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Can a Relationship Go Back to Normal After Cheating?

Infidelity can be a real shock for a relationship or marriage. Some people manage to come out stronger as a couple from the experience, while for some it signals the end. Probably everyone that’s been through such an experience has wondered whether a relationship can go back to normal after cheating.  In my first article about infidelity, titled “Surviving Infidelity”, I talked more in general about infidelity and how we should take a more nuanced stance towards this event. I relied a lot on Esther Perel’s opinions on this topic – in particular on her TED talk and her book “The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity”. And, as soon as I laid my