After infidelity comes to light, the cheater needs to address the damage done to the relationship. This means, first and foremost, that the cheater needs to rebuild relationship trust. Unfortunately, relationship trust is not automatically rebuilt simply because the cheating stops and stays stopped for a certain period. Instead, relationship trust is regained through consistent and sometimes painful actions engaged in over time. Basically, cheaters need to make a commitment to living differently and abiding by certain relationship boundaries – the most important of which is ongoing rigorous honesty about everything, all the time, from here on out. They need to fearlessly tell the truth no matter what, starting right now, even when they know the truth is likely to upset their spouse.
When cheaters are rigorously honest, they tell their significant other everything, not just the stuff that’s convenient or that they think will hurt the least. There are no more lies and no more secrets. With rigorous honesty, cheaters keep their partner in the loop about absolutely everything – spending, trips to the gym, gifts for the kids, issues at work, needing to fertilize the lawn, and, oh yeah, any interactions their mate might not approve of. If the betrayed spouse would want to know, the cheater must tell. Period.
Cheaters also need to understand the difference between active and passive truth telling. Active truth telling means they are honest with their significant other without prompting. If there is something they think their spouse might want to know, they volunteer that information, and they do it sooner rather than later. They voluntarily tell the truth. With active truth telling, cheaters are fully transparent about every aspect of their life. Their partner doesn’t have to guess, ask probing questions, play detective, etc., because they are actively disclosing the truth no matter what.
Passive truth telling, on the other hand, forces the betrayed partner to do the work. With passive truth telling, even if the betrayed partner already knows or suspects the cheater has done something, the cheater waits until he or she is asked about it. And when that happens, the cheater tells the truth about what was asked but doesn’t volunteer any other pertinent information. Instead, the cheater withholds this other information, telling himself or herself that what his or her partner doesn’t know can’t cause pain. The cheater might also try to convince himself or herself that he or she is not a liar because all questions were answered truthfully. However, failing to voluntarily disclose important information is just another form of lying. That’s how betrayed partners see things, anyway.
Even with rigorous honesty, a relationship damaged by infidelity can’t and won’t go back to the way it was. But why would a couple want it to, when their previous version of normal was so badly broken – filled with betrayals, dishonesty, secrets, and a lack of true intimacy. It is far better to aim for a new normal, where both partners can be fully honest and open.
When working with couples dealing with infidelity I sometimes use the analogy of a broken teacup. If you drop a teacup and it shatters, you can glue it back together, but the cracks will always show. However, those cracks do not mean the teacup is not still beautiful and worthwhile. In fact, it might be more beautiful than ever.
For a relationship to be repaired like a broken teacup, trust must be restored. It’s all about the trust. Without trust there is no intimacy, no connection, and no hope. When one partner is lying and keeping important secrets, there is no way for either partner to fully get his or her emotional needs met. In this way, cheaters and their partners lose out on the very thing they most want – to be loved and accepted exactly as they are. But when the block of secrets and lies is removed, a pathway to true connection and deeply felt intimacy is opened. And that is a beautiful thing to witness.