Is a relationship totally doomed if you catch your mate cheating on you in a hotel on the same night that you return from vacation? My boyfriend says he realizes his mistake. He has apologized and says he wants to make things work. Can trust be built again, or should I just walk away? —G.W.
No, your relationship is not necessarily doomed. But before you agree to stick it out with your mate, I want you to consider a few thoughts.
This used to be a question that caused me a great deal of conflict to answer. I want to see relationships work, and I acknowledge that people make mistakes. I also know that at least 45 percent of married women cheat, and 50 percent of married men do the same, according to the Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy. You can imagine that the numbers are higher for couples who haven't upped the stakes by vowing fidelity before their God, their family and all of their friends.
Advising people to leave means that a whole lot of them would be packing their stuff. I also hesitated to say it because infidelity is something that can be worked through, if both parties are willing to put in the work (see my tips below).
It became significantly easier to say "Walk!" without hesitation last year when I moderated a relationship panel with six celebrity men. The topic of infidelity came up, of course, and it was Jeff Johnson who broke it down. As a self-confessed reformed cheater, he advised unmarried women who are in relationships not to stay and work it out when someone cheats.
His logic went something like this: When an unmarried man cheats, it's a flagrant sign that his partner is not "the one." You are perceived as a placeholder while he looks for her. Men cheat only on women they do not value, because when they do value a woman, they don't put the relationship in jeopardy. They put in the work to make the relationship work.
When he finished, the other men onstage — Lamman Rucker, journalist Ed Gordon, Finesse Mitchell, Darren Sharper, actor Hill Harper and Mr. Marcus (yes, the porn star) — applauded him for keeping it real.
Ever since then I've been hyperaware of patterns surrounding the topic of infidelity. One is that of all the times I'm asked, "D, what do I do?" it's never a man seeking help.
Of course men get cheated on, and it's devastating to them in much the same ways it is for women. But they tend not to want to work it out. There's ego involved, and, too, loyalty consistently ranks among the top three traits that men look for in a partner. Cheating is a huge sign that someone lacks it. Women would do well to acknowledge this, too.
The other pattern that strikes me is just how many cheaters acknowledge, by their actions, that they aren't where they really want to be, but still they stick out a relationship and, essentially, settle. I've also heard many men argue that cheating isn't necessarily indicative of how they feel about the relationship. They tell me that sex can be the emotional equivalent of eating a sandwich. It's like, "I was hungry and so I ate. The end."
While I recognize these men's ability to compartmentalize in a way that most women can't, I don't buy that it's just that simple. One of the signs that you want to be with someone else is that you've been with someone else. Whether you're the cheater or the person being cheated on, continuing on with a partner who is good enough for now is a lose-lose for both parties.
That being said, if you still want to work it out, here's a five-step plan:
1. Stop having sex for three months.
That's not an arbitrary time frame or a punishment. It is, however, how long it can take for HIV antibodies to show up in test results. Insist that your partner get tested for sexually transmitted infections and HIV when the deadline is up. If he or she balks, call it a wrap.
2. Vent (to your partner).
You need to get it off your chest, and your partner needs to understand the impact of the infidelity on you and your relationship.
It's also time to go over the boundaries of what is acceptable to you and what is not. Make it clear that there are no second chances, and if this happens again, you're out — for good.
3. Address the core issue or issues that led to the infidelity. (Otherwise it will happen again.)
That means you're going to have to talk to your partner about what he or she believes he or she may not be getting from you and looked elsewhere to find. Does your partner need to feel more appreciated? Is your mate feeling supported? Whatever the issue, don't drive yourself more crazy guessing at how to address the problem. Ask for specific examples of what you can do to show "appreciation" or "support."
You'll also likely want to know exactly what happened, since the best way to combat lies is with truth. This conversation will also allow you to gauge the level of deceit by your partner. If you're on the fence about working it out, knowing can help you decide whether it's worth the effort.
This can be a hard conversation. However, if your partner wants to make the relationship work, then he or she will make the effort.
Wrap up this conversation (or series of them) by setting a continual schedule for when the two of you will check in with each other to assess the relationship and address any wants, needs and concerns.
4. Look for action.
Your trust has been violated. You need to see action from your partner that he or she is committed and worthy of being trusted again.
This is a day-by-day process. There's a reason that infidelity is oft referred to as something couples "survive," not "get over."
If you still decide to work it out, you've got a hard row to hoe, G.W. I hope you and your partner are up for the challenge. Be patient, and good luck!
Demetria L. Lucas is a contributing editor to The Root, and the author of A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life. She answers your dating and relationship questions on The Root each week. Feel free to ask anything at firstname.lastname@example.org.