After an Affair: When It's Okay to Stay

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I learned the hard way that there are not very many places to turn when you've been cheated on that will be supportive of your relationship. Everywhere you go, the advice you'll get is, "You deserve better. Leave the person. They don't love you."

Even in pop culture this is the message. Most songs involving cheating are either from the perspective of the cheater (often even with a sense of pride), or the perspective of the person who's been cheated on saying that they're angry and moving on and better off without the cheating partner.

One thing is true in the messages you get through these media: You deserve better than that. I know I did. But it doesn't necessarily mean the relationship has to end. It's easier to understand the world in black and white, meaning the instinctive–and easiest to stomach–reaction to an affair is the immediate conclusion that the cheater is an unrepentant, irredeemable asshole.

But reality is more complex than that.

Affairs can happen for all kinds of reasons, and in all kinds of relationships–happy ones, strained ones, same-gender ones, different gender ones, monogamous ones, poly or open ones, new ones, well-established ones, the list goes on and on.

Affairs can be committed by all kinds of people, too, including positive, loving ones who have put a lot of good into the relationship. A person can cheat on you and still ultimately be a person who is a positive influence on your life, and that's the part that is harder to comprehend.

People can define cheating differently; for some people it's any flirtatious behavior, while for others it's only certain lines being crossed. But the universal thread that defines cheating is someone stepping beyond the established boundaries of a relationship with someone outside of that relationship. And no matter what, it's always painful.

So why stay?

The obvious answer is, because you still love the person. But I have always firmly believed that love is not always enough to maintain a relationship. Love is beautiful and rare, to be sure, but sometimes strong feelings cannot overcome certain incompatibilities.

It’s hard to know whether this is a hole your relationship will even be capable of fully patching, and harder still (though possibly still more important) to know whether patching it is really what’s best for you anyway. After all, just because the relationship can be fixed doesn’t mean that’s the best course of action.

First of all, you have to keep in mind that this relationship is yours and your partner’s, and no one else’s. You’re the only one who can tell you what’s best for you. It’s okay to ask for advice, but remember that no one knows your relationship as well as you do, and while people close to you can provide a less partial assessment, they’re not in your head or in your heart to know how you feel.

That said, there are so many questions to ask yourself. The first of which is, do you WANT to continue this relationship? And the second and more difficult question is, why?

A lot of people will tell you it’s a bad idea to stay in the relationship because it’s obvious the other person doesn’t care about you, or because if they’ve hurt you once they’ll hurt you again. Once a cheater, always a cheater, right?

But that’s not always true. The real reason it’s a bad idea to stay in the relationship will be if it’s for the wrong reasons for you. Are you staying because you still want this relationship, or because you still want what it used to be or what you were hoping it would be?

Do you want to stay because you still love the person and you believe they love you, or because you only want to believe those things and you’re hoping they’ll be true?

Are you eager for what the relationship still has to bring, or are you simply afraid that you won’t be able to find another relationship that will bring what you were hoping for?

Are you holding onto what the relationship is, or your ideals of the relationship?

Why do you still love the person? Is treating you badly a consistent trait of theirs? If you’re unsure whether you really want to stay with the person, ask yourself whether this relationship is really irreplaceable to you. Is this person giving you anything you couldn’t find from anyone else?

With any luck, if you want to stay, soul-searching will lead you to an understanding that this is a relationship that still offers you happiness, in spite of everything. Take your time coming to this conclusion. You’ll change your mind a lot and that’s okay—don’t make rash decisions.

And then think harder. Beyond your own reasoning for staying, you have a lot more to consider, such as: Will you be willing to work on building trust?

Even though the other person messed up, and it seems unfair that you should have to be putting in work to fix their mistakes, relationships are not about debt. If something needs fixing, you both have to fix it—and you’ll have a lot of work to put into fixing it, not just the one who cheated. Are you prepared for that, and willing to do the work?

This won’t be an easy decision, but the important thing to remember is that it is okay to stay. It’s okay to leave too, and the whole world will be quick to tell you that. But sometimes the world’s response to cheating will make you feel like a fool for following your heart.

It’s okay to love someone who has caused you pain. It’s not easy, and you’ll need to be prepared for a lot of fighting—sometimes you might even be tempted to leave because you’ll come to the realization that ending it might actually be less painful.

But if the relationship is good, and if both people are genuinely dedicated to figuring out what went wrong and fixing it, there will be a light on the other side. It takes time, and fighting, and hurt, and a lot of both of you saying things you might regret saying, but rebuilding is possible.

My biggest struggle was feeling like if I put up with pain I knew I didn’t deserve, that meant I was simply not strong enough to stand up for myself, and it took me a long time to realize that “putting up with pain” wasn’t what I was doing—it was forgiving, and forging through something I knew would be worth it.

You’re not stupid for loving them. You’re not weak for staying. You can recognize that you’ve been wronged, and still see the relationship in all its complexity. You didn’t deserve to be hurt, but you do deserve to keep the love that matters to you, if that’s what you believe is right.

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