Leaving After Cheating–To Divorce or Not


by Marla Keller
(Adapted from the article written for meaningfulmommag.com)

Note: If you are in a relationship where you are afraid for your safety physically and/or emotionally, please find a safe place to go, and leave immediately. Call this number if you do not have a safe place to go: National Domestic Hotline 800-799-7233.

To be clear from the beginning, cheating is a very broad-spectrum word, and every person has their internal boundaries regarding what is and what is not okay for their partner to do. Viewing pornography secretly for some is cheating, having an emotional affair or a “work wife/husband” for others is cheating, and being a flirty, really nice guy is not okay for others. And the bottom line that we have come to with over 20 years of helping couples repair after the affair is that affairs are always about approval. It’s not about the sex, and it’s not about the emotional connection. It’s about the need for approval and the adrenaline rush that comes with doing something “forbidden.”

My choice to stay was my shear will to do whatever it took, and then I’d know I’d done everything if it didn’t work out. It was also Jami coming to the healing table with humility, sorrow, empathy, rigorous honesty, vulnerability, and the decision to get whatever help he needed to find healing for his desperate need for approval. These are all key components to healing and while they don’t have to have all of them at first, they do all have to be open to discovering them and practicing these “skills” to heal a relationship. And it was a good choice. It doesn’t always end up that way…

In my previous blog I shared with you my story about staying. And I often say that I would go through it all again, as hellish as it was, to be here now in this beautiful love story. In light of this, friends, be compassionate towards your girlfriends/friends who have chosen to stay even though you don’t get it, and every fiber in your being is telling you to tell them to leave. We all have our stories, our reasons, and our consequences, some of which can be very beautiful in the end. If you haven’t already read the blog, and are in limbo about staying or leaving, here is the link so that you can see both sides before deciding.

Over the course of 20+ years of being relationship coaches, there have been a few times that Jami and I have recommended separation/divorce. Actually, I can count on one hand how many times that has happened, and we have coached hundreds of couples. Ninety-five percent of the time, the relationship is not only fixable, it turns into a love of a lifetime. I realize that sounds sappy and sentimental and gooey, but I’m being for-real here. True story.

Following my blog on Staying After He Cheats, I received a comment from a woman who expressed that, after trying everything following her spouses’ affair, she chose to leave. She had been involved with a very selfish man, whom she identified later as being highly narcissistic (a look at clinical narcissism HERE). This was my response to her:

“Thank you, _________. Sometimes, like in your situation, you are healthier because you didn’t stay together. And being with a true narcissist, which Jami was not, is very destructive to your self-love [and worth]. A great book I read recently on narcissism talks specifically to the choice to stay with the narcissist, and clearly states that you will have to have an immense amount of empathy and patience, and stay strong in your own emotional well-being, and you may see changes over time for the positive. It’s a very long game and a very difficult one. The title of the book is Disarming the Narcissist and we highly recommend it for both those who choose to stay and those, like you, who separate. And there is no shame in choosing the later. I’m proud of you and your journey of healing!”

She made the painful, and powerful, choice to leave. And she still feels the echoes from that relationship, but is on a healing path. It is vital to do the healing work for yourself no matter what your choice about staying in a relationship.

There are 4 circumstances when we decisively  recommend divorce or separation.

  1. Physical Abuse—Physical abuse does not necessarily leave bruises. Pushing, grabbing, forceful sex (when not mutually agreed upon ahead of time), etc., are definitively physical abuse. As is a partner who fits the description above for narcissism.
  2. Emotional Abuse—Emotional abuse can be even harder to identify. An exceptionally bad fight does not mean your partner is emotionally abusive. Here is a link to a great Huffington Post article by Abby Rodman  She describes emotional abuse this way: “You’re filled with a sickening dread every morning knowing you’re facing another day of psychological warfare. You’re perpetually drained because all your energy is expended trying to keep your partner happy (and, you’ll eventually come to realize, those efforts are in vain). You’re nauseous, anxious, fearful — one or all — when interacting with your partner. This is your life every other minute of every day.”
  3. Your Partner Isn’t Interested in Working On Your Relationship—He calls you crazy, jealous, ridiculous. She continues to keep secrets from you, and doesn’t allow you full access to her phone, email accounts, social media passwords, etc. You have done everything, you have gotten help yourself, and your partner believes you have the problem and they don’t think they have a part to play in the tensions within your relationship. Friends, it takes two to tango. It is never one-sided. Yes, take personal responsibility for your crap. And realize that these are all red flags. There needs to be rigorous honesty, vulnerability, accountability, and a clear path of healing your partner’s need for approval implemented into your relationship after an affair for trust to be rebuilt. And stop blaming yourself, and start loving yourself by getting the heck out of that one-sided, unhealthy relationship. You’re worth it!
  4. The “I’m just a flirty [or super friendly] person, and you’ll have to get over it” partner—NOT okay, especially when there has been cheating. She cannot continue to flirt for you to be able to trust her again. His heart and his gaze belongs to you, not any pretty girl that flutters her eyelashes in his direction. And he needs to be open to you saying, “Hey, I’m not comfortable with that girl. Please be extra careful.” Trust your intuition, and know that if he’s flirty in front of you, it’s probably more so when you’re not around.

Take note that cheating is not one of the reasons to leave, but if cheating continues along with one or more of the above reasons to leave, then I think you have your answer. Cheating has it’s health risks for you both, so your personal safety is at risk.

I have people, both men and women, tell me all of the time that they could never stay with someone who cheated on them. Heck, I said it all of the time before I knew. But you really don’t know how you’ll react until you’re in it. And there are so many voices telling you to get the hell out of Dodge. You are the only one who can decide what you’re willing to go through to find healing in your current relationship.

And honestly, if Jami had been constantly defensive and unaccountable, telling me to “Get over it already,” I promise you that I would have been out of there. And my story would be very different. Here me clearly when I say it’s not okay to live in that space where you are not allowed to share your broken heart without fear of the negative response you will get from sharing your pain.

To stay or to leave… Follow the compass of your heart as you make note of the 4 reasons above. If your lover falls into one of those bullet points, confront that and let them know that it is not okay, and that to have healing you will need a few things from them. If they are open, awesome! Move forward in healing with them. If not, your exit path will be more clear. And if you need any extra help with either choice, you can email me at [email protected] or through our Contact Form. I wish you well along the way, and honor your decision.

*Listen to Betsy Chasse, Director of What the Bleep Do We Know, interview me about my articles for Meaningful Mom about Trust, Marriage, Infidelity and how you can build your own foundation of trust with in you! Listen now!