How to react to infidelity

The rug has been pulled from under your feet. In shock, you wonder if it’s all just a nightmare. Vivid and painful physical sensations have plunged you into an unprecedented state of distress. You’re worried that your suffering, anger and sadness will be never-ending.

The pain of discovering a love or sexual betrayal can be absolutely devastating. For certain people, this behavior, no matter the context, is simply unforgivable.

For others, the response is ambivalence: “I don’t know what to do, I hate him/her, but I don’t want to leave, I don’t want to abandon our family… but I don’t know if I’ll be able to forgive, and much less how to”.

In this article, we will provide avenues that suggest that reconstruction of the relationship is possible, and tips that can lead to forgiveness.

1. Identify and express your feelings and needs

Anger. Rage. Disgust. Sadness. Fear. Lightheadedness. Humiliation. For certain people, these emotions will arise very rapidly. For others, the initial shock and a feeling of disbelief will take up all the space. Take the time to feel and express what is happening inside of you, as your feelings become clearer. Ask your partner to listen to you. Remember that the expression of anger is natural and even desirable, but not violence, either physical or verbal.

If you want physical proximity, ask for it. If you need distance, say it. It’s normal to go from one state to the other, as it is also normal to feel a stronger sexual desire, as it is also normal, inversely, to want to sleep in different rooms, if not to be totally disgusted by your partner.

Trust the journey without self-guilt. You are suffering a psychological trauma and your emotions are completely natural.

2. Ask the right questions

It is possible that multiple questions invade you. It is possible that, rapidly, you have asked, and even imposed, answers from your partner. It is also possible that questions dance inside your head without ever being said out loud. With whom did it happen? When? Where? How many times? In which position?

Esther Perel, psychologist and author of the book “The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity”, who specializes in infidelity, suggests to go from “detective-like” questions, that are searching for facts, to an “investigative” approach, that would be leaning more towards the meaning of what happened for the partners involved and the relationship.

A neon sign in the shape of a question mark illuminating a dark, tagged alley, a visual metaphor for questions and the search for meaning after infidelity, inspired by Esther Perel's advice to shift the search for facts towards a deeper understanding of repercussions on the relationship.
  • What did the affair mean to you? 
  • Why did it happen then?
  • Were you looking for it? Did it just happen?
  • Did you feel guilty?
  • What did you discover about yourself in that relationship? 
  • Was your lover someone you thought you could build a life with?
  • How important was sex in this relationship? 
  • Did your affair having anything to do with something missing in our sex life?
  • Did you ever worry that your affair would destroy our relationship?
  • Do you think your affair may have ultimately been good for our relationship or do you think it created permanent damage? Are you sure that you want to be with me? 
  • Did you come back to me, or to our family? 
  • What would have been your biggest loss in the life we have built? 
  • How do you think you can bring what you discovered in your affair into our relationship? 
  • What do you think are the strong parts of our relationship?
  • What is it about us that you value most?
  • What are some things we can do together to make our relationship stronger?
  • Do you think you’ve changed your values in relation to monogamy?

It is not recommended to ask graphic questions about your partner’s sexual activities. Nor to read the messages exchanged between him.her and his.her lover. It’s the kind of information that can hurt more, without providing the really important information that helps understand the affair.

3. Look for allies

It is very helpful to have at least one close friend who is aware of the situation, who does not judge, but who is there to listen to you. It is very appeasing to be able to express the emotional charge to someone other than your partner. This friend can also help you boost your self-esteem, which has probably taken a blow during this crisis. This person will remind you that you have great qualities, and show you that you are worthy of love and respect. He/she will either be able to speak about the affair, or distract you if you need a break from it all.

Two people sitting side by side on a ledge, their postures reflecting a closeness and complicity that could be tested by the themes of infidelity discussed in the article.

4. Monitor the progression of pain

According to the psychotherapist Mira Kirshenbaum, author of the book Too good to leave, too bad to stay, if you see a decrease in the pain caused by the betrayal over time, there are chances your relationship can be fixed.

Signs of evolution to look for

Short term (first month), the pain starts to decrease. You can discuss subjects other than the betrayal, without tears or anger, even if you still feel defensive. You feel slight signs of hope that the relationship could be mended. You find your old gestures of intimacy again from time to time.

Medium term (after a few months) you have started your normal activities together again, you are able to discuss your problems and the impact of the infidelity in an efficient way and without avoidance.

After the first year: You notice that you can spend a couple of months in a row, two or three, where the relationship is stable, “like before”. You can hear your partner talking about the betrayal without becoming too overwhelmed. You can talk about what happened without feeling the same pain as before and without going down a spiral of pain and anger.

This may vary from one individual to the next. A rather optimistic person, who has demonstrated a capacity to forgive other “crimes” in the relationship, who is generally not too resentful, can recover more rapidly; while someone else who has suffered many traumas or losses can recover much slower. What’s important isn’t the speed, but the fact that a progression exists.

5. Notice the behavior of the person who has betrayed

One of the conditions for forgiveness is the capacity for remorse of the person who has committed the act of betrayal. A partner who doesn’t minimise the gravity of his.her actions, who suffers to see his.her partner in pain, who sees the impacts of his.her actions, who is even able to say “in your place, I would suffer a great deal, I would be angry, and even destroyed too”.

A partner who is truly sorry will often suggest concrete ways of repair and transparency. He/she will be patient and understanding of his/her partner’s mistrust, which is natural and can last a while.


The impact of the wound caused by betrayal can be too great for any repair to be possible or desirable. And, without finding the path to forgiveness, we cannot find the path back to the relationship. 

Forgiveness is a psychological ability, a conscious effort, a way that can even be spiritual. 

The road to repair can be done with success by couples in their intimacy. Others will need professional help to get through this crisis and evaluate their aptitude for reconstruction. 

A relationship can become even deeper, more significant and even satisfying, if this wound is integrated and well healed by partners together as a team. The betrayal will be part of your life story and will show you the parts where the relationship probably needed attention, and how the partners need to grow. 

You can count on our specialists’ help to bring you on the path of authentic and healthy communication. We can guide you in couple or individual therapy. You don’t need to go through this crisis alone! To take an appointment, click here.

a couple with their hands touching and showing their wedding rings. Showing strength and reunion after a difficult time
Profil photo of Bianca Saia
article written by:
Bianca Saia
Founder, Relationship Therapist
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  • Polyamory and Non-Conventional Relationship Therapy

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