How Do I Fix Trust Issues After Being Caught Cheating?

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

I cheated on my girlfriend. Yes, I’m a cheater and I’ll never live it down. I don’t deserve forgiveness. I don’t deserve her, period! I made the biggest mistake of my life and now I’m on the verge of losing the only person in this world that I can’t live without.

The backstory is that I got too close to a coworker and let my worst instincts get the best of me. We were together 10 or 12 times and I kept rationalizing it somehow in my head. Like, I knew it wasn’t going to be a long-term thing, but I selfishly wanted “strange” sex before the prospect of no longer having it disappeared forever. There was also a time when my girlfriend made out with a guy in a bar. I know that’s not on the same level as what I did—not even close. I just think it was part of my stupid rationalization. I feel so ashamed and disgusted with myself.

I ended things with the other girl the same day I was caught, but obviously my girlfriend doesn’t trust me now. I don’t really blame her. She says she doesn’t think she can ever trust me again. I have offered to give her all my passwords and go to counseling, whatever it takes, but she says she’s not sure it would matter. Knowing I broke her heart is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to know.

She is taking some time to think about things, and she doesn’t want me to call or text her until she figures out what she wants to do. I am giving her the space she asked for. I am just hoping that when we talk again I can reassure her that I can be trusted. I want to make things right. I know I would never make a mistake like that again, but fixing her trust issues feels impossible. Help! I’ll do anything. —Astray

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Dear Astray,

Thank you for writing. I’m not here to judge. Besides, judgment befogs understanding.

I feel your remorse. This does not mean I want to downplay the harm your behavior has caused to all three parties, including yourself and, presumably, your coworker. Sometimes such actions are indicative of a deeper issue that is not resolved by altering the offending behavior.

I urge you to focus on yourself during this “trial” time needed by your girlfriend. (I would take it as a good sign, by the way, she did not end it outright. The two of you must have built a strong connection prior to your affair.)

You can’t make her trust you again. It may sound counterintuitive, but the best thing you can do for her is to come to a rigorously honest (and empathic) understanding of yourself and what might have motivated this. You might consider couples counseling—or, if she is not willing, individual counseling in the name of compassionate but unyielding self-reflection. Here is an opportunity for a reckoning that could greatly benefit you and your relationship, assuming it survives. Even if it doesn’t, it would benefit your next one.

There is a stark up/down contrast in your descriptions of your girlfriend versus sex with your coworker, which might reflect a good/bad way of perceiving yourself. To hear you tell it, your girlfriend sounds almost unassailably perfect or wholesome (“up”), while your desire for sex with the coworker is “strange” or almost seedy-sounding (“down”). This is a bit of a catch-22 in that you appear to judge something that also remains desirable, that you have misgivings about letting go of “forever.”

You can’t make her trust you again. It may sound counterintuitive, but the best thing you can do for her is to come to a rigorously honest (and empathic) understanding of yourself and what might have motivated this.

You might be surprised at the relatively simple human desires that become camouflaged in sexuality, which itself becomes a way of attaching to a desired other. Perhaps sex with your coworker was a way of soothing whichever vulnerable part of you felt “less than.” Perhaps sharing your vulnerability with your girlfriend felt too risky. (This is all speculation, mind you. I’m just reflecting on examples I have come across over the years.)

You also describe yourself as the lowest of the low, which indicates a struggle for self-esteem or perhaps some self-loathing that was likely present (perhaps unconsciously) before all this started. The behavior confirms what lies dormant. It is as if some part of you were saying, “Go ahead and mess around with your coworker. You don’t deserve your girlfriend anyway. You’re only going to lose her once she discovers the ‘real you,’ so why not?” I imagine this all fed into your rationalizing.

Or, quite possibly, there was a rebellion against feeling less than (“no woman will tell me what I can or can’t do!”)—an assertion of sorts of your freedom before giving up something “forever.” Maybe there was a combination of these two (or more) threads running through this sexual detour.

As for “fixing” your girlfriend’s trust issues, decisive action on your part would go a long way toward showing her you mean business: a genuine effort to understand not just that your behavior was painful, but that something else was “off”—and owning it, examining it, and working on it. Nothing is more courageous than facing one’s own psychological struggles. It never ceases to amaze me how many are simply too afraid or unwilling to do this. Many would rather just “change the channel” or “swipe left” and forget it.

Showing her that you want to use this crisis as an opportunity to better understand yourself, which can only broaden your relational and sexual options in the long run, might show her you intend to grow from this. You might even start to see her as an equal, as opposed to her holding a standard you can never reach (which might create unconscious stress, resentment, self-criticism, and so on).

