Keep Exploring

Ask a Therapist: How to Repair Trust After Infidelity?

Relationships, Ask a Therapist
6 min read

Dear Therapist: I lied to a partner to cover up an infidelity committed before we had officially defined the relationship but while we were dating in a serious way. I lied multiple times to cover it up because I thought it would hurt him to find out and that it wouldn't be beneficial to tell him. This was gaslighting and wrong. How do we re-build trust in the relationship without sacrificing all privacy? He wants access to all text messages and photos of mine and I want to rebuild trust but in a healthy way. What are some ways to do this?

Frame therapist Audrey Martinez weighs in…
This is a tough situation. It sounds like both you and your partner want to continue the relationship and, more importantly, it sounds like you have started to express remorse and ownership for the past infidelity. It is important to discuss the impact of infidelity on the person who has been cheated on to help understand the rationale for tips that will be discussed in the paragraphs to follow. 

For clarity, this article will focus on repair from infidelity where remorse is shown and both parties have agreed on a course of healing. This discussion will not focus on infidelity that is repetitive and remorse is not shown. In circumstances where remorse is not shown, it may not be healthy for the relationship to continue. 

When infidelity occurs, the partner who has been cheated on will experience trauma-like symptoms (Gottman, 2022):

  • They will experience intrusive memories of the affair, which means that they may have memories of the affair pop into mind randomly throughout their day. They may experience emotional and/or physical distress in response to these images.
  • The partner might have bad dreams with themes of betrayal.
  • They may experience hyper-vigilance and edginess when presented with situations that trigger, or remind, them of the affair. Said another way, your partner may be on guard for signs of current or future behaviors indicative of cheating.
  • They may experience anxiety and irritation when they find themselves confronted with reminders of the affair, so if the infidelity occurred while you were out with friends then your partner may feel anxious when you go out without them.
  • Added to this, they will experience a breakdown of concepts like trust, safety, esteem, and may feel unable to be close to others.

While it makes sense that you wanted to avoid hurting your partner, hiding the infidelity did just that and the act of covering it further harmed the concept of trust. However, it is still possible to recover from the infidelity but you may need to dig deep to help repair the hurt. 

In this instance, your partner was at no fault for the cheating. That’s not to say that the relationship was perfect but the act of cheating was one hundred percent a voluntary act and recovering from it will require total ownership for both the cheating behavior and the deception used to hide it.

The Gottman Institute describes a method of healing from affairs called the "Trust Revival Method” and it has three steps that include Atonement, Attunement, and Attachment.

  1. In Atonement phase, you will take complete responsibility for your actions. Again, this is not to say that the other party is an angel but the act to stray was voluntary and should be acknowledged as such. This means stating things like, “I cheated on you. It was wrong. I hurt you. I lied about it and that hurt you as well.”

    It’s tempting to say, “I’m sorry” and want to move on, but sorry can feel empty to the offended party. Ownership. Raw ownership is healing. Also, if your partner is expressing the need for full transparency, if you want this relationship to heal you must surrender privacy for the time being. Again, it was a choice to cheat and cover it up. The act of compassionately responding to your partner’s triggers with honesty and transparency can go a long way to help them heal from broken trust. When the need for transparency has been filled, your partner will no longer seek it but not leaning into transparency will give off an appearance of secrecy and defensiveness.


    Your partner will need to be willing to forgive and they will need to convey anger in a healthy way (i.e., they are not allowed name calling, stonewalling, contempt, or other forms of abuse).

  2. In the Attune phase, you will start discussing and healing from problems that lead to the original affair. You will also need to build a new relationship because all the elements of a healthy relationship were damaged by the affair and lying.

  3. In the Attachment phase, you can work on rebuilding emotional and sexual intimacy.
If both parties are willing to engage in the heavy work of repairing post affair, it is totally possible to recover. However, it means that both of you will have to actively work through uncomfortable topics including relinquishment of privacy in the short term. 

---

About the author: Audrey Martinez, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist. She runs a private practice in the greater Los Angeles area and specializes in treating survivors of war, rape, disasters, or other tragedies. Dr. Martinez also helps adults overcome the effects of childhood physical abuse and emotional abuse that results in problems such as chronic depression, anxiety, low self-worth, people pleasing, co-dependency, anger, and relationship problems. Connect directly, and read more of Dr. Martinez's work by viewing her Frame profile here. 


Have a question you'd like to "Ask a Therapist"? Submit Your Question Here

** This blog series is not suited for people who are in immediate crisis. If you are in crisis, please call National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or contact Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.