The Scoop: Every relationship has its struggles, and couples who go through episodes of infidelity are no stranger to this fact. Whether you or your partner have sought connections outside of your monogamous relationship, cheating doesn’t necessarily mean the immediate end of an important partnership. Sex and relationship therapists like Dr. Tammy Nelson offer both expertise and encouragement to couples dealing with infidelity, and help them rediscover and rebuild the love they share together.
Dealing with hurtful behavior from any loved one can be hard to overcome. Dealing with infidelity from a romantic partner, however, sometimes involves a deeper level of betrayal. The deceit that comes along with being cheated on is often difficult to reconcile, especially if it feels out of character for your partner.
There is a lot of time and energy involved in healing from this experience, and dealing with cheating in a relationship shouldn’t be done alone. In fact, support from multiple places is usually the best method to effective, timely healing.
Of course your friends and family can provide comfort and encouragement as you move along this journey, but one of the best resources is therapy. Seeking professional help from a relationship therapist after one of you has committed infidelity is often the right way to go whether you choose to take a break, break up altogether, or stay with your partner.
A sex and relationship therapist like Dr. Tammy Nelson can offer fantastic support for couples dealing with any manner of issues. While Dr. Nelson has a unique talent for mending relationships damaged by infidelity or broken trust, she also enjoys supporting couples through any season of life.
Working with a therapist for the first time can be intimidating, especially if relationship struggles lead you to do so. That said, the right fit may help you and your partner to bridge any gaps you may have, and rebuild a healthy and intimate connection. Dr. Nelson’s accomplished background as a certified sex and relationships therapist, author, and TEDx speaker have equipped her to facilitate this kind of healing.
Understanding the Root of Infidelity is Key
If you and your partner have endured infidelity in your current or a past relationship, you are not alone. According to a 2022 survey by YouGov, 33% of adult respondents in the U.S. said they had cheated on a partner while in a monogamous relationship, and a notable 54% of adults surveyed said they had been cheated on by a monogamous partner.
There are multiple factors that could be said to influence how common this behavior has become — including the ubiquity of social media and the rise in non-monogamy — but rather than attributing generalizations to it, Dr. Nelson explained that the root of cheating usually begins internally.
“I think we don’t necessarily look for someone else, I think we look to be someone else,” she said. “We are different parts of ourselves with different people. So, different parts of us come out when we are in a relationship with someone new or even just when we’re attracted to someone else. So we become a different part of ourselves, and we sort of explore and try it on. Sometimes it feels safer to do that outside of our primary relationship.”
As an example, Dr. Nelson shared that people who cheat often blame their partner for the infidelity, assuming that their partner wouldn’t embrace or even accept this newness. Rather than explore new facets of their personality, interests, or even sexuality within the relationship, the unfaithful partner simply seeks that acceptance elsewhere.
“Sometimes people blame their partner and say, ‘Well, I can’t be that part of myself with my partner at home’, which may or may not be true — most of the time it’s not. It’s us that projects that, and we lose our curiosity about our partner at home when we decide ‘They’d never be into that’ or ‘They don’t like that part of me’,” Dr. Nelson said. “I think we stop being curious about our partner, because we get satisfied and happy and we put each other in a box. But after a while, you get stuck in those boxes.”
Recognizing that you or your partner — whoever became unfaithful — might be looking for external validation in the form of an illicit relationship is a crucial first step to remedying the situation. Owning up to your mistakes and seeking forgiveness through changed behavior can follow, but can’t happen without addressing where the behavior came from in the first place, and learning how to prevent it from happening again.
Dr. Nelson Employs Intimacy as a Tool for Reconnection
After going through a betrayal like cheating, it’s easy for folks to feel like throwing in the towel and walking away from the relationship. On the other hand, some people find that the connection is too strong or there is too much history with their partner to just end it. Especially if your lives are intertwined by factors like children or finances, breaking up isn’t a simple task — even if someone cheated.
Couples who come to Dr. Nelson usually do so because they want to work through their infidelity issues and mend the relationship rather than split up. Because of this, she has developed unique tools and techniques to help her patients navigate the conflict that results from cheating.
“People get stuck not so much in what happened, but in how they talk about it. We have to change the way we talk about the conflict in our relationship, because sometimes people try to avoid the conflict because they don’t want to fight,” Dr. Nelson said. “Other people try to disclose too much, when really they’re trying to make themselves feel better instead of their partner.”
As Dr. Nelson mentioned, there is a line most couples should draw when it comes to sharing details of their extraneous relationships or encounters. Unless either of you are ready to hear every detail and can keep your emotions in check, it’s best to reserve some information in the name of protecting you or your partner’s feelings. The person who was cheated on may be better off only knowing those things that truly impacted the relationship, how they came to be, and how you both can move on together.
One tool Dr. Nelson uses in this process is what she calls “erotic recovery.” This involves a focus on how couples can keep the spark alive and rebuild intimacy together.
“The goal for most affair recovery is not forgiveness, it’s really erotic recovery. It’s moving into a new erotic life with the two of you so you can be intrigued enough to feel like this is new and interesting. And it’s going to keep your relationship alive,” she said. “If you don’t do that, there’s a chance that you’ll go backwards. You have to be able to create a whole new relationship going forward. You can’t ever go back.”
Dr. Nelson noted that going through this with your partner may feel a lot like grieving a loss — with the loss being the partnership as you knew it before. “You have to grieve the vision that you thought you had of the relationship that you believed you were in. With grief, you can’t go back to the way things were. You could try, but you’ll just end up [at infidelity] again.”
Taking the Taboo Out of Sex Talks
Along the lines of her focus on erotic recovery for couples working through cheating issues, Dr. Nelson is also incredibly passionate about encouraging people to have open, honest conversations about sex. When she gained her certification as a sex therapist, she quickly realized how large the deficit in the ability to facilitate conversations about sexuality was among healthcare professionals.
“Most of us are primarily focused on relationships in our lives, whether it’s a relationship to our past, our identity, or to our next or current relationship,” Dr. Nelson said. “It makes sense that, unless we’re thinking about our jobs or our roommates, many times it’s our romantic or emotional relationships. It doesn’t make sense to not talk about sex and not have some expertise in that area, at least to feel comfortable about it. I’ve made it my mission in my career to teach people how to talk about sex and relationships.”
In her TEDx talk in Bucharest, Dr. Nelson explored the topic of monogamy and what it looks like in the modern day dating landscape. Rather than promote archaic ideals that monogamy can only involve a restrictive agreement that neither partner can even look in the direction of someone else they find attractive, she teaches the audience (and her patients) that monogamy is healthiest when there is a mutual agreement that doesn’t restrict either partner, but honors both of their true needs and desires.
Dr. Nelson has also penned helpful books on topics that couples regularly come across, like “The New Monogamy” and “When You’re the One Who Cheats.” Readers of these books can find information that lies at the heart of Dr. Nelson’s mission — building lasting connections by encouraging healthy, open communication about sex and relationships.