How to Resolve Trust Issues After Being Cheated On, According to Experts
Whether you choose to stay in the relationship or leave, the self-work matters.
It seems like cheating is happening all around us. It's happened throughout politics and in the White House (see: Clinton-Lewinski affair), it's a common plot point in TV dramas and movies (see: Big Little Lies, Marriage Story), and it's always made headlines in celebrity news (unfortunately, yes, even Beyoncé was cheated on). But just because cheating is normalized in the media and sometimes in our personal lives doesn't mean it should be treated as such. Being cheated on can have lasting effects on someone's self-worth, ability to trust, and overall sense of security.
Licensed marriage and family therapist Cindy Grajkowski explains that the most common response she's seen from people after they've been cheated on is a trauma response. "They [respond how] you would after [being in] a car accident...where they suddenly don't feel safe anywhere, can't sleep, and are super reactive," she says. Every person may respond to cheating differently, based on past relationships or even childhood experiences, but it's important to understand the impact that infidelity can have in order to move forward in healthy ways.
Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and relationship issues, also doesn't take cheating lightly, categorizing the act as a form of abuse. "It is abusive to someone because you're going after the core piece of a relationship, which is trust," she says. Even if the person who cheated says that the act of cheating "didn't mean anything," Dr. Manly says it always does. "People try and make it just about sex. It's not about sex, it's about the bond," she says. "It's about the symbolic bond that is essential for a healthy relationship."
This isn't to say that the couple can't grow or move forward (together or apart), but the healing process shouldn't be neglected. Often, when someone is the victim of cheating in a relationship, people may think the most important question to answer is, "Should I stay or go?" but, in reality, it should be: "How can I heal from this?" So we gathered advice from relationship experts on how to resolve trust issues after being cheated on, below.
Grajkowski explains that the trauma someone can receive from being cheated on can trigger emotions they've experienced from past traumas. Whether you've been cheated on before, been in abusive relationships, or grew up with an unstable home situation, all of this can affect your response to cheating and the pain you feel from it. It's important to acknowledge your relationship with things like trust, abandonment, or betrayal so you can better understand how these issues can come into play during your current healing process.
Dating and relationship expert Cheryl Muir explains that pinpointing the exact source of the hurt can be tricky, especially since cheating can have an intertwined impact on your trust and self-worth at the same time. "If our trust in others and our own self-worth is already on shaky ground, being cheated on can trigger an emotional avalanche," she says. "This overwhelming series of emotions—ranging from shame to heartbreak—can feel muddy." That's why it's especially important not to push any emotions to the side so you can deal with them head on.
Muir says the healthiest way to work through being cheated on is to process all of your emotions. "This looks like giving ourselves time to feel what we feel and also name what we feel," she says. "This sounds like, 'I’m feeling sad' or 'I feel betrayed and angry' or even 'I’m finding it really hard to trust other people.' By facing our emotions in this way, we move through them—just like we would move through the grieving process."
Plain and simple: If you've been cheated on, it's not your fault. "In all my years, I have never met anyone who has cheated and it wasn't 100 percent their responsibility," Dr. Manly says. This doesn't mean that there weren't other issues in the relationship that both parties could have contributed to, but the blame for the act of cheating belongs solely to the person who cheated.
If you're stuck in a cycle of self-blame, you'll have a hard time getting to the root of the pain and starting to truly heal from it. Once you've moved past self-blame, however, you can start to look more critically at your role in the relationship overall and identify any common patterns with how you're choosing and accepting love.
If you find yourself consistently in relationships where you're being cheated on or treated poorly, Muir says this can be an opportunity to get "radically honest" with yourself. "If we notice we choose partners who treat us badly, our work is to build up our self-esteem to the point that we know we are deeply worthy of a partner who treats us well."
Dr. Manly explains that low self-worth can negatively impact your ability to properly vet future partners. Instead of noticing red flags and avoiding a potentially abusive relationship, you could fall back into a similar situation. "If somebody believes from childhood on, or even early adulthood, that they are not worthy, they will unconsciously seek people who are subpar, who will betray them, and who will prove to them their secret belief that they are not worthy," she says.
To heal from the betrayal of cheating, Dr. Manly explains that you need to "slow down and consciously engage in
self-work [that is] oriented toward self-awareness and self-worth." This is especially necessary for those who are dealing with deeply ingrained low self-worth, whether from childhood or from other past relationships.
In her work, Grajkowski tries to help her clients shift their inner sense of self. She pushes people to develop better self-awareness and, eventually, to trust themselves more than anything else, instead of thinking, "Am I ever going to find someone who's trustworthy?" When you trust yourself, she explains, then you can go into relationships knowing that you'll be okay and that you know how to take care of yourself—no matter what happens.
Though you may not be able to ever regain full trust in the person who cheated on you, trust is still something worth actively working towards in every relationship. Muir says that friendships are a great place to start. "Practice opening up with trusted friends, sharing with them, and asking them for support," she says. "When we do this, we build up a solid foundation of trust from people around us. It’s almost like practicing the skill of trusting others in platonic relationships, which then makes it feel more natural and easy in love because it’s a standard we’ve built up in other areas of our lives."