Dear Neil: I was dating the most wonderful girl in the world. The only girl who I have thought about being with for the rest of my life. She was the best thing that ever happened to me—and I cheated on her. I don’t know why I cheated, but I did. I am twenty-three and lost without her. Is there anyway I could get her back? Anyway to make her trust me again?
Sleepless in New York
Dear Sleepless: When it is discovered, infidelity hits with tremendous force. It decimates the betrayed partner’s self-esteem, ruptures trust, destabilizes the relationship and throws the future into question.
The majority of intimate relationships, in my experience, never recover from a major betrayal of this type. Once trust is ruptured, it is very difficult to regain the automatic, unthinking, innocent level of trust and respect that the betrayed person once felt for the other.
That being said, restoring trust after a betrayal is indeed possible if both people are willing. Here’s how:
- Be willing to have an open discussion about what led to the betrayal and how the two of you are going to prevent its reoccurrence. Don’t know what led to the betrayal? Then find a competent guide (psychotherapist, trusted religious advisor, etc.) and figure out why—and be sure you share every important detail of this process with your girlfriend.
- Look at what changes need to be made in the relationship. How can the two of you build deeper warmth, connection, engagement and closeness with each other?
- As I have said in the past, the key to forgiveness is hearing the heartfelt apology of the person who wronged you. For an apology to be meaningful, a betrayer cannot gloss over the incident and merely mumble “I’m sorry.” Rather, you must account for your actions and empathize with how the betrayed person feels. Empathy is vital; it is what allows you as the betrayer to prove that you understand and feel remorseful over the pain and suffering that your girlfriend has gone through.
- For an apology to be satisfactory, you must acknowledge wrongdoing and take responsibility for your behavior. You might, for instance, say to your girlfriend “I’m sorry I betrayed your trust in me. I know that I hurt you, and I deeply regret that. I will never do this again. What would it take for you to give me another chance? I promise I will never betray your trust again.” Do not rationalize or justify your behavior—now or ever.
- Offer your girlfriend at least ten times the amount of reassurance you think she needs. I am not exaggerating. Your girlfriend’s self-esteem, feelings of attractiveness and her sense of her own desirability will likely need all the reassurance they can get for awhile.
- Some questions to expect from your girlfriend, and for you to answer openly, honestly and completely: Who? Where? How long? Where and when did you meet? Do you love her? Who else knows? Do you love me?
This is an opportunity for the two of you as a couple to do some powerful dialoging about how you’d like your relationship to be different, and what the relationship needs in order for the two of you to be at a far deeper intimacy level than you were before.