You find out that your partner has been cheating on you. He’s contrite, and you want to be with him. How to proceed?
I get this question a lot in my psychology practice and in my Washington Blade advice column.
Here’s a letter I got for my column. The essence of my response: Both partners in a relationship should focus on trusting themselves to do their best, honor their commitment, and bring up difficult issues.
My boyfriend has been cheating on me. For a while. I found out a few weeks ago when I went on his phone to confirm a movie time and found Scruff open with plenty of evidence.
Rick is very apologetic and says this was just about sex (it was a lot of guys over time, not one person). FYI, we did have an agreement to be monogamous.
It’s true I’ve been busy with my job at the expense of my relationship (busy young lawyer with long hours—you know the story). So I’m trying not to stay too angry but instead treat this as a wakeup call. I’m working to make our relationship, including sex, more of a priority.
But I’m having trouble figuring out how to trust Rick again. This really hurt me. Since I saw his Scruff account, I’m sometimes mean to him and often don’t want to be close, sexually or otherwise. Because both of us are interested in staying together, this is a problem.
In a situation like this, how do we rebuild trust so we can go forward?
What sort of trust do you want to rebuild?
Do you want to trust that Rick will never cheat on you again? You can’t ensure that. It’s Rick’s call.
Do you want to trust that Rick will never break your heart again? Not possible. There’s no way for partners to avoid ever hurting each other, deeply.
So what sort of trust is possible?
Can you trust yourself to be the best boyfriend possible, a man who makes your relationship a high priority and gives Rick good reason to honor the relationship and treat you respectfully? This may reduce the likelihood that Rick will cheat in the future, although you have no guarantee. I wonder how you made the decision to let work take over your life to the exclusion of your relationship, and if you considered that your not making sex a priority might lead Rick to step out.
Can you trust yourself to pay better attention in the future, so that you’re more likely to notice if Rick seems distant? Can you trust yourself to bring up your concerns to Rick if you sense that something is amiss?
And can you trust yourself to know that you can survive if Rick hurts you again? No relationship is pain-free or certain to last. So if you want to feel secure in your relationship, it’s important that you know you’ll be able to take care of yourself even when things don’t go well.
I’ve aimed my questions at you so far, because you are the best person that you can look to for reassurance. Of course, your boyfriend also has a key role to play in the two of you having a strong relationship going forward. So now to Rick:
If you want your relationship to succeed, you, like your boyfriend, will have to do your best going forward to behave with integrity; to be thoughtful about when you believe you must take some action that will disappoint him; and to consider the consequences of your behavior to your boyfriend, to your relationship, and to your conscience. Can you trust yourself to do these? If not, what would it take for you to be certain of doing your best?
Were there reasons you were hooking up so much, in addition to your boyfriend having been inattentive? What stopped you from speaking with him about your unhappiness?
Did you consider how your hookups might affect your relationship? Did it bother you to deceive your boyfriend? If not, why not? I’m hoping these questions will help you start paying more attention to how you make your behavior choices.
How are you doing since you stopped hooking up? Because hookups and hookup apps plug right in to our receptors for pleasure and validation, they can be addictive. Are you feeling pulled to go back on Scruff? If so, do you know what might help you to stay off?
Finally, a question to both of you: What can you do to make it more likely that you’ll bring up difficult issues with each other in the future? You need to be able to do so if you don’t want disappointment and secrets to fester.
Remember that relationships can easily be damaged by thoughtless, careless, or cruel behavior on either partner’s part. While it’s unavoidable that all of us will at times gravely disappoint our partners, it’s vital to always do our best to treat our partners and our relationships with respect.