Cheating in a committed, monogamous relationship can deal a severe blow to the trust between partners. The one who has been cheated on struggles with pain, angst and hurt stemming from betrayal. Once infidelity comes to light, most couples struggle with questions about the future of their relationship. How to forgive a cheating partner? Should you? If yes, then how to heal from this breach of trust and start anew? We spoke to psychodynamic psychotherapy and transpersonal regression expert, Dr Gaurav Deka, to understand the answers to these complex questions.
How To Forgive Your Cheating Partner And Should You?
According to Dr Gaurav, the couples he consults bring up some of the most inane as well as the most serious issues. What remains unseen is that each individual in a relationship brings in their emotional baggage from their own families, learnings of their own childhood, their upbringing or belief system, attitude or emotions. In many ways, their approach to giving and receiving love has been passed on through their families.
Dr Gaurav believes that marriage is not just when two people come together but when two systems come together to form a union which is why he works closely with family systems, family dynamics to make each client see and understand what they bring and carry from their own families and systems instead just making it an individual affair.
The same principles also apply to the unpleasant reality of cheating in a relationship. Why a partner cheats on the other, and how the other reacts to it, also boils down to the sum of this baggage. With that premise, here is all you need to know about whether or not to forgive a cheating partner and how:
1. What kind of issues/ feelings does a couple or an individual come to you with when they discover that their significant other has been cheating?
It’s rare that a couple comes in together. It’s more common for someone to come individually who is mostly the one who has been betrayed or cheated on and what most of them wonder and say, “It was happening under my nose, how did I not know it?” So, it is about the unknowability that troubles them the most followed by trust issues or the misuse of trust.
2. But how can they not see it? If you know your partner so well, then how do you not sense that they’re cheating on you?
It’s because we do not know anyone as a whole although we would like to believe so. Not just our partner but also our parents or friends we wouldn’t know as a whole. Every person has a shadow part, along with the light part, and the shadow is always unknown.
The reason why it remains unknown is that many times partners cannot express themselves. Not because they want to hide or cheat and do something wrong but because there is a lot of shame. Whether they are emotionally or sexually unsatisfied or whether they have grown apart in time, they cannot accept it or talk to their partners about it. They simply wanted to have an escape route from their regular life.
Related Reading: 20 Myths And Facts About Cheating In A Marriage
3. What about questions like ‘Am I not good enough’ or ‘Am I lacking something’? Is the feeling of self-doubt common?
Of course, it comes down to self-doubt issues because of the shift of attention. For example, if the mother has two children, the elder child is bound to feel neglected and unloved because the attention goes to the younger child. Similarly, the feeling of being unloved takes over the person who has been cheated on.
4. What are the other emotions a cheated-on person experiences? The self-esteem crashes down, doesn’t it?
Yes, it does, It blows up your entire system and you are unable to look at yourself the way you did before since most people look at themselves through the eyes of their partners. Simple things like ‘if I do this, will it make them happy’ or ‘if I wear this, will it look nice’ – everything is based on approval. So after that approval system crashes down, and they are left with a sense of vacuum. Where do they go for approval now?
5. In your practice, how often do both partners seek counseling after cheating comes to light? Or is it just the individual who has been cheated on?
In about 10% of the cases, the partner who cheats also comes in. It’s less because, as I said before, there is too much shame in admitting to what they have done. In the remaining 90% of the cases, the person who has been cheated on comes individually and resolves their issues on their own. And 70% out of those 90% do not end up finding closure because of lack of confrontation.
Even in cases where the couple decides to stay together, the person who has sought help will have to resolve it on their own. Most partners are unwilling to work on their issues. It’s exceedingly rare that the partner will support them while the client goes through their catharsis and healing process.
6. What is the men to women ratio of the clients that come to you with this issue?
As you know, in India, therapy is more about women expressing how they feel whereas men are anyways closed to expression. There are times where men come riddled with cheating guilt, where they do not want to continue cheating and want to find a way out.
So, they come in the middle of the affair and say that they do not want to do it anymore. I am going to state something radical but most of the time what determines a woman’s relationship with a man is what kind of relationship she shares with her mother and what determines a man’s relationship with a woman is what kind of relationship he shares with his father.
The reason why I am saying this is because when women come in for betrayal, usually in their own family their father or their brother has cheated in the past. So, as a woman, she feels somehow unknowingly inclined to the womanhood of the family, so she repeats the same fate.
What I am trying to say is that a certain kind of belief system may also exist in families because of which infidelity appears in certain couples and does not in other certain couples. Again, collectively with men what happens is that most of them feel that they can cheat and perhaps get away with it not because their intention is to hurt their partner but because of the belief system.
The decision to cheat is governed by his perception of what it means to be a man and the kind of gravity he thinks he should have in a relationship, which is also decided by his belief system which he carries from his own family. Therefore, if a cheater exists here, then a cheater also exists back in the family.
Related Reading: Infidelity: Should You Confess To Cheating On Your Partner?
7. When one spouse indulges in an affair, does it mean that there is no love or romance left in the marriage? What does it mean for “love” in the marriage?
Mostly, it’s less about the couple or less about the marriage and more about the love that the person has for themselves. There is a beautiful essay by this therapist called Esther Perel titled “Why happy people cheat?” which says that when people actually cheat, they are simply missing a certain part of themselves. They miss that part, which is youthful, vibrant, delightful, and cheat to be able to exist in that fantasy or bubble.
8. What are the chances of a marriage surviving if either one or both the partners have been involved in an affair?
I would say the chances are 50-50. Most people look at it as an end, which it can be, while some people – very rare ones – do look at it positively and choose to acknowledge the issue and work on it. In the institution of marriage, if there are abortions or miscarriages involved, I have often seen that something within the couple dies.
