How To Rebuild Trust After Cheating (Clues From Research)

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#Cheating is an act of betrayal. Betrayal is a violation of trust. And violations of trust in a relationship are often fuelled by unfulfilled expectations and unmet needs. Click To Tweet

Trust is a personal choice. You can’t make someone trust you.

Even if your friends or coworkers endorse you as the most trustworthy person around, it is still up to a person’s choice to put their trust in you.

Trust has its limits, too. You can’t coerce people to reveal their secrets in the name of building trust.

Now, for any close relationship to thrive, there must be a high level of trust. Still, one partner must not expect the other to share all their passwords. Let them decide, and realize it is entirely up to them.

What Is Cheating?

Cheating can be defined as a behavior that violates an implicit or explicit pact or understanding between a couple in a relationship about what activity is and is not permitted.

What classifies as cheating depends on what a couple jointly defines as a deviation from their mutually set boundaries, as it is unique to every couple. Cheating can be carried out through physical, emotional, or digital means.

Gregory Kushnick, Psy.D. says, “Cheating involves channeling sexual energy or deep, emotional support toward someone who could potentially represent a sexual partner. It usually, but not always, involves some form of deceit and neglect of your partner’s needs.”

Repair & Rebuild Trust After Cheating

Why Do People Cheat?

Since each partner’s behavior affects the other’s judgments and reactions, it is easy to see how trust in a relationship can be potentially fragile.

Trust in a relationship breaks after betrayals, such as after cheating, which is often because of expectations remaining unfulfilled.

  • According to a study in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, people who cheated are 3 times more likely to engage in infidelity again.
  • Anecdotally, people who cheat on a new relationship tend to do so with a previous partner.
  • In a survey of 8,000 people, 62% of men and 57% of women admitted to infidelity while on a work trip.
  • Of men, 40% said they cheated because they wanted more variety in sex; 44% said they cheated because they wanted more sex.
  • Among women, 33% said they cheated because they wanted to feel desired; 50% said they wanted to feel an emotional connection; 11% did it out of revenge.
  • A 2020 survey by Gleeden found almost 77% of Indian women who chose to cheat on their spouses reported they did so because their marriage had become monotonous.
  • Both women and men cheat more during their middle ages. It peaks at 18% for women between the ages of 40 and 49 years old and 31% for men between 51 and 59 years old.
Gender gap in cheating across ages

In meaningful relationships, betrayal can often mean breaking commitments, hiding facts that influence both the partners, telling white lies, spending recklessly, manipulating and gaslighting, being absent in times of need.

The most heinous violation of trust in relationships, however, appears to be adultery, infidelity, or cheating.

Men tend to cheat more, but the infidelity gap between the genders is closing. According to the 2018 and 2019 United States General Social Survey, 20% of men cheat compared to 13% of women. The same survey threw the following interesting data:

  • Over 90% of Americans consider infidelity immoral.
  • Around 30% to 40% of Americans cheat on their partners.
  • Less than 3% of American adults believe it is not wrong to engage in extramarital sex.

Some evolutionary psychologists feel men and women have different perspectives on infidelity (Buss, 2018):

  • Men are more upset by sexual infidelity, but
  • Women elicit a stronger reaction to emotional infidelity.

The Infidelity Imagination hypothesis might explain the above difference. It says:

  • Men are more likely to imagine explicit sexual details than women (Rupp & Wallen, 2008)
  • Women are more likely to imagine emotional or romantic stories (Leitenberg & Henning, 1995)

In addition, some other evolutionary psychologists assume women are more distressed than men when their partners are unfaithful with a highly attractive paramour.

How To Build Trust Again After Cheating?

Here are some helpful strategies to gain the trust of a partner after cheating, from the research:

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The first four are short-term approaches, while the last four are long-term strategies to repair trust after cheating:

1. Confess And Give A Verbal Explanation.

If you’re the cheater, tell them the details about the entire incident. Give them a full account and offer your explanations at each stage.

Acknowledge you have cheated on them and take ownership and responsibility for the act.

A survey of 441 Americans revealed the following data:

  • 47% of respondents admitted to their infidelity within a week, 26% within a month, and 25.7% after six months or longer.
  • Only 29.2% of married respondents admitted their infidelity within a week, and 22.9% opened up about it to their spouses within a month.
  • 46.9% of men admitted their infidelity within a week, and 48% of women did the same.

According to Shapiro et al. (1994), explanations that are more specific and detailed regarding the circumstances of the violation are more successful than those that are less specific but delivered in a more sincere manner.

These efforts address the cheating directly and make a silent plea to “move on” in the relationship.

Excuses: Often, explanations include excuses, which is unhelpful.

When you make an excuse, you give up ownership of a problem or solution. An excuse is a veiled justification for the vile act, and tries to absolve you of responsibility, and lets you avoid taking corrective action.

Don’t try to manipulate your partner by adding excuses to your accounts.

