rilueda for Getty Images
rilueda for Getty Images

If you’ve been in a relationship where there’s been infidelity, you know how much damage it can cause. Research indicates that partners who were cheated on often display symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), according to Dr. Brittany Lakin-Starr, a psychologist at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago.

“After someone cheats, trust is broken, and the partner who was hurt will need time and space to sort through their feelings,” says Lakin-Starr, adding that the betrayal is deep because the person who was supposed to love and cherish the partner the most is the one who causes this painful hurt.

What does research show happens after the affair? Does the conventional wisdom of “once a cheater, always a cheater” hold up?

Yes and no. One study found that 30% of people who had cheated on their partner in a prior relationship reported also cheating on their current partner in a committed relationship, while only 13% of people who had never cheated before reported being unfaithful to their current partner. But that still means that 70% of former cheaters were not repeating the action with their current partner. Other findings included:

  • Men were more likely than women to report physical or emotional intimacy with someone other than their partner either online or in “real life.”
  • Women with higher education were more likely to report attraction to others online than less educated women.
  • Women whose previous partners had cheated were more likely to cheat themselves.

Lakin-Starr says that cheating comes somewhat naturally for humans, who “are not hardwired to be monogamous.” And, in today’s world, we’re so busy that we don’t always devote the time and attention required to maintain a close relationship. Lakin-Starr advises couples to continue complimenting each other, going on dates and showing admiration.

“Infidelity is a symptom that these emotional needs are not being met in the relationship,” she explains. “Usually, people do not 'go looking’ for an affair. On the contrary, affairs often begin as innocent friendships where the emotional attachment unexpectedly grows into something more.”

For couples hoping to move forward and rebuild their relationship following infidelity, Lakin-Starr specifically recommends Gottman Couples Therapy, which she says can help couples repair and strengthen their relationships. “This particular therapy focuses on atonement, attunement (reconnecting and communicating) and attachment (redefining relationship goals, rituals and dreams) following infidelity,” she says. “Therapy can help couples regain trust, look at the relationship difficulties that led up to the affair, learn how to reconnect with each other, communicate more effectively and mend their relationship.”

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