You have the sinking feeling that your partner is cheating, and suddenly, it’s like your whole life has changed in an instant.
One minute, you think your future is going one way. The next, you’re questioning everything. A million thoughts bubble up to the surface. How long has this been going on? Who is the “other woman” (or other man, or other people) in this scenario? What do you do now?
You may have so many emotions that you don’t know how to contain them all — shock, grief, anxiety, embarrassment, jealousy, and rage, to name a few common reactions noted in a study on infidelity published in February 2023 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
Talk about a gut punch. After the initial impact, you may feel a bit paralyzed, wondering how to cope. So we asked a few therapists.
“If you suspect your partner is cheating, I would recommend finding a good therapist, developing a self-care plan, enlisting social support, and confronting your partner — in that order,” says Lauren Korshak, a licensed marriage and family therapist in San Francisco and the author of The Mindful Relationship.
Here are nine things you can do to feel supported and stable as you figure out what’s going on in your relationship and decide whether to work through the affair (if one, in fact, happened) or move on.
1. Enlist the Help of a Therapist
Before you confirm whether or not your partner is cheating on you, the fact that you have suspicions is a red flag. It points to a lack of security in the relationship and warrants the support of a neutral third party, says Korshak. “A good therapist can give you the support and tools you need to discuss these issues directly with your partner, identify and grieve whatever may not be working in your relationship, address these issues in your life, and help you develop a self-care plan.”
2. Regulate Your Nervous System
Cheating can activate the autonomic nervous system, says Lee Phillips, EdD, LCSW, a psychotherapist and certified sex and couples therapist in New York City and McLean, Virginia. This primal defense system puts you into a state of fight-or-flight, making it difficult to stay emotionally regulated and solve complex problems with advanced reasoning skills. In other words, it’s not the best headspace to initiate a difficult conversation. “Self-care is always important because it can help you cope with the anger, shock, and anxiety that both people may have. Exercise and eating healthy can help regulate the nervous system,” he explains.
3. Reach Out to Your Loved Ones for Support
Now’s a good time to pick up the phone and lean on your support network. You’ll need people you love and trust to rally around you during this difficult time, notes a study published in January 2022 in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. “Enlisting support does not mean you have to tell everyone that you suspect your partner is cheating before you speak with your partner,” says Korshak. “Rather, it means that you are getting your need for social support met through peers and supportive people who you can open up to should the need arise.”
4. Calmly Confront Your Partner About Your Suspicions
Before jumping to conclusions, give your partner a chance to explain. If you come out guns blazing, it could turn into a screaming match. Write out your list of concerns and approach the conversation from a place of observation and curiosity, says Korshak. “After all, you don’t know for sure that they are cheating, and the confrontation should be aimed at learning what is actually going on,” she explains.
5. Focus on the Facts Without Blaming
Calmly initiate the conversation by listing your observations. For example, “I’ve noticed you get upset when I look at your phone. You take it away quickly. Is there something I should know?” Try to approach it from a place of curiosity, without judgment or blame. “This may sound like a softer approach than one might initially be drawn to, but this approach provides a safe space and a possibility for your partner to come forward and tell you the truth. If they do, you can dialogue further about what to do,” says Korshak.
6. Allow Yourself to Feel and Name Your Emotions
Depending on your partner’s response, emotions can get heated. Give yourself grace, as you wouldn’t be the first person to lose it after such a startling revelation. If you need to take a breather for a minute, do so. “Allow yourself to feel emotions and name them rather than berating your partner,” says Korshak. For example, “I’m so angry, I’m in disbelief.”
If your partner denies cheating and you suspect they are lying, don’t allow yourself to be talked out of your reality. Take some time to process your emotions and try again another time. You may consider staying with a friend or relative for the time being.
7. Ask Your Partner Why They Cheated
If cheating did occur, the number one thing that people want to know is the motive, says Dr. Phillips. “There are many reasons why someone cheats. The person usually does not cheat to hurt their partner maliciously, but rather because something is missing from their life,” he explains.
To help put the pieces together, ask your partner for clarification with some of these questions, keeping in mind that the answers may sting:
- What did the cheating mean to you?
- Was it just sex or something else?
- Were you looking for it, or did it just happen?
- Did it have to do with unmet needs?
- Do you feel guilt or shame?
- Can you understand my hurt?
8. Decide Whether You Want to Work It Out
Once everything is out in the open, it’s time to decide what comes next. Research published in Sexual and Relationship Therapy in April 2021 found that infidelity is the second most difficult issue to treat in therapy, after domestic abuse. But if you and your partner both want to succeed, there is hope. “Cheating is a wake-up or a breakup,” says Phillips. “A therapist can hold a safe, nonjudgmental space for both partners to understand what happened and heal the rupture of their relationship.”
9. Continue on Your Self-Care Journey
Whether you decide to stay or go, reading about infidelity can help you feel less alone. Korshak recommends The State of Affairs, by Esther Perel, After the Affair, by Janis Spring, and Transcending Post-Infidelity Stress Disorder, by Dennis Ortman. “By refilling your own cup, you will feel more resourced and regulated,” she says. “A self-care plan will help you address where you might be needing more in your life.”