Affairs and betrayals

Written by Katherine Nicholls
Katherine Nicholls
Counselling Directory Content Team

Reviewed by Lindsay Roadnight
Last updated 13th July 2023 | Next update due 12th July 2026

Affairs and betrayals can break trust and greatly affect the well-being of everyone involved. Relationship counselling provides an opportunity for individuals to work through hurt and trust issues, whether the couple decides to remain together or part ways.

Why do people cheat? 

An affair or betrayal may be the symptom of longer-term problems, but the reasons why someone is unfaithful vary and will depend on the personal circumstances. There does, however, tend to be two main reasons why people cheat or betray someone close to them.

1. To save the relationship

Sometimes people will have an affair in the hope that it will solve a problem that, for some reason, couldn’t be met in the relationship. They will look outside of the relationship to find the "missing part of the jigsaw" which allows them to function within their relationship.

Relationships can come under strain for a variety of reasons and, when we experience stress or emotional strain, it can cause us to think and behave in ways we wouldn't naturally. In this way, an act of betrayal may be an unconscious attempt to get away from relationship problems, rather than tackling them head-on.

Emotional dissatisfaction is another common factor, and many will betray their loved one to seek lost admiration, validation, connection and intimacy. This may be why some affairs begin around the birth of a child or during another major life change. A betrayal can also be an attempt to regain power in a relationship following an unhappy or difficult circumstance. Anger and loss can be temporarily dispersed through an affair - with little thought of the long-term consequences.

2. To end the relationship 

Another reason why people betray others is to bring the relationship to a close. Problems that have gradually snowballed may lead to a relationship breakdown that neither party wants to officially end - often due to a fear of being alone. Infidelity or betrayal, therefore, may seem like a simpler way out of the relationship or a way of escaping the relationship without having to take responsibility for the consequences.

In other cases, affairs can be a means to seek pleasure, opportunity and excitement. Sometimes people will have an affair as a means to boost their self-esteem and social recognition. In these circumstances, the perpetrator is usually putting their own personal gratification before the needs of those close to them.

In this video relationship therapist Alison Tinsley explains how counselling can help couples navigate affairs. 

Discovering an affair or betrayal 

No one ever expects or wants to be betrayed. For this reason, the discovery that your partner has been unfaithful can be very upsetting. There’s a profound break in trust and the intense emotions that follow can be similar to the stages experienced following the death of a loved one.

Grief

Grief is a common response; over the loss of the relationship as it was known and over the loss of trust that had existed. There may even be sadness over a loss of expectation. This is because betrayal means a loss of security, loss of respect and, above all, the loss of the 'perfect relationship' ideal.

Questioning

The discovery of an affair can trigger the onset of many questions, particularly for the person who has been betrayed. You may feel great confusion and uncertainty regarding the relationship and the person you thought you could trust.

The discovery of betrayal can lead to questions such as: 

  • "How could they do this to me?"
  • "Why did they do it?"
  • "What else have they lied about?"
  • "What did I do/not do?
  • "Can I ever trust them again?"
  • "Can we recover from this?"
  • "Should I walk away from this relationship?"
  • "Was there something wrong in our relationship?" 

As for the person who committed the betrayal, they too may be feeling confused, distressed and guilty over the realisation of their wrongdoing - especially if it was not their intention to hurt the other person.

Fight or flight response 

Mixed emotions of anger, resentment, blame, shock and bewilderment can lead to a number of knee-jerk responses such as filing for divorce and blocking all contact with the person who committed the betrayal.

These are typical fight or flight reactions - ways in which our body naturally responds to stressful and threatening situations - and tend to be triggered by a need to escape and defend ourselves in difficult circumstances.

Emotional vertigo

For some people, finding out someone they valued and trusted has betrayed them can make them feel like their world has been turned upside down - literally. This can, in some cases, have physical symptoms such as disorientation, dizziness, nausea and out-of-body sensations. This is often a result of shock combined with the inability to accept the reality of the situation.

For some people, an affair automatically signals the end of the marriage or relationship. It may be the one thing they cannot bear. For others, sexual infidelity is not particularly important and a sexual affair is of little consequence. It’s impossible to know how we would react until it happens.

- Lucy Cavendish

Effects of affairs and betrayals 

The discovery of an affair brings with it a lot of emotional turmoil. If you have been betrayed, you may find yourself preoccupied with the ways in which you can immediately deal with the situation and make the pain disappear. But, often these methods are ineffective and can lead to further problems - especially if the betrayal itself goes unresolved.

As you deal with the situation, be mindful of the following reactions.

Taking control

Often, the first response following the discovery of a betrayal is to demand full transparency from the person who committed it. This may involve demanding full access to all communications, such as email accounts, social networking sites, phone messages and voicemails, usually in the name of rebuilding trust.

