Sex IRL: 8 people explain how cheating has affected their relationships with their partners and themselves

Not everyone’s comfortable talking about their sex life, but knowing what goes on in other people’s bedrooms can help us all feel more inspired, curious, and validated in our own experiences. In HG’s monthly column Sex IRL, we’ll talk to real people about their sexual adventures and get as frank as possible.

Cheating: It’s perhaps the most clichéd cause for breakups in TV shows and movies, but the unfortunate reality is that it happens just as often off-screen as it does on-screen. According to the Journal of Marriage and Therapy, about 40% of unmarried relationships and 25% of marriages involve at least one act of infidelity. Cheating occurs in relationships across the board—from partners of just a few months to those in years-long, committed marriages. And in the age of Snapchat, selfies, and sexting, and in a time where our phones are practically fifth limbs, it’s only becoming easier—and more tempting—to cheat.

We’ve all heard the phrase: “Once a cheater, always a cheater.” But is it actually valid? According to a 2017 study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, 40% of people who cheated once will cheat again.

While this isn’t a low number by any means, it does seem that that trite phrase might not hold as much weight as we think.

“Some people have narcissistic personalities, which entitle them to use people for their own interests, and not consider the effect of their behavior on others,” marriage therapist Elisabeth Goldberg tells HelloGiggles. “If narcissists cheat, they will always cheat. It’s a compulsive need to feed their insatiable egos. But if they aren’t a narcissist, they may be able to reform themselves.”

The Archives of Sexual Behavior study also found that those who cheated in one relationship had three times the odds of cheating in the next compared to those who had not cheated previously. Although many cheaters can become repeat offenders, every person—and every relationship—is different. Couples counselors and relationship experts note that mending relationships polluted by infidelity is just as common as failing to reconcile them.

“In my many years of working with couples in therapy, about half involving affairs, I have found it’s absolutely possible to learn from this mistake and never make it again. I’ve seen couples become stronger and wiser as a result,” Cindy Grajkowski, owner and clinical director of Couples & Family Therapy Center, LLC, tells HelloGiggles. “However, there is a key to not repeating this mistake: You must do the inner work. You must do the deeper work of understanding yourself, your emotions, who you are, and how this happened. If you don’t gain this insight and self-awareness, you remain unpredictable and at risk of doing this again.”

Infidelity is not black and white, but if experts can all agree on one thing, it’s that in order to restore relationships involving cheating, the starting point—addressing why it happened in the first place—is nonnegotiable.

Simply swearing it will never happen again is too thin of a promise to rebuild a relationship on. It’s the underlying issues that need to be dredged up and discussed before you can try to heal.

Cheating has a different impact on everyone: It can amplify existing insecurities, drill entirely new ones into your DNA, instill a deep fear of diving into dating someone new, cause trust issues to wreak havoc on following relationships, or erase the desire to even find a new partner at all. But despite the initial and often long-lasting negative effects of cheating, many positives can come out of the experience, too: realizing your self-worth, embracing new opportunities, finding more fulfilling relationships, or understanding where the relationship went wrong and where to try to mend it.

We talked to eight people who have cheated or been cheated on. They told us their initial gut reactions, how they came to the decision of continuing or ending the relationship, how the experience has affected their succeeding relationships—with romantic partners and themselves—and how it’s changed their outlook on dating in general.

“I find it easier to date casually with more open terms so that there’s less opportunity for cheating on either side.”

“I was cheated on by my boyfriend of a year and a half while we were studying abroad in different countries. Once I had an admission of physical cheating, I ended things right there. I always knew that physical cheating was a hard line for me. Looking back, it makes me sad that I needed that specific reason to leave when, throughout the relationship, there was emotional cheating and I was constantly feeling hurt, insecure, and invalidated. He was always texting and Snapchatting other girls. One time I saw a Snapchat from a girl in just her bra and underwear pop up on his phone, and when I confronted him about it later, he said it didn’t mean anything because she had a boyfriend. So, yeah. Not good.

The experience has definitely made it harder for me to trust men and commit to a serious relationship. I find it easier to date casually with more open terms so that there’s less opportunity for cheating on either side. That said, I do think I have higher standards for myself in any kind of relationship now. I’m very open in my communication and I assert my wants and needs and frustrations if they’re not being met. I’ll always have some scars from being cheated on and being in that unhealthy relationship for a year and a half, but ever since I left and redefined my standards, my relationship with myself has been so much better.”

–Morgan (23), from Brooklyn, New York

“I ruined a lot of good relationships that probably would have lasted had I not been cheated on.”