Beware what Benjamin Franklin said,

“Do not ruin an apology with an excuse.”

People often do things that turn out badly despite “good intentions” or “no such (bad) intentions,” but that is hardly a good argument supporting the act of cheating.

2. Offer A Sincere Apology.

An apology is a statement that explains the violation (like cheating) and also includes “emotional content” such as the intent behind the violation, regret, and promise of changed behavior.

A good apology has at least four parts:

  1. I’m sorry.
  2. It was my fault/I was wrong.
  3. This is what I’ll do as a remedy.
  4. Please forgive me for the harm I caused.

• The first part is expressing sincere regret.

• The second part is assuming personal responsibility for the act.

• The third and possibly the most crucial part is the promise of corrective action to the current crisis. If you do not tell them you’re going to take steps to make it right, then your apology remains hollow.

• The fourth part requests a pardon for the act of cheating or any other violation.

Apologies are more successful when they are prompt and include an expression of regret, an explanation for the violation, an admission of responsibility, a declaration of repentance, an offer of repair, and a request for forgiveness.

However, according to Fehr and Gelfand (2010), one of the key drivers of whether an apology will work is how the particular recipient perceives, processes, and responds to that information. For example, if a person is autonomous and independent, any form of apology is less effective than compensation.

3. Propose A Compensation.

Proposing compensation will often soften the victim-partner’s stance towards you and make them more willing to forgive.

Farrell & Rabin, 1996, argue that explanations and apologies are no more than “cheap talk” and that only direct compensation is effective.

In the case of cheating, for example, it could be a “symbolic” repayment. It could be giving direct compensation or tangible benefits to the victim as the cost of cheating, with or without any verbal confession or statement.

Some examples:

  • I may not be able to undo the betrayal of your trust, but I commit to devoting two hours every weekend to any of your work.
  • We can book a trip to your desired destination.
  • We might go to an expensive dinner at your favorite restaurant.
  • I’ll buy you that new phone.

Although this is debatable, the compensation could try to “match” the severity of the violation to be more effective. A new gadget may balance a one-night stand, while an extended affair might require a week-long vacation in an exotic place and unchecked shopping.

4. Deny The Act. Disown The Guilt.

Denial is a statement that explicitly declares an allegation to be untrue and hence admits no regret.

This strategy involves categorically denying that cheating ever happened. It allows the cheater to escape being accused or to suffer guilt.

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A denial seeds the victim’s mind with the benefit of the doubt and is especially effective if the cause of the cheating cannot be proven. Like, “It never happened! Why do you even think I needed to do it?”

The moral drawback of denial is that it implies there is no need to correct one’s behavior, which may increase the cheater’s chances of future adulterous behavior. Denials can turn a minor offender into a major culprit.

One of the most widely quoted conclusions from studies is that when a violation is based on integrity, denial is more effective than an apology to repair the trust.

So, denial is often an effective strategy if the victim calls the cheater’s personal integrity, honesty, and character into question. In such cases, denial is more successful than apologies like “Sorry, I knew I was doing something wrong,” or “Sorry. I lied to you.”

5. Reframe The Incident

Reframing can be an effective trust repair tactic in cases of cheating. It attempts to shift the blame, explain away the unfaithfulness, and minimize the perception of damage.

Reframing can convince our victim-partner to tone down and readjust their expectations from us. This downplays their perception that a trust violation happened in the first place, because the expectations were so low.

Like, “You always knew how wild I was in my younger days,” or “You now know what I was missing in our relationship.”

Since unmet expectations are often the root of trust violation, reframing might include reframing the offender’s and victim’s expectations, connection, context, or acts and cause attributions.

Empathy can heal fractured trust and broken relationships. Reframing a problem can help with perspective-taking—a form of empathy in which we imagine another person’s ideas or feelings from that person’s point of view. It can help with trust rebuilding (Williams, 2012).

An example of empathetic reframing could be,

“Let’s handle this as we two against this disaster, not as we two against each other.”

6. Ask For Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a key aspect of the trust-rebuilding process. It saves a committed relationship and encourages the cheater to break out of his illicit affair, and not repeat the offense.


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Forgiveness does not include pardoning, condoning, justifying, excusing, self-denial, or forgetting (Butler et al. 2002).

Most experts consider forgiveness as a personal “coming to terms with” or gaining inner peace over an offense, paired with adopting a kind stance toward the offender and probably (but not necessarily) starting efforts toward relational restoration (Butler et al. 2013).

Some factors that help the victim forgive the cheater:

  • apology based on shame or guilt,
  • feeling of remorse,
  • empathy – perspective-taking and compassion,
  • ability to recognize the harm done to the victim-partner
  • the determination of both partners to keep the relationship going

According to Maio et al. (2008), forgiveness involves consciously shifting from “negative ideas, feelings, and behaviors toward the transgressor to more positive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.”

