One of the biggest issues facing individuals whose relationships have been damaged by a partner’s infidelity is the decision to stay in or leave their relationship. The breach of trust created by cheating pushes most relationships to the brink, and betrayed partners must decide if their relationship is fixable and worth saving or if it’s broken beyond repair.
For most betrayed partners, it’s clear that the future of the relationship has been jeopardized by the loss of trust and safety caused by the lying and cheating. However, they typically do not immediately know what they want to do. Do they want to stay in the relationship? Can they stay in the relationship? Is the relationship too damaged for them to ever trust and feel safe in it? Early on, the answers to these questions are unclear, and as a result there is uncertainty and anxiety about how to move forward.
Complicating this uncertainty is the added layer of shame with which betrayed partners often struggle. Basically, they are affected by the sometimes very strongly held cultural belief that if you are cheated on, you must leave the cheater, and if you don’t, you are weak.
I’ll give you an example. I was talking with one of my clients about how angry and shaming she was being to her sexually addicted spouse. The couple had been working on their recovery for over a year. He had established sobriety, and the relationship was improving. However, she would occasionally give him a thorough down-and-dirty tongue lashing that would leave both of them emotionally reeling for days.
I asked her what she thought this behavior was about. She told me, “You know what it is? I don’t just feel like I have a right to hurt him because of his cheating; I feel like I have an obligation to hurt him. I feel like I’m supposed to make him pay. If I don’t, I am a weak and a stupid fool for staying with him, and I am just letting him walk all over me in the relationship.”
On television and in movies, you often see the “leaving after infidelity” storyline portrayed. A partner is unfaithful. The victim of this betrayal is a self-respecting individual who gathers up his or her cloak of pride and stalks out of the relationship, looking for greener pastures elsewhere. Only rarely do you see depictions of couples affected by cheating who stay together and work through the pain.
If the media portrayals aren’t enough, friends and family often jump to the same conclusion. With little to no understanding of your situation, they advise you to leave your relationship. They almost never suggest that you might want to stick it out, grow from the experience, and develop a relationship that is stronger and more meaningful because you’ve overcome adversity in it.
Despite the cultural story and advice that is so prevalent, most people try hard to find a way to stay in their relationship. Our attachment to our significant other is the organizing relationship in our life and the place where our deepest emotional needs are expressed. It provides us with a sense of security and safety, acting as the safe base from which we launch ourselves into the rest of our lives. Severing this attachment completely (through breakup or divorce) is not something that most of us do lightly or easily.
Until you have been in the situation yourself and faced the details of a shared reality (children, a mortgage, good memories, love and affection for your partner, a close relationship with your in-laws, financial obligations, etc.), you can’t possibly know what you would, could, or should do. The simple truth is that most people, no matter how badly they’ve been betrayed, want their relationship to work. Most are looking for a way to stay together, even in the face of relational trauma.
That said, after discovering betrayal, leaving can initially feel like the right thing to do. It can seem like a viable way to save your pride and take yourself out of pain and confusion. And for some betrayed partners, leaving is indeed the best course of action. But for many other betrayed partners, making such a huge, life-altering decision while smack in the middle of a major crisis is not the wisest choice.
Whatever you choose, it is your decision. And it is not weak to choose to stay in your relationship. I am amazed every day by the strength and grace of the women and men I sit with who, despite being dealt a cruel hand, choose to stay in their relationship. They knowingly take on the difficult task of opening themselves up to new ways of thinking and stretching toward growth and change so they can (hopefully) heal. This takes bravery, patience, fortitude, and a willingness to become vulnerable despite daunting odds. It requires a belief that hope for healing, repair, forgiveness and reconciliation is the birthplace of true possibility. It is not an act of weakness to stay, and there is no shame in it.
In the same way, it is not weak to choose to leave. Sometimes, the greatest act of self-care is the courageous choice to end a destructive relationship and lean into the task of rebuilding a new and different life. Leaving someone you love, grieving the loss of the relationship and its attendant hopes and dreams, and then embracing the process of building a new life as a single person initially and then re-engaging in a new and hopefully healthier relationship: these are not small tasks. So, the choice to leave, much like the choice to stay, requires courage, patience, wisdom, and strength.
If you feel like the choice that you have made is a sign of weakness and that you are letting your dignity be trampled on, I encourage you to reframe how you are thinking about this issue. No one can make this choice for you. Only you truly understand all that is at stake in the decision to leave or to stay. Only you know the depth of courage it takes to make your decision. Hopefully, you have wise friends and supportive counsel around you as you make and process your decision—people who understand that ultimately you are the one who will live with this choice, people who understand that both choices are valid. There is no shame in staying, and there is no shame in leaving.