“My boyfriend cheated on me in college, but we tried to make it work for a year after the fact. I had lost all trust in him and our relationship had become toxic. We would be on the verge of breaking up, and he would convince me that we could work things out. Finally, I decided to see a therapist about it. She had me come up with a list of things that I would expect him to do or say if I visited him (we were in a long-distance relationship). Then she told me to visit him one more time and to pay attention to whether or not he did those things. We decided that if he didn’t, I would end our relationship for good.

I knew right when I got there that it was over. He didn’t do any of the things I expected of him—simple things like telling me he loved me, listening to me when I was talking to him, etc. I broke up with him and removed him from all forms of social media. I think I knew deep down that that was what I needed to do for months, but I needed someone (my therapist) to validate my feelings.

Honestly, him cheating on me really fucked me up. I had never felt so insecure. Every guy I dated after him, I felt like I couldn’t trust. I felt like they were always hiding something from me or lying to me, even when they weren’t. I was so [entrenched] in the toxic relationship that it made me feel like that was the norm— that it was normal to always feel paranoid and worry about someone cheating on you. After more therapy, I finally started loving myself more and speaking up for what I deserve in a relationship. Unfortunately, by the time I reached that point, I had ruined a lot of good relationships that probably would have lasted had I not been cheated on. But here I am today, in a healthy relationship going on two years with someone that I completely trust. There’s light at the end of the tunnel!”

–Maggie (25), from Des Moines, Iowa

“I was constantly worried about being ‘good enough,’ as if cheating was an expected punishment for failing to provide a satisfactory experience.”

“During college, my boyfriend cheated on me when we left campus and went home for a break. His reasoning was that we were exclusive on campus but hadn’t determined our status during down time. Initially, I was pretty numb. I didn’t understand how we talked every day, but he was sleeping with other women at the same time—it was a huge slap in the face. I tried to approach it in a logical way and asked him what his reaction would have been if I said I slept with three different people in a week’s time. Was it different for me because I stayed on campus, or because I’m a woman? He didn’t really have any good answers, but I’m not entirely sure I expected him to. Looking back on it, I wish I had been more upfront about my feelings and asked him to understand rather than forcing myself to explain why he had messed up.

We stayed together for a while after the initial cheating. I remember conceding that the burden wasn’t all on him since we hadn’t nailed down every specific aspect of our relationship. I didn’t even tell my closest friends at first, worried that they would judge me for staying with him. I didn’t fully realize it right away, but my self-confidence was shattered and I was constantly worried about being “good” enough, as if cheating was an expected punishment for failing to provide a satisfactory experience. My lack of trust in him, in my own self-worth, and in my understanding of a healthy relationship all eventually led to us breaking up. It didn’t help that he cheated on me again at the very end, with the girl who became his next girlfriend (who he also cheated on).

I thought I had just lost this one great love in my life, and it fucking hurt. So, I went a little wild after the breakup. I avoided major commitments and focused solely on physical relationships. At most, I was comfortable being with my friend who was in an open relationship—I felt like that was the safest way for me to be emotionally open to someone without losing myself again. For the rest of my time at college, I existed without intimate relationships with partners and opted to develop deep emotional relationships with a group of women who supported me. It’s been about three years, and I would say I’m just now feeling like I’m in a place where I could be in a healthy relationship.”

–anonymous (22), from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 

“You either have to accept it and let it go or break up—I don’t think there can be an in-between.”

“I was cheated on by my first boyfriend when I was 22. He cheated with a girl we both worked with at a bar part-time. My initial thoughts were that I was so stupid and naive to let this happen when there were plenty of signs. I felt so betrayed by both him and the other girl, because I was under the impression she was my friend.

We stayed in limbo for a long time. I tried to forgive him, but knew that I was never going to get over it, and that always came out one way or another. We fought constantly, and I began thinking I was a lunatic because of how paranoid I was that he would do it again. Overall, it took a toll on my mental health and I became super depressed. I quit the bar job and broke up with him all in the same day.

I only stayed with him for about another month after that, and I always look back and wish I wouldn’t have. You either have to accept it and let it go or break up, but I don’t really think there can be an in-between. I definitely couldn’t let it go. That experience has had a huge effect on my dating life and the way that I approach relationships. It took me a long time to gain back the confidence I once had because I felt so insecure about being cheated on. I constantly felt like I was not enough. I still have trust issues when trying to date and often need a lot of assurance that the other person is still happy and content, but I’ve also had a healthy relationship since then.”

–anonymous (28), from Kansas City, Missouri

“I fear my ability to truly connect with and love someone else.”

“After about six months of being together nonstop [with my partner], things started to go wrong. Every night held a new terror of ‘Where the fuck is he?!’ His irrational temper started to flare; he would use lame excuses to leave, and—as I found out later—to cheat.