Forgiveness indicates that the victim-partner accepts the violation and wishes to start rebuilding the relationship with the offender. It also implies that the wrongdoer has expressed regret and has committed to not repeating their offense (Kramer & Lewicki 2010).

Read this absorbing article on How To Forgive A Cheater And Move On.

7. Be Silent. Maintain Silence.

Silence is worse than apologies but better than excuses. Silence seems to tell the victim-partner we do not care about either the relationship or the consequences of our infidelity to them.

Silent offenders stonewall and do not respond to accusations of violations.

Anecdotally, silence is a common technique used to regain trust after an offense. Silence seems to wait for the storm to pass.

Silence might also let the cheater radiate an impression of hurtfulness or self-righteousness, like “I’m so hurt by the allegations that I am at a loss of words,” or “I will not dignify it with a response.”

For example, the comedian Bill Cosby was accused of many instances of sexual assault, but he remained silent and refused to even address the claims for several months.

In fact, a 2014 NPR headline was Bill Cosby’s Silence On Rape Allegations Makes Huge Media Noise. The Washington Post called it “perhaps the most significant dead air in the history of National Public Radio.”

Silence is helpful when an offender realizes they have broken trust, but they do not want to acknowledge it or deny it.

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If they were to confess verbally or compensate for their offense, they will have to face the consequences. And if they were to deny it, then they will have it worse when their denial gets exposed as a lie.

8. Plan And Put In Place New Arrangements

Researchers Lewicki and Brinsfield suggest,

“One longer-term trust repair strategy has been to create new and different structural arrangements between the parties so that the parties bound and limit their future possibilities for subsequent violation.”

Their intended purpose is to change the situation that led to the breach of trust in the first place.

These strategies may include:

  • taking a break from each other,
  • controlling how they interact,
  • creating treaties or contracts that specify the actual consequences in case of a future violation,
  • proposing self-imposed penalties if the cheater repeats the offense are examples of these strategies.

Rearrangements help set up relationship boundaries and reduce the likelihood of the repetition of cheating. According to the data, only 10% of affairs are longer than 6 months.

What Conditions Build Trust Again After Cheating?

Trust is a “social glue” that binds people together. Since trust is a mutual process, when it breaks because of cheating, it has far-reaching consequences for both people. Rebuilding trust ultimately involves negotiating around the unmet needs of a relationship.

Researchers assume “repaired” trust never reverts to its original “pristine” level, and some damage remains after betrayal (Lewicki, 1998).

  • From the victim’s point, there is an enormous shift in the way the victim thinks about the relationship and feels toward the offender.
  • From the violator’s point, it might predict that one instance of opportunistic cheating may lead to an increased frequency of further violations.

Trust has the following three components, as a long stream of research suggests (Rousseau et al., 1998):

  1. Cognitive – beliefs and expectations
  2. Affective – emotional connectivity
  3. Behavioral – actual behavior

All three play their roles in building trust again after cheating.

We seem to repair relationships less easily with the willful violator. “Sorry, I made a mistake” is more easily accepted than “Sorry, I knew that I was doing wrong.” The first one shows a failure of competence. The second one shows a breakage of integrity.

For example, if the cheated-upon person believes a lack of the ability to resist temptation drove the adultery, and she has had a good past relationship with the cheater, she is more willing to reconcile.

But if the victim believes the cheating was intentional and the cheater was proactive, and she remembers their tiffs about his “roving eyes,” she is less ready to patch up.

"Repaired" trust after cheating never returns to its original "pristine" level of trust. Click To Tweet

Final Words

By definition, trust is “the extent to which a person is confident in, and willing to act on the basis of, the words, actions and decisions of another” (McAllister 1995).

Trust is crucial for building, maintaining, and efficiently working together in a relationship. Trust is about being willing to act based on your partner’s words, behaviors, and decisions.

Unfortunately, violations of trust, as with cheating, are quite common. They hurt relationships deeply and increase the risk of breakup, separation, or divorce, maximally.

Fortunately, rebuilding trust after cheating is possible if we go by the same principles we built the original trust with.

References:

  • The Repair of Trust, Academy of Management Review, Peter H. Kim, Kurt T. Dirks and Cecily D. Cooper, Vol. 34, No. 3 (July 2009).
  • Trust Repair, Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, Roy J. Lewicki and Chad Brinsfield, Vol. 4:287-313 (March 2017).
  • A cognitive process model of trust repair, International Journal of Conflict Management, Edward C. Tomlinson , Christopher A. Nelson , Luke A. Langlinais, Vol. 32 No. 2 (Oct 2020).

• • •

Boundaries define the limits of our acceptance and tolerance in a relationship. Setting boundaries might be the best bet for healthy, long-lasting relationships. Here’s how to set 6 important boundaries.

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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, happiness researcher. Founder and chief editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes popular science articles on happiness, positive psychology, and related topics.


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