They were high school sweethearts.
Two young lovebirds who were together for more than 15 years with three children.
But soon after the birth of 36-year-old Sara’s (she has chosen not to share her full name with Global News) third child, she found out her husband had been having an affair for months.
“When I found out, my world felt shattered, I was shattered,” she told Global News. “Even spiritually, I just felt ruined. I can’t even describe the physical pain I had let alone mental.”
What followed for the couple was a drawn out battle trying to make things work. The blame went back and forth, and Sara felt she was completely being teared down.
She went through therapy and spent hours with a rotation of girlfriends. “I realized that his cheating was only the catalyst to a very abusive and toxic relationship.”
Six months after the cheating, she decided to move on, but she couldn’t do it without forgiving him. “I was tired of festering in misery. It’s like an acidic magnet, it was self-torture,” she continued. “I needed to forgive the person who was not capable of being a positive being in my life. Forgiving him meant giving me the head space to focus on myself for once.”
Learning how to forgive
Forgiving a cheater isn’t easy waters to navigate, but for people like Sara, sometimes it is needed to fully find trust or fulfillment in relationships again.
Toronto-based relationship therapist Natasha Sharma said forgiving a cheater, or even attempting to, starts with acknowledging the fact that the process is difficult.
“From there, determining the root cause of the cheating in addition to validating and expressing negative emotions from both parties surrounding the indiscretion, particularly by the individual cheated on, is critical,” she told Global News.
WATCH: The signs of micro-cheating
“Decide how you want to move forward… can you effectively recover as a couple from it, or will it be something that causes you to move on from one another?”
If a couple decides to stay together, there has a to be a process to make amends, she added, and at some point forgiving (not forgetting) and letting go will need to take place.
Through the help of her therapist, Sara learned for her, forgiveness was a part of healing. “I also realized that his cheating on me was the last straw, it was my ticket out,” she continued. “For any woman who has been in a long abusive marriage, you don’t see or recognize the abuse as such. You hide and mask everything and pray for better days because surely it is you that’s not trying hard enough or not enough period.”
She also felt pressure from everyone around her — her family, her community, her job and even her children to make things work.
“But when he strayed, that was my way out, a clean path where I wouldn’t be blamed. So I ultimately forgave him because if it wasn’t for his cheating, I wouldn’t be as happy as I am today. Not even close.”
Today, the two stay in touch via text and co-parent for the sake of their children.
It’s not so black and white
For relationship expert Jen Kirsch of Toronto, her experience of forgiving a cheater happened more than 10 years ago, with an on-and-off relationship with a man a few years older. She had found out her boyfriend had still been cheating on her with his ex.
“I didn’t realize how complicated it was,” Kirsch, 34, told Global News. “I remember being on his computer and a message popped up from his ex.”
One night when the two were supposed to meet at his house, Kirsch patiently sat and waited for him. He never showed up.
“A friend picked me up and I later found out he went to a bar and hooked up with his ex. I was devastated.”
WATCH: Do women feel less guilt about cheating than men?
She said at that time, it was easier for her to end things right away and after an argument leading up to her brother’s wedding, the two decided to part ways. “I saw the warning signs but I didn’t have the experience. These days, it is so cut and dry, but there are so many types of relationships.”
Her moment of forgiveness came months later after he felt remorseful for what he had done.
“I believed him and accepted him back. I never understood ‘once a cheater, always a cheater,’ and it ended up happening again,” she added, realizing it was finally time to let go. “I feel so grateful now that I removed myself from the relationship.”
Sharma said there is no value in staying angry at someone. “If you cannot effectively move forward from your partner’s indiscretion, recognize that, don’t be sorry about it, and find ways to move past your anger to a more emotionally fit place.”
She recommends going to counselling, both together and individually. “Forgiveness is about letting go of anger, and this should take place always… whether you decide to stay in a relationship or terminate it and even end ties with someone.”
How do you trust someone again?
And the impact of being cheating on can be detrimental to a person’s mental health, well-being and ability to trust. Sharma said learning how to trust someone again can be a long and complicated process.
“Trust takes longer to build than to break,” she said. “It involves a serious of things, including recognition of one’s error/indiscretion, validation of a person’s emotional reaction to it, understanding reasons why it happened, an earnest making of amends, and, if you’re lucky, over time, building a new and potentially even stronger bond of trust.”
For Sara, her experience has taught her to focus on herself and self-worth. “During my entire marriage and during the breakdown, I never felt like I was enough. So I’m flooded with insecurity and self-doubt.”
Sharma added cheating can also make people become more aware of what they actually want in a relationship — as well as what they were ignoring all along.
“If a person is perpetually cheated on by partners, he/she may wish to take a good hard look at how they are picking their mates. In other cases, cheating simply happens, is unpredictable, and highly out of character on the part of the cheater.”