Does Cheating in a Relationship (Specifically, a Long-Term Marriage) Ever Stop Being a Big Deal?

Should you stay or should you go when it's been decades?

Updated 06/02/17

Getty Images

In a new relationship, cheating is almost always a deal breaker. You’ve been betrayed, and it’s understandable that you would have a hard time forgiving this person for breaking your trust. It feels pretty cut and dried, right? But what if cheating happens when you’ve been together for years and years (we’re talking decades)? When you’re married and sharing a life together, is the cheating factor still so black and white?

When you’ve been with your partner for what seems like forever, it’s not uncommon that the idea of your partner cheating would stop mattering as much when put in the perspective of the years you’ve spent building a life, which often includes kids. On the other hand, is it always the beginning of the end? Perhaps when you’ve known someone for as long as you’ve known your partner, you can figure out a way to let it go. Then again, maybe not—I know you want definitive answers when it comes to this stuff, but it’s just not going to be that straightforward.

Anyone who has been cheated on has asked themselves: “Does cheating mean our relationship isn’t worth saving?” Sexologist, relationships expert, and author of Single But Dating, Dr. Nikki Goldstein, tells Brides that you can’t simplify cheating into boxes. “There is never going to be an easy answer for this,” she says. “Some people might think that any form of cheating is a deal breaker and others will hang in there.”

Dr. Goldstein explains that being with someone long-term might mean you are better equipped to deal with betrayal. Being in a long-term marriage means you know your partner much more intimately than you would a boyfriend or girlfriend. Yet, there is more to consider than just the length of time you’ve been with someone.

“If you have been through life together and the struggles it brings, you might be better at problem solving,” Dr. Goldstein says. “However, time doesn't mean that cheating is OK. You might be able to work it out because of the time you have had together, if that's what you feel is right. But just because there might be a long relationship doesn't mean someone should be able to disrespect the other and get away with it.” When you’ve been with someone for years, it doesn’t give you a free pass to cheat on them. You might be bored or unsatisfied, but this is by no means an excuse.

In the end, what matters most is figuring out the reason this happened in the first place. “To establish if it should be or not [be forgiven], it's important to explore why someone cheated in the first place,” says Dr. Goldstein. “Were they struggling with something? Were there issues in the relationship? Was it just a one night drunken stand or a long affair? Investigating further into this will help someone determine the likelihood of this happening again and if they can rebuild trust. Cheating is not so black and white—it's complex.”

Cheating is usually a massive symptom of underlying relationship problems, not the cause. If you or your partner are cheating, there is more to it than sex. Once you’ve figured out the motivations behind these actions, you can start to pull apart the bigger picture and make your next move.

If you know why your partner cheated and want to make it work, you have a better chance of figuring things out if you’ve been together for a long time and have a stronger bond. Just be sure you’re staying in the relationship because you truly love each other and want to be together forever, not because you’re afraid of being alone.

“Couples can survive an affair, but it doesn't mean that all couples should try,” says Dr. Goldstein. “Each situation is different, and if you do find yourself here, you can't compare yourself to others. The chances of getting past it do increase with time, but not because you should stay together, but rather you know how to work through things better the more you understand and know each other.”

You’ve been married to your partner for a long time—you know better than anyone if you can make it. Ask yourself: Is this person capable of redemption? Can you forgive? Do you have what it takes to learn from this experience and take measures, as a couple, to ensure it doesn’t happen again? Is your relationship worth saving? And, perhaps most important, does this transgression warrant the unraveling of an entire life together?

In a sea of questions, one thing is for sure: the longer you’ve been in a marriage, the better you know its worth.

Gigi Engle is a sex educator and writer living in NYC. Her work has appeared on Elle, Teen Vogue, Glamour, Allure, Marie Claire, and Bustle.

Related Stories