There is no timeline for healing.
Trust is one of the most fundamental building blocks that make up the foundation of a relationship. So when one person breaks that trust, you might begin to question the structural integrity of your entire relationship. When one person in a relationship cheats, whether or not you break up is ultimately a personal matter that can depend on a wide range of factors (including, but not limited to, shared responsibilities like children). That said, infidelity unquestionably changes a relationship—and sustaining it after requires a good deal of work.
Is it possible to regain trust after cheating?
If one thing is clear, it’s that cheating, for most people, is a big deal. Research shows that a partner’s infidelity can have a detrimental impact on a person’s self esteem, and can contribute to anxiety and depression. The psychiatrist Dennis Ortman likens the impact of infidelity to post-traumatic stress disorder with his own coined term “post-infidelity stress disorder,” which he describes in his 2009 book, Transcending Post-Infidelity Stress Disorder: The Six Stages of Healing. Those steps, in order, are: calming the emotional storm (essentially, finding some kind of emotional refuge for yourself), understanding your unfaithful partner, seeking self-understanding, making a wise decision (whether or not to continue the relationship), embracing self-forgiveness, and forgiving your unfaithful partner (which doesn’t necessarily mean staying with them).
All that said, for some couples, it simply isn’t possible to build back trust after infidelity—it’s something that has to be earned and does take a significant period of time to re-invest in. Working with a licensed relationship therapist or other mental health professional, both alone and as a couple, can be helpful in picking up the pieces and understanding the necessary steps to proceed.
Rebuilding a relationship after infidelity
Because the reasons for cheating can vary widely (including, but not limited to: self esteem, resentment, relationship problems), the rebuilding process can look different for different couples. But some experts, including the acclaimed relationship psychotherapist Esther Perel, assert that couples can come out on the other side of infidelity stronger than before.
Dishonesty is one of the driving forces that makes cheating so hurtful; that’s why, if a couple wishes to work past an incident of infideltiy, honesty is an absolute non-negotiable. If the person who cheated isn’t willing to answer their partner’s questions about what happened and why, then there’s little help for moving forward, psychotherapist Lena Derhally tells Self. It might be tempting for the perpetrator to try to cover up the extent of their infidelity for fear of making the situation worse—but continued dishonesty only compounds the issue.
Psychotherapist Robert Weiss refers to “rigorous honesty” as a necessity to restore trust after infidelity. That means that the person who cheated shouldn’t just be fully honest about their affair—but should make an effort to be honest in all facets of their interaction with their partner, he explains in Psychology Today. That can include confessing to more menial actions, like “I forgot to take out the trash.” This can gradually help to rebuild trust in a relationship.
The Gottman Institute, founded by clinical psychologists and relationship-focused researchers John and Julie Gottman, advises a three-step process for healing after infidelity. First, a person must atone and take accountability for their actions–not placing blame on their partner and demonstrating how they are changing their behavior going forward. Next, they should “attune,” or work to build a new foundation for their relationship, practicing good communication by checking in with one another, sharing feelings, and practicing vulnerability. Last, they “attach”—basically, reigniting the flame of physical intimacy. Here, communication is important for both partners to address sexual boundaries, preferences, and needs.
Ultimately, there’s no timeline for how long it takes to heal a relationship after infidelity (it can take years)—and there’s no guarantee that a couple will find it feasible to stay together after all is said and done. But it is a practice in honesty and forgiveness that requires a good deal of work and understanding. When in doubt, a licensed relationship therapist may be able to help you through the process.