We ask a couples therapist how to repair a broken relationship after an affair (plus the one 'golden rule' for parents)

Cheating and infidelity are a lot more complicated than Hollywood makes out

An unhappy couple sat in a bedroom facing away from each other
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Mending a relationship after cheating isn’t always possible, but sometimes it’s worth a try. We speak to a couples therapist about what you can do to try and save your relationship after infidelity.

Humans are complex beings, and as such relationships are not always easy - when one half of you cheats it’s a foregone conclusion that it's over. Or at least this is what Hollywood would have you believe is the done thing. In real life, navigating infidelity in relationships is much more nuanced - especially if you have kids, and while divorce after a baby is much more common than many realise it's normally down to managing the mental load, not cheating.

“[An] affair is a symptom of a relationship that might not be functioning very well. Although this can be difficult to accept for the person being cheated on.” Deborah Hill, BACP-accredited couples therapist, tells us. “Much is invested in long-term partnerships: family, children, friends, often a house and finances. It has been recognised that discovering a partner has had or is having an affair, is traumatic. There are devastating, emotional consequences. There is a change in the relationship, akin to a meteor hitting Earth.”

In the complex landscape of relationships, figuring out what to do next after an affair requires courage, compassion, and a commitment to healing. While some might stay together for the kids others might sincerely want to try and save what’s left of their relationship. Infidelity can deeply wound, but it doesn't necessarily spell the end of a partnership, more an opportunity for introspection, understanding, and growth. We speak to couples therapist Deborah Hill who talks us through why affairs happen, what to do when you first discover an affair, and what kind of steps to take to mend the relationship, if that’s what both parties want.

How to mend a relationship after an affair

  • Be accountable. This goes for both parties, if you're the one who cheated take responsibility for your actions, end the affair, stop the lies. If you were cheated on, be honest about where the relationship is right now.
  • Consult third party. Where time and money allow, a third party such as a licensed therapist can help put the affair into perspective and allow you to work through it.
  • Seek support. While third-party professionals have their place, so too do your mutual friends. Turn to them for non-judgemental advice - and be clear that that is what you need from them.
  • Plan, plan, plan. Outline ways to rebuild trust in your relationship. Agree on a timeline and process. If you were unfaithful, admit guilt and seek forgiveness. If your partner was unfaithful, offer forgiveness when you are able. Together, seek understanding.

Recovering from an affair can be one of the most challenging times in a relationship. It takes a lot of talking and rebuilding to come out the other side, and if you do manage it, it can strengthen and deepen love and affection. If you are both committed to healing the relationship, the reward may be a new type of marriage that will continue to grow and likely go beyond your previous expectations.

Deborah tells us; "To mend a relationship after an affair, a couple needs to be able to talk. More often than not, emotions are just too raw for a couple to be able to do this safely with one another. Quite often people will say: 'I just can't believe it', or 'I thought I knew them', or maybe 'All this time they've been deceiving me'.

"Your first marriage is over, would you like to create a second one together?"

Esther Perel

If you can afford - both time and money - to go to a third party, then a therapist might be a good first step. "A therapist can help a couple to move away from the very unhelpful (although understandable) position of 'blame'," Deborah explains.

"Both people in a couple relationship need to be heard and understood. The person who has had an affair needs to understand the trauma their partner has experienced through the disclosure and they need to be able to demonstrate remorse.

Although intensely difficult to hear, the partner who has been betrayed also needs to be able to hear what their partner has to say. Deborah agrees; "They might discover that the affair came about through no issue with the relationship, but through something to do with their partner specifically."

Therapy is usually a focused period of personal growth and understanding between a couple. Through talking and developing a better understanding, the way forward becomes clearer. It may mean that a couple decide to separate but it can also mean that a couple feel much closer, more honest, more intimate and committed to rebuilding a trust that lasts.

Defining infidelity

An affair is normally considered to be, one person, in a committed relationship, having an illicit sexual relationship with someone else outside of the relationship.

However it's not always the case, and it's down to the couple to agree on the definition of infidelity (ideally when they first get together). For example, is an emotional connection without sex considered cheating? What about an online relationship or online sexual activity?

Deborah agrees, she tells us; "Feelings of betrayal can occur when a partner is found to be communicating with someone else via digital platforms. Although actual sex might not take place, relationships can develop which lead into explicit sexting/videos. It can be devastating for an unsuspecting partner to come across these."

Couple having another argument for what seems like no reason

(Image credit: Getty Images)

"In my experience of working with infidelity, affairs are unique. Someone might even feel so unseen by their partner, they can actually think their partner wouldn't care if they had an affair." A couple might have got together so young that they later feel deprived of sexual experience, or they may be looking for attention, love or care, or excitement, and some might carry out affairs as an act of revenge for something their partner did that upset them.

Others might feel insecure in themselves and/or their relationship and an affair can be reassuring, or may develop a close friendship at work and the colleague might want it to go further, and some people might feel that they have fallen in love with somebody else. Other reasons may be that people might want to have sex with other people to confirm their masculinity/femininity/sexuality, some people might be depressed, and some may crave the excitement of a new liaison with another person makes them feel alive again."

Infidelity is one of the most commonly cited reasons for relationship breakdown. However, interestingly, affairs can often be seen as a 'cry for help'. Deborah explains; "In my experience, affairs are rarely to do with wanting to leave the committed relationship."

Why do people cheat?

The reasons for cheating are wide and varied, and dependent on situations at any given time;

  • Lack of affection
  • Low self-esteem
  • Resentment
  • Major life changes
  • Stressful periods
  • Breakdown in communication
  • Addiction (to phone, alcohol, sex)
  • Feeling seen by someone else
  • Problems that are ignored

What to do if you discover an affair?

When affairs are discovered it's completely natural that emotions will run high, it can be hard to think clearly enough to make any long-term decisions. And, while there is no right or wrong way to react to this kind of news here are a few steps that Deborah recommends taking initially;

  • Seek support. Find someone to talk to and " keep this information between you and your partner. Do not involve your children as this could cause them extreme anxiety and they could feel pressurised to take sides."
  • Consider it all. "It is important to consider all the good aspects of your relationship. Do you want to throw in the towel? What would that mean?"
  • Take time. "You will need to give yourself time to process the shock."
  • Take space. "It can be helpful to have some days apart from one another so that both people have a chance to reflect on what it might mean for their relationship."
  • Do not retaliate. "It is never helpful to try to try to balance the hurt, by acting in the way your partner has i.e. having sex with someone else in an attempt to make your partner feel what you are feeling."
  • Don't make any life-changing decisions. "Instead, practice self-care and compassion."

Dealing with an affair when you have kids

Having children is life-altering, and in a good way, as it can be powerfully bonding for a committed couple. But, as we know, becoming parents is also physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding, and it can feel psychologically overwhelming to be in charge of children. Invariably, children use up their parents’ time and energy. When parents are juggling jobs around child care, there is frequently little time for meaningful connection with a partner.

And, while infidelity and affairs are messy painful experiences, for all involved, when you have children too it all becomes a lot trickier as you have to navigate all these extra emotions with their feelings in mind. However, Deborah advises to never confide in your kids. "Do not involve your children as this could cause them extreme anxiety and they could feel pressured to take sides. More often than not, children already sense that something is not right, they sense that there is a re-direction of emotional energy. If they have to be told, make sure that you are in control of your emotions and can explain that these things can be worked through."

Your repair toolkit

Repairing a relationship doesn't just happen after big mistakes, repairing is something that needs to happen regularly within healthy relationships. This might look like;

  1. Cultivate empathy - Empathy ultimately means you see relationship problems from your partner’s perspective. If you’re trying to resolve conflict, put yourself in the other person’s shoes and try to understand their perspective.
  2. Actively listen - Engage in active listening. Don’t just hear their words. Give your partner or friend your full attention and make an effort to understand their message. Ask clarifying questions to understand how your actions make your partner feel. Even if you disagree, acknowledge their feelings and avoid getting defensive.
  3. Learn how to apologise - Sincere apologies are not 'I’m sorry'. Strong apologies rebuild trust but for it to be done properly you need to take ownership of your mistakes and express genuine remorse. You need to acknowledge your actions and express regret for the hurt caused. And then outline the steps to avoid repeating the mistake
  4. Learn to forgive - Forgiveness isn’t just vital for healthy relationships; it’s vital for personal health, too. Forgiving someone doesn’t mean you’re okay with what they said or did, but you can let go of negative emotions.

Additional helpful resources

Websites

Relate - It doesn't matter if you’re on your own, married, living together, LGBTQI+, non-monogamous or anything in between - we’re here to help you strengthen your relationships.

Regain - Affordable couples therapy, no waiting rooms or driving, Licenced Therapists are available to help.

Marriage Care - All relationships have ups and downs. Sometimes, though, things can get a bit stuck and it’s hard to find a positive solution. That’s when relationship counselling can help.

Podcasts

Infidelity: Why we cheat on those we love - 48 minutes of Esther Perel's new conversation about marriage and infidelity. Esther has probed the intricacies of love and desire in modern couples for almost 30 years as a therapist, writer, trainer, and lecturer. Check out her latest book; The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity (£9.20, Amazon)

Staying After Infidelity - Couples therapy and coaching, listening to advice and experiences from licensed marriage and family therapist Idit Sharoni.

Heal from infidelity - Let Anarea Giles talk through the three most common myths 3 common myths circulating about infidelity, and 3 truths to counter them. With a lot of conflicting information out there, it can be quite confusing to navigate a clear path forward.

Woman smiling at camera
Deborah Hill

Deborah Hill is an experienced couples and family therapist who specialises in relationship issues. She is an accredited member of the BACP and supports to couples and families in the UK and across the world.

Check out our article on the 12 signs he's cheating on you and if he's not then our piece on how to like being with your partner again might be useful. If separation is on the cards take a look at our actionable co-parenting tips for divorced parents, backed by a psychotherapist, and some vital rules for divorced parents taking kids out of the country for a break.

Stephanie Lowe
Family Editor

Stephanie Lowe is Family Editor at GoodToKnow covering all things parenting, pregnancy and more. She has over 13 years' experience as a digital journalist with a wealth of knowledge and experience when it comes to all things family and lifestyle. Stephanie lives in Kent with her husband and son, Ted. Just keeping on top of school emails/fund raisers/non-uniform days/packed lunches is her second full time job.