How to Trust Again After You've Been Cheated On
DEAR DR. JENN,
My long term boyfriend cheated on me and I left. Never in a million years did I think that he was the cheating type. I am glad I found the strength to walk away but it has really affected me. As I start to date new people, I find that I am skeptical and untrusting. How do I get past this? — Paranoid in Pittsburgh
There is nothing like the searing pain of betrayal that is so unique to cheating. It can tear your heart out. It can make you question your value. It can make you paranoid and suspicious. And certainly it can make it terrifying to try dating, or letting yourself be vulnerable, again. Even if you think you're ready, or really want to.
But despite the anguish and terror, most people eventually step back into the dating world. Especially now that cozy cuffing season is beginning, and the concept of companionship is seeming, maybe, not so bad once again. You may not be the exact same person you were before this happened to you, but you cannot let the experience define you or prevent you from opening your heart again.
Here are some things you can do to feel like you can date — and trust — again.
1. Take a dating hiatus. Taking a dating detox can give you the distance and perspective needed to go back to the dating world and evaluate potential partners. Detoxes help you focus on healing those wounds of betrayal and building yourself back up. While on your romance pause, consider getting yourself into therapy so you can explore what happened in your last relationship, and expedite your healing process. Going into the dating world without taking that time for self-care leaves you vulnerable to making decisions out of desperation.
2. Take things slow. Really take the time to get to know new partners. You can’t know if someone is trustworthy if you don’t truly know them. Taking things slowly requires emotional discipline. Let yourself be the gatekeeper of the relationship. Here’s how: Pace the dates. Even if you want to see your new love interest every day, slow down the frequency of how often you get together. (Try to chill out on texting, too.) Try to meet in places where tearing off each other’s clothes and jumping into bed is not possible. Taking the time to get to know someone before sleeping with them can help trust develop. We are more likely to trust someone when we feel that they are invested in who we really are.
3. Evaluate over time. The only way to develop trust is to observe behavior over time. Anyone can be charming, fun, connected, and make you feel good here and there. Consistency, transparency and truth telling are the traits that really determine trustworthiness. Look for someone who shows up for you and keeps their word. Do they call, or come meet you when they say they will? If they promise they are going to cook dinner for you at their place, do they pick a date and make it happen? If your car breaks down and you call them, do they answer, and then arrive ready to help? Observing how someone shows up (or doesn’t!) in difficult times is a good way to determine trustworthiness, plus it takes some time, so it’s a good way to let yourself warm up to the idea of trusting them, too.
4. Hone your picking skills. This is a good time to look at what red flags you might have missed and to improve your selection process. Evaluate your strengths and weaknesses when it comes to picking a mate. What are your blind spots? What red flags do you tend to overlook? What bad behavior do you make excuses for? Make a list of all of the negative traits from your past relationships and look at the commonalities. These are your dating weak spots. We tend to re-create the same issues in our relationships over and over again until we resolve them internally. Knowing what yours are can help you to work through them, or avoid re-treading that same path again.
5. Examine what made the relationship vulnerable. It is never the victim’s fault when a partner has an affair. If the relationship is not working a person can always get out or ask for a separation instead of simply staying and cheating. That said, cheating generally doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There is usually a problem in the relationship leading up to the affair. It is important to look at your contribution in an unhealthy system to make sure that you do not re-create it in future relationships. If you are able to put a finger on a problem that was isolated in your last relationship, it may make it easier for you see future potential mates as different individuals, and trust that your new potential relationship can be different, too.
6. Create connection. When you do meet someone who you think has long-term potential, nurture the connection. Connection is the greatest vaccination against infidelity. Studies show that a lack of connection is the number one reason why people, irrespective of gender, cheat. There will always be someone who is younger, smarter, hotter, richer, more successful or alluring, for whatever reason. If you are nurturing a sense of connection with your partner — striving to make them feel loved and adored, and providing something unique that no one else can provide overnight, or in the way you do — you have the home court advantage.
7. Use the pain to make you stronger. It is the things that we survive that make us stronger. When we have painful experiences, we must choose to learn from them. Going from victim to warrior is part of that growth process. Using our experiences to make us stronger is the path to growth and better self-esteem. That person who cheated on you will have no power to continue bringing pain in your life, if you've moved on to better things (and people!). So when you're ready, get out there and get moving.