This is an understandable reaction, but such a controlling dynamic can create further problems and hurt. It fails to address what is really going on and can be exhausting and stressful for everyone involved.

Wanting to know the details

It’s natural for people who have been betrayed to want to know all the details about what happened and why. You may feel an intense urge to analyse every aspect of the betrayal to learn the truth and reassure yourself that it won't happen again. Understanding what went wrong may also seem effective for gaining some control over the situation - particularly over feelings of hurt and broken trust.

There is, however, a great possibility that the details of a betrayal can become a weapon for further hurt and destruction. Furthermore, interrogating the person who committed the betrayal for more information may quickly develop into an unhealthy obsession. Whilst talking through the betrayal might help you to accept what happened, generally, it tends to be in the process of tuning into painful feelings that peace can be found.

Retaliation

Some people who have been betrayed may desire revenge for the hurt inflicted on them. You may feel deep injustice and loss of power and feel a need to correct the wrongdoing. But, whilst getting revenge may offer a temporary release from the pain and hurt, it won’t resolve anything.

How might cheating affect the perpetrator? 

The effects of cheating go beyond the person who has been cheated on. For the person who has cheated, they may feel embarrassed, ashamed and/or guilty. In the long term, this might slip into anxiety or even a post-traumatic response. The person might ruminate on their actions and may have flashbacks or nightmares. They may also feel confused about whether they want to repair the relationship or walk away. These conflicting emotions can be hard to process. 


How to move on after infidelity

Once your trust has been broken, it’s understandable to feel unable to forgive and continue the relationship. For this reason, you might feel that the only way you can truly move on from the situation is to leave the relationship.

Although many people may choose to do this following the discovery of an affair or a betrayal, a great number will want to work things through. A betrayal may deeply shake the foundations of a relationship, but it can paradoxically make it stronger - especially if there is an attempt to rebuild trust and communication and to deal with the relationship problems that may have led to the betrayal.

Whether you decide to walk away from the relationship or to try and rebuild the trust, the decision is yours alone.

It can feel like a difficult decision to make, particularly if there are children involved or if you’ve been in this relationship for a long time. But, the important thing to remember is that your well-being and happiness come first. And, whichever decision you choose to make, one option will not necessarily be easier than the other.

Speaking with a qualified counsellor can help you to process your emotions and make a positive step toward the next stage of your life. They’ll encourage you to take a new, objective view of your personal history, allowing you to reflect clearly on your present situation without feeling blame.

Therapists who can help with affairs and betrayals

Does counselling help after an affair?

If you make the decision to rebuild your relationship with your partner, relationship counselling can be beneficial. It can address many aspects of an affair or betrayal, and the impact it has had on the relationship and the individuals involved.

Couples counselling may help individuals after a betrayal is discovered - especially as it can help to contain the distress and shock that typically follows. It also provides a controlled and safe environment in which individuals can:

  • Begin to make sense of what happened.
  • Ask and honestly answer questions.
  • Slowly and sensibly work through painful feelings, such as resentment and anger.
  • Understand and grieve over the damage and hurt inflicted on the partner.

Relationship counselling can help you to accept and understand a betrayal, whilst guiding you through a process of healing and growth that involves strengthening bonds, rebuilding misplaced trust and learning to communicate better. It is very focused on helping individuals see forgiveness as an option, to help both individuals move forward.

For the person who cheated, relationship counselling can help them make sense of what may have driven them to break fidelity and process how they’re feeling in the aftermath. 

You may feel unable to forgive straight away, and that is completely understandable. The first step is acceptance of what has happened.

The majority of couples who have seen their relationships rocked by a betrayal or an affair do survive it and, for many, it offers a chance to become more realistic and reach a deeper understanding of one another.

Another important aspect of couples counselling is the way it addresses any long-term underlying issues that may have led to the betrayal. This can build awareness and understanding about why the betrayal happened and what can be done in the future to prevent it from happening again. A therapist may also help to clarify the true nature of the relationship by encouraging an open exploration of its strengths and weaknesses. This may reveal unhealthy patterns such as co-dependency or emotional abuse, which will also be looked at in therapy.

If the relationship is to recover, good communication about the infidelity and any problems in the relationship will be key. Although relationship counselling may be painful, it offers both partners a safe neutral place to discuss their feelings and the best way forward.

- Counsellor Graeme Orr MBACP (Accred) discusses how to overcome infidelity.

What should I be looking for in a counsellor or therapist?

While there are no official rules and regulations which stipulate what level of training and experience a couples counsellor, marriage guidance counsellor or relationship counsellor needs, we recommend that you speak with the therapist to ensure they are experienced in the area you are seeking help with.

For assurance and peace of mind, all professionals listed on Counselling Directory have provided proof of membership with a professional body, and details of how they work and any relevant training will be included in their profiles.

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