That leads to the creation of a void between the couple, serving as the perfect breeding ground for a third person to come in. There is something that cannot be explained in a rational way that leads to the separation of the two. Although I cannot give an empirical analysis for this, it is an observation.
9. What are the stages of working on a relationship or healing after being cheated on and how does one do that?
Most of the time, people make a classic reconciliation mistake of wanting to forget and forgive almost immediately, if they still want to be in the relationship. I tell them that it’s not possible because if you forgive prematurely, it will find its way back in the form of repressed anger. We have to understand that all the stages of despair – Unacceptance, Anger, Depression, Bargaining and Acceptance – are going to show up.
They will go through unacceptance at the beginning followed by anger, depression and even bargaining, which is placing the blame – if you would have done this, then this wouldn’t have happened and vice-versa. That’s why most people remain in the cycle of bargaining because it’s a question of self-worth, and then comes acceptance.
Only a few people choose to see that it was not about them and that they are not the reason why the cheating happened in the relationship. Instead, it’s the cheating partner who brought this upon themselves and the relationship. It was them who was carrying certain traits, beliefs, attitudes and traumas from their family and past. This stage is not achieved by many people.
10. Is that because what we carry from our past determines whether we are more or less valuable in the relationship?
Wherever cheating is involved, there is always an unequal dynamic in the relationship between the two partners. One partner feels greater and more important than the other.
11. Can an affair actually help the couple or a relationship in some cases?
It definitely does because sometimes people become aware of what was not talked about, what was lacking and what was not acknowledged in a relationship. Secondly, as I said before, that there could be a past trauma within the couple like an abortion, miscarriage or loss of a child, which may have become a trigger for cheating.
When these things are not talked about, the grief is not expressed and channelized correctly. When cheating comes to light, it could be an opportunity for that even if it comes out in the form of anger and screaming which could lead to the couple to realize and see what caused the break.
12. Does the devastation of an affair impact the children, if there are kids in the equation?
I recently had a client who was living in a constant fear that their partner would be happier with someone else and they were even having nightmares about her partner being with someone else. So I asked if they have seen their partner be with someone else and what is causing them to feel like that.
To which, she said that ever since the age of five she had seen her father cheat because of which she does not feel secure in her relationship because she feels that she would have the same fate. So yes, affairs do impact children.
13. How do you protect and shield the children from the devastation of an affair?
Children can and must be shielded, especially in the case of a divorce, where the child stays with one parent and this child starts looking at the other parent as the perpetrator. This is why when a client with a child comes to us, we tell them that even though you don’t like the person today and have decided to cut ties with them, you cannot prevent the fact that the other person continues to be your child’s parent.
So the more you tell your child about how bad this person is or how abusive this person is, the child will invite all those qualities sometime later in life because you’re telling them about it. Instead, go back to why you loved your partner in the first place because there would be some positive qualities that gave you a reason to be with them.
Tell the child how those qualities attracted you to them and tell them about the positive qualities instead of the negative. Keep your business to yourself and do not spill it on to your child.
Questions By The Viewers
During this Insta live session, Bonobology followers also had a host of questions about cheating in a relationship, and how – or if – a couple can move on from it:
1. Can a person who has been cheated on once, be cheated on again after a few years?
Yes, that could very much happen. There is something within us that cannot be put in a definition – you can call it a trait, energy or a belief or even an attitude toward giving and receiving love – that becomes the governing factor behind our patterns in a relationship, which keep repeating itself.
2. When do you know that you have to end your relationship and move on?
My simple answer is if it happens more than once. Ask them if they are willing to work on the relationship through therapy and counseling. If not, then you should end it because if they don’t feel responsible and are unwilling to work on it, then it’s time to move on.
3. Are affairs on the rise? Is it happening more or was it always there and we just didn’t know?
It was always there. It’s just that because of the growing technology, accessibility, our ability to be liberal on the face, among other factors, that we can see it more now that people have become more vocal.
4. How do we destigmatize getting help and reaching out for therapy for such issues, especially in India?
In India, it’s so difficult for people to wrap their heads around the idea that a third party, who knows nothing about the couple or a relationship, can help. So, they feel like an outsider cannot resolve the issues, but an outsider can actually resolve the issues better if they are professionally trained and would have an unbiased opinion as well as an objective opinion on it.
They will also have years of experience in conflict resolution, which is why an outsider is essential because there are certain things people might not admit to their friends or families out of the fear of judgment. Not by others but by themselves.
Related Reading: When You’re Happily Married But Love Someone Else
5. Is cheating unnatural or natural? Are we made for monogamy? Is marriage an unnatural social construct?
By natural, if you mean biological, so genetically speaking we are programmed to be polygamous and not monogamous.
6. Why is it that one partner keeps getting attracted to someone all the time?
The answer is very radical but if someone in a relationship keeps getting attracted to someone else and they want to put an end to it or that they cannot help, it is usually because there is a part of them that constantly wants to enjoy a life that they have built in their fantasy world with the other person.
Basically, a huge part of them isn’t present in the now, as a result of which they constantly want that dopamine rush or excitement. So again, it’s not about the relationship or couple but about a void in their life left by past trauma or experiences.
7. What kind of emotions does the cheating partner go through?
The reason for cheating is the rush that is missing. For example, if you are eating healthy throughout the day, and you know there is a packet of sweets or chocolates in your fridge, your mind keeps going to that temptation. The same psychology governs the reason and emotions of a cheating partner too.
If you’re sailing in the same boat, we hope these expert suggestions help you decide your future course of action. For more such insightful interactions, follow our Insta handle @bonobology.