After I found out he cheated, I felt completely wrecked—like I had no foundation. Like I was falling and grasping for edges to hang onto but they didn’t exist. The entire reality of the relationship that I had felt very loved and secure in vanished. I had never been in love before, but I knew I loved this really hurt and damaged person who kept ‘accidentally’ (but purposefully) hurting me over and over again. I think my fear of losing this person kept me in the relationship.

I tried to stay in it for a long time, but trust is a crucial pillar in a relationship. I became a terrorist of trust. I was constantly tearing him down because I didn’t believe what he was saying. He wanted to keep trying, but eventually I had to let go because I hated the person I was becoming with him—always doubting, worrying, and becoming ugly if I didn’t hear from him. You can’t recover trust on your own, and you know when someone is genuine or not. Cheating is something I think few can really come back from.

I still don’t feel ready to enter a new relationship. I am still caught up in my past relationship and currently fear my ability to truly connect with and love or like someone else, but I am hopeful my trust issues lie only with my ex.”

–anonymous (28), from Des Moines, Iowa

“I truly felt like no one would ever want me again.”

“I was cheated on by my girlfriend of three years, who I lived with at the time. Since there was another man in the picture, there really wasn’t an option of trying to make things work. My initial thoughts of my experience were dark and hollow. I’ve heard of the seven stages of grief, but I think I went through the three stages of heartbreak: anger, jealousy, and sadness. This was definitely one of the most challenging times of my life because I truly felt like no one would ever want me again, and my self-worth would plummet lower each day knowing she had someone instantly after we split up and I was alone.

Looking back, this experience really sucked, but it really allowed me to self-reflect and find my self-value. Today, I can say without question that I am confident in who I am more than ever. It helped me focus on things that were really important—maintaining relationships with family and friends, busting my ass at work, finding and participating in organizations I am passionate about, and getting back in the gym daily. Basically, realigning all of my priorities and honing in on who I really want to be.”

–anonymous (26), from Wisconsin

“If you can’t even trust yourself to make upstanding decisions, how can you trust someone else to make them on behalf of your relationship?”

“I was with someone who I considered my college sweetheart for two and half years. Without a shadow of a doubt, we—just like everyone else around us—knew we would one day get married. It was complete bliss. Until it wasn’t anymore—and I was to blame.

I went over to the guy I considered to be a friend’s apartment to talk to him about his relationship issues, but we ended up engaging in sexual activity. I left his apartment immediately after and swore to take this to my grave. But, eventually, my boyfriend found out. We went back and forth a few times, getting back together and breaking up again, before ultimately deciding that the emotional damage was too great and the trust was way too broken to be repaired at that time.

I wouldn’t say that I was inherently insecure, a skeptic, or even super cautious in my relationships prior to the one I cheated in. But after that event, there have been times that insecurities I didn’t even know I had have shown their ugly head in my current relationship—like when my partner goes out of town with his friends, or comes home later from work than he normally does. The trust I have today is still impacted by a decision I made almost three years ago. If you can’t even trust yourself to make upstanding decisions, how can you trust someone else to make them on behalf of your relationship?”

–Paisley (24), from North Carolina

“This betrayal from someone that I completely and wholeheartedly trusted shrouded my ability to deeply connect with people in general.”

“[After I found out my girlfriend of over a year and a half had cheated on me,] I knew I wasn’t going to stay in the relationship. Frankly, it wasn’t worth it anymore—I had opportunities to experience new situations and people. Previously, I chose to stay with what was familiar. Being in a familiar relationship made me somewhat oblivious to the blatant red flags in front of me. Following the end of our relationship, I was frustrated, because I missed opportunities to meet new people and put myself in unfamiliar surroundings.

[This experience with infidelity] has entirely reshaped what I look for in a relationship. Since then, I haven’t been in an incredibly serious or devoted relationship. In a mixture of paranoia and the enjoyment of having time to myself, I’ve found that it’s really difficult for me to make a strong connection with someone—one where I can relax my thoughts and be open with someone. This betrayal from someone that I completely and wholeheartedly trusted shrouded my ability to deeply connect with people in general. I can’t really see myself being with just one person now. Even marriage seems like a nightmare at times.

Now, I’m a little thankful that I was cheated on, actually. The glimmer coming out of this relationship was a new friendship I made when I moved back to Chicago this spring. This friend was cheated on as well, and that was a compelling factor in our conversations upon the first few months of knowing each other. Comparing our experiences, we’ve learned things about each other and ourselves—especially our ideas of what a relationship looks like for each other. It’s been cathartic hearing another’s experience with infidelity. I’d say our conversations are an affirmation of the emotions I was feeling in the moments following my discovery. As of right now, I’m content with where I’m at regarding my perception of relationships. I like unknown places, spaces, and faces…There’s a lot of them out there, and that makes me curious to find out if my opinions on relationships will change going forward.”

–Bert (23),  from Chicago, Illinois

Interviews have been edited and condensed.

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