The worst thing you can do is try to shove all this back in the closet and quickly move on. Doing so practically ensures it will happen again in some other form. I can assure you there is nothing innately “bad” about what is behind this. You may discover, with help and diligence, that what lies behind it all is something stunningly human.

In the meantime, be patient and accepting of what your girlfriend needs. Talk is indeed cheap. Show her you will do what it takes to make this right. If you’re going to earn back her trust, it will start with respecting her needs during this difficult time. If you use the space to work on yourself, you will be better prepared to provide what she needs in the future.

Best wishes,

Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT

Darren Haber
Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT is a psychotherapist specializing in treating alcoholism and drug addiction as well as co-occurring issues such as anxiety, depression, relationship concerns, secondary addictions (especially sex addiction), and trauma (both single-incident and repetitive). He works in a variety of modalities, primarily cognitive behavioral, spiritual/recovery-based, and psychodynamic. He is certified in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and continues to receive psychodynamic training in treating relational trauma, including emotional abuse/neglect and physical and sexual abuse.
  • 4 comments
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  • Carie

    Carie

    June 19th, 2018 at 8:38 AM

    You messed up, dude, now let her find a better man. Hopefully you learned your lesson and won’t repeat the same mistakes in future relationships.

  • Nicole

    Nicole

    June 20th, 2018 at 3:10 AM

    Hi Darren,
    I have been a holistic psychotherapist almost 45 years and your comments are some of the best I’ve ever read on this topic. Not only are they beautifully written, in a compassionate caring tone, but they are incredibly insightful.
    Keep writing and sharing your wisdom, the world is definitely a better place for it.
    All the best,
    Nicole S. Urdang

  • Jody

    Jody

    June 20th, 2018 at 5:23 AM

    “…give her space”?
    “…her trust issues”?
    Yes, it’s wonderful that this guy is seeking help. Fundamentally, he lacks respect for his gf (maybe women in general) and his choice in language/framing reveals much. May this guy indeed find a therapist who non-judgmentally attends to the aforementioned (rather than coddling that patriarchal stance), and may his gf realize that the problem runs very deep and will manifest in many ways (not just cheating).

  • Jennifer

    Jennifer

    July 12th, 2018 at 9:33 PM

    I cheated on my husband with the same man and was caught multiple times last summer. I ended it last September and my husband, who had moved out, moved back in. This past year was very tense. My husband was traumatized but I saw it as controlling. He would pack up everything he owned every 2-3 days and load his car, only to go to sleep and unload the next morning. This went on for months. I never realized that he was in pain and I was not helping, I was hurting him by not being there for him. My affair partner contacted me in May and for 2 weeks, we talked, texted and I saw him in public briefly 2 times. My husband found out and moved out. I am COMPLETELY remorseful and very upset. I want my marriage to last! My husband has had VERY LITTLE contact with me. It’s been over 6 weeks. He blocked my phone, my facebook and did not respond to emails for 3 weeks. When he finally started responding to my apologetic, loving emails, he was SO VERY angry! He was responding to some of my emails for the past 3 weeks and now, as of yesterday is not responding at all! He has sent separation papers and told me that he will not open his heart to me again and that he is separating from me whether I want to or not and that if we are meant to be, then we will get together after that. I am devastated! I don’t want this separation of a divorce! We have 5 children and he has had VERY LITTLE contact with them. He has moved in with his parents but is moving into a condo soon. He told me 20 year old this yesterday. What does it mean that he refuses to see me(I have gently tried twice), refuses to hear my voice, and is not even responding to my emails anymore? He fought for our marriage for over a year. My counselor has told me how hard he was fighting when I was so involved with the affair partner. She said that she thinks he still loves me but he is so very angry and has lost all trust. I am afraid he is distancing himself from me and the kids so that he will not have any feelings until he has legally separated from me. In the agreement, which is very unfair, and I am not signing, he gave me the house and ALL of the furnishings. He didn’t ask for one thing, which to me says he doesn’t want any memories of our life together. He has loved me completely for 27 years(3 dating, 2 married). He adored me! He has told friends he thought he had the perfect life. He has NEVER looked at another woman and until this, I had never looked at another man. Finally, his lawyer told my lawyer(they are friends, I know…) that my husband told his lawyer to do this quickly so “I don’t change my mind”. He did send a separation agreement last summer when the affair was going on but ended up coming home. He was never gone more than 6 weeks, until now. It’s been 6 weeks and 2 days. Do you have any information that may help me figure out what I should do and if there seems to be any hope for my marriage? Help please!!

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