How to Repair Your Relationship After Cheating

A broken heart

Giovanna Pineda/KCM

A couples therapist explains her approach to getting partners through it.

Nothing rocks a relationship’s foundation quite like cheating.

Infidelity is one of the most common problems that sends people to couples therapy, and it’s a transgression dramatic enough that many partners can’t bounce back from it. But if you do want to save your relationship, where do you start?

To better understand the complicated dynamics that arise when someone is unfaithful, we turned to Tamekis Williams, a Georgia-based therapist and the founder of Real Life Solutions. With ample experience helping couples save their marriages and long-term commitments, she has a keen understanding of what leads to cheating, why it can be so tough to come back from, and how to move forward to healing. 

Below, Williams takes us through the ins and outs of infidelity, sharing plenty of practical advice for how to navigate this unfortunate circumstance if it arises in your life.

What is considered cheating, exactly?

Our most fundamental understanding of cheating is pretty straightforward: a partner being physically intimate with someone else. But that’s not the only way to be unfaithful — and it can happen without ever touching another person.

Every couple’s definition of cheating will be different, Williams explains, and it’s dependent on the individual parameters they’ve set up for their own relationship. In many cases, behavior like sexting or compulsive use of pornography can cross that line. So can emotional affairs, which many mates would say constitute a breach of trust because someone else is taking the place of your significant other, even if it’s not physical. Williams has also worked with couples who fight over “financial infidelity” and see something like a secret bank account as a similar kind of betrayal.

There’s no one-size-fits-all definition for being unfaithful, and that’s why it’s essential to have up-front, honest conversations with your partner about what is and isn’t acceptable. For many, the pain is the same, no matter how exactly the relationship’s rules have been violated.

“It still hurts, period,” Williams says. “Especially if this is someone who you love and were once very connected to, that pain is definitely still there.”

How do you decide whether to leave or stay?

Williams says most couples who seek counseling to deal with infidelity fall into one of two categories. The first are those who have already decided to forgive and rebuild the relationship; in those cases, therapy is all about moving toward healing, which we’ll get to in a minute.

That second category includes people who have “one foot in and one foot out” of the relationship, Williams says. They’re in shock, and they don’t know how they want to proceed.

“They’re trying to figure out what’s going on,” she says. “There are so many emotions that a person goes through when they initially find out about the infidelity: Is it me? Is it you? How much do I love you? Do I love you enough to stay? Is something wrong with me for staying?”

In those cases, Williams works with couples to analyze the cheating and determine how severe they consider the betrayal to be. Much of that work involves unpacking resentments that have been building for years — and have nothing to do with the act of cheating itself.

“It might be, ‘Every time I tried to tell you something, you were always avoidant,’ or ‘you never stand up for me when your mother talks about me,’ or ‘I can’t believe you quit your job and didn’t ask me about it,’” Williams says. “You have all these different issues that were never resolved, and over the years you tried to sweep them under the rug and move on.”

Considering all that, Williams tells couples that if they do want to move forward in the relationship, they’ll have to be prepared to accept responsibility for their own actions and be willing to hear what’s behind their partner’s choice to be unfaithful.

“What I try to get my couples to understand is that the person you’re seeing now is not the person you married. The person you’re seeing is the person they’ve become due to the unhealthiness of your relationship over the last five years,” she says.

How can you forgive a cheater?

The first step to healing is total honesty, even if it’s painful. 

“When my couples first come in, we go over some rules and understandings as it relates to infidelity, and one of those is that the perpetrator has to be open about what happened,” Williams says. “They have to be willing to stay open and answer questions — and be patient with the healing process.”

That patience is key. Even as a couple works through the relationship history that led to the cheating, it’s still completely valid for the person who’s been cheated on to walk through their response to it at their own pace.

“Oftentimes, the person who committed the infidelity, initially they’re sorry and they want to do whatever they can in order to heal their spouse, but then it gets to a point where it’s like, ‘OK, so when are we going to move past this?’ They may not understand their spouse is being triggered in different ways,” Williams says. “When it comes to healing, you have to stay open — not just right now, but even five years from now.”

The reality is that even if someone decides to forgive a cheater, the wounds don’t heal overnight. No matter what triggers you — things like hearing the name of the third party, visiting a location where the cheating happened or finding an old journal from that time — your partner must remember your reaction is valid and must be respected. 

“It’s about helping them understand the damage their infidelity has done to their spouse at their core — how they view themselves in the relationship, outside the relationship, physically, mentally,” she explains. “They have to appreciate how this infidelity has hurt their partner so they can understand the depth of the act. If it’s damaged your partner’s self-esteem, of course it’s going to take some time, and it may take them longer to heal if that infidelity is now attached to their self-worth.”

And while it’s important to get support wherever you can during such a challenging period, Williams also cautions against giving friends and family too much of a say about how you’re addressing problems in your relationship.

“What I try to get people to understand is that this is your relationship,” Williams says. “It’s not your mother’s, it’s not your father’s, it’s not your sister’s, it’s not your friend’s. Nobody is here navigating the hard times except for the two of you. So that’s a part of therapy, where you do have to cut out the chatter from everybody else.”

How can you reestablish your bond moving forward?

One of Williams’s favorite activities to help couples recapture their spark is called love mapping, which was pioneered by the psychologist John Gottman. Williams instructs her couples to ask each other 60 questions, broken down into three games of 20 each. They’re simple questions, meant to remind them of the person they fell in love with — things like, what is my favorite meal? What turns me on? How do I like to spend an evening?

“When infidelity happens, it damages your emotional connection,” Williams says. “The love map game provides an opportunity for the couple to sit down and talk, connect, laugh, explore, reminisce, and think about things they probably haven’t thought about in a very long time.” 

Building a love map should feel less like an assignment and more like a date night. Williams recommends turning down the lights, playing music, enjoying great food, and making it as romantic as possible. It’s also a game in the true sense — correct answers earn points, and couples should choose a prize for the winner, which could be something like a trip, a dinner, or a massage. The questions help rekindle old memories, and the competitive aspect helps to build new ones.

“Couples get so excited about it, so when they come back to therapy, they can’t wait to tell me who won or what they can’t believe the other person didn’t remember,” Williams says. “And it’s never a negative thing. I’ve never had someone get upset because somebody didn’t know the answers. They always come back with joy and laughter. The game does what it’s supposed to do.”