One of the consistent reasons people walk in my door is because their partner cheated. The big question they always ask next is: How can I ever trust this person again? The good news is that the answer to this question isn’t as complicated as you think. 

At the end of the day, there are three components of cheating that add up to a “cheating constellation” of sorts. It starts with the individual person in the relationship, moves into the relationship itself and then to the circumstances surrounding the relationship. 

I. The person themselves: we all have different personality traits and personal ways of being in the world. From this perspective, cheating can relate to an addictive or impulsive/compulsive disposition, an entitled sense of the world and a general lack of self-awareness. When a partner doesn’t remember what happened or can’t say why they did what they did at all, they’re letting you know they are profoundly unself-aware and need to work on this in a directed, clear, prioritized way. Are they talking the talk or walking the walk? They need to take some real action to become more self-aware and less impulsive for you to trust them moving forward.

II. The relationship: When I say this, I in NO way means to say that it is your fault if your partner cheated! What I’m saying is that there is a way the relationship has been going that’s led to this being a possibility. This includes poor communication, prolonged fighting and conflict, disconnection, leading separate lives, passive aggressive behavior, nagging, criticizing, judging or other unhealthy ways of being in the relationship itself. You need to take some real action as a couple to work on the issues in your relationship for you to trust your partner moving forward.

III. Circumstances: Comedian Chris Rock once said, “A man is as faithful as his opportunities.” When categories I and II are in trouble, this can be very true for both men and women. When couples are consistently apart for more than a day or two or if one or more person in the relationship is putting themselves into situations where there’s too much temptation to resist over and over again, boundaries can be crossed. If your partner only changes circumstances (“I won’t go that gym anymore,” or “I’ll switch departments at work”) it’s not enough. They also need to be working on their self-awareness and the relationship. 

Men and Women are Different

There’s something else at play that I need you to take into account. It’s a mindset you need to understand so you can answer this question “Can I ever trust my partner again?”

You’ve got to remember that men and women are different in relationships. This means that, what you would think and feel if you cheated is NOT what your partner is thinking or feeling, if you’re in a heterosexual relationship. 

One of the main issues is that, if a man cheats, a woman can’t imagine that they don’t still think about that other woman; Because a woman can’t imagine just forgetting about a man they’ve had sex with! Women catch feelings around sex differently than men do. Men and women have different feelings and ideas around sex and relationships. With women, sex and emotional connection are much more intermingled. 

We know from the research that men are more reactive to visual cues than women and experience sexual desire way more spontaneously. Women’s desire, on the other hand, is related more to their surrounding circumstances. This is why, classically, if a woman is super stressed worried about bills, little Jimmy’s gluten allergy and that extra five pounds she’s carrying, she won’t want sex even if her partner is Brad Pitt (well, maybe then – but how many of us are in a relationship with Brad Pitt?). 

Men, on the other hand, often want to have sex when there’s a lot of stress in life – it’s a great way to relieve stress for them because it gives them a space to forget about anything negative going on. They can compartmentalize.

When women cheat, it’s more likely to mean the end of the relationship, because when women cheat there’s usually some component of connection, love or romance. If they go that far, the relationship is already in a lot of trouble. However, men are more likely to cheat solely based on sexual urges, with no thoughts of intimacy, connection or romance. For men, sex can be just sex which will have nothing to do with their primary relationship. 

I say all this because this is likely affecting how you feel about cheating in your relationship. 

If you’re a man and your partner cheats, you’re likely minimizing what a big deal that was (because you’re thinking about what it would mean to you) and so you’re not attacking the problem with enough urgency or energy. 

If you’re a woman and your man cheats, you’re likely thinking too much about what it means. I often have women in my office thinking that there’s no way their man could just “forget about this woman” and shut off his feelings like a faucet. What I remind them is that it’s likely there weren’t nearly as many feelings as you think to begin with. They don’t feel about her the way they feel about you. Having sex with someone isn’t necessarily a signal of commitment or love. They can compartmentalize, so they can stick her or the events in a box and put them on the shelf. 

At the end of the day, cheating is a wake-up call in your relationship. It means something has to change. It does not mean that you have no choice but to leave your partner. It does not mean “once a cheater always a cheater.” It does mean that it’s time to have some real conversations and get clear about next steps. You can’t keep doing what you’ve been doing. You’ve got to do new things if you want a new relationship. 

In my experience, cheating can be like a near death experience in the relationship. It wakes everyone up to what’s at stake. It reminds everyone what they have and don’t want to lose. Those couples that truly do the work find themselves stronger, closer and more connected than ever. But you’ve got to do the work to create change. Just saying “wow, that was scary” isn’t enough. Thinking, being and acting differently is the key to knowing that you can trust your partner again.