commitments moving forward.”
Meaningful connection is based on trust, not control
And those meaningful conversations also require additional alignment to succeed. “It is unfortunately all too common for couples to assume they share expectations and agreements based on language (i.e., monogamy, trust, emotional fidelity, boundaries) instead of deeply and continually exploring what these words mean to each partner based on who they are, how they are growing and changing and their unique history.”
#6: You’re willing to explore anger and potentially live with it
Rubel also states that emotions could continue to run high during reconciliation. “Assuming it’s necessary to let go of anger is a misleading idea, as our anger and pain may ebb and flow as we engage in repair with someone who has hurt us.”
Letting go is powerful, but negative emotions are strong-willed, which could mean anger is something you will need to learn to sit with periodically.
“We also may never let go of the anger from that time. Still, we can sometimes learn to live with it and seek the care we need when it arises if we choose to repair and move forwards in the partnership. Often, this looks like reassurance that we matter and can trust our partner to continually work towards rebuilding and better understand our need for trust,” says Rubel.
How to move forward if forgiveness is not an option
Of course, it’s natural to think that you might not be able to forgive a partner for any form of cheating immediately or in the future — and that’s also OK. Regardless of your path, it’s important to continue respecting each other’s boundaries and communicating effectively to give healing space.
“A partner needs to be respected for knowing their limits, and hopefully, both parties can still offer a meaningful closure. If one partner knows they are not interested in repairing, they should be transparent, honest and kind. It’s essential to be clear with a soon-to-be ex that they aren’t open to moving forward together so that you can begin healing independently. Often the partner committing the offence is sitting with quite a bit of pain or hopelessness toward expressing and getting their needs met before the cheat. It is helpful to remember they are likely in need of healing, even if they also caused harm.”