Is it even possible to learn how to rebuild trust after a cheating spouse destroys your marriage?
When you find out that your partner cheated on you and had an affair, first there’s shock. Then there’s pain. Then there’s rage.
How could someone you’ve trusted to love and protect you betray you this way? Is it even possible to learn how to rebuild trust after a cheating spouse destroys your marriage?
This is the end of the life you’ve known. You want to punish your husband or wife for wrecking your marriage. You want them to grovel in the dirt before you for their infidelity.
Affairs are heart-breaking
Your world has crashed around you, and you feel as though you’ve lost everything. If you’ve been together for a long time, the idea that your marriage is broken attacks your whole life – your family, your friends, your children, if you have them.
It’s not as simple as just breaking up and going in search of a better partner. What do you do now?
Be still. Your feelings are screaming at you to “do something!” but if you go into action now, you’re likely to regret it later.
This is a time for “slow” thinking
When your world is upside-down, there is no way you can make a wise decision. Take the time to think about your own experience. What was going on for you while this was happening? You’re not blind – how did you miss the signals?
If you were comfortable in the belief that your partner would never do this to you, you were clinging to blind trust. This is an illusion. You made the assumption that what you wanted to believe was true.
In fact, you may never have truly trusted your partner. Assuming is not the same as trusting.
Real trust doesn’t exist without doubt. Trust is a decision and an action, rather than simply a feeling. You trust you’re safe when you cross the street with the light, but you glance in both directions anyway – blindly trusting the traffic light can get you killed.
When a partnership is intensely shaken up, “old” things can fall away, and make room for something alive and new
Losing the illusion of trust is so painful that it’s tempting to think that you chose the wrong partner, rather than realising that you’ve been walking around with blinders on. You probably don’t really want to see the reality that appears when they’re off. In the long run, though, you are better off with your eyes open.
Your relationship can be better, too. When a partnership is intensely shaken up, “old” things can fall away, and make room for something alive and new. You have a chance to notice new things about yourself, as well.
New trust – real trust – begins with how you see yourself
Looking back, you will probably realise that there were signs your partner was cheating that you willingly ignored. You accepted good explanations rather than trusting your own perceptions. You gas-lighted yourself because you didn’t want to see.
“Trusting” your partner meant distrusting yourself.
Just notice that. Notice how lopsided it is. You were willing to convince yourself that you were imagining things, rather than give up on the dream of a “perfect” marriage.
Be compassionate toward yourself. You’ve had a trauma, and it’s vital you take the time to re-orientate yourself. Talk about it, but only to trusted people, who will listen and empathise, and not tell you what you “should” do.
This is your life. This is your relationship. This is your choice.
One of the unexpected benefits of a shock like this is that you have the chance to get to know yourself better, to learn how to trust yourself.
The more you know about yourself, the more you can believe what your senses are telling you.
That’s why you should take the time to explore your own experience more fully. Everyone is hurt when they’re betrayed, but what are your personal hurts? The loss of the dream? Or your worst fears coming true? Is it unthinkable, or “just like mom and dad?”
It’s a good time to talk with a therapist, who has no separate agenda. In between sessions, exercise, practice meditation, pay attention to your breathing. Be careful about the stories you tell yourself. Imagining what they did together doesn’t help you.
Practice expressing your emotions in words: “What you did hurt me deeply”, “You made me doubt my own sanity”, or “I keep having intrusive thoughts about what you did”.
This is not only better for you, but also better for any part of your relationship that survives this trauma. As tempting as it is to call your partner a liar, a cheater, a monster – resist.
When your world is upside-down, there is no way you can make a wise decision
Instead, find ways to soothe and comfort yourself. Make a lot of room for all your emotions. Everything you feel has a reason. Be patient with yourself (you might also think about maybe being patient with your partner).
While being kind to yourself, you may also notice familiar patterns in your experience. Is this something that “always happens”? (“I always get disappointed”, or “I never get what I want”.) Are there any historical connections at play in this drama?
Then, try to develop an attitude of curiosity. Why did this happen? Has something been overlooked in your relationship? Have you hesitated to confide in one another? Have either of you kept silent to avoid an argument?
Curiosity enhances your life and all your relationships. Assuming you “know” another person through and through can be deadening.
With time, you may come to accept that your partner is a flawed human being. That you have been deeply wounded, but not killed. At some point, you will probably be willing to accept a message of true remorse from your cheating spouse. You might even agree to forgive, not to forget, but to work on knowing each other in a new way.
You can trust again…
The difference is that this trust comes from knowledge of your risks. Like courage, that can’t exist without fear, real trust can’t exist without doubt.
You weigh all the information you have, including signals from your emotional “antennae” and your historical knowledge of your partner’s character. This creates a strong foundation for your choices and helps you to trust yourself first.
Cheryl Gerson is a licensed clinical social worker and board-certified diplomate, specializing in relationships, who has been in private practice in New York City for over 25 years. Call her for an in-depth conversation about the right treatment for you.
This article was first published on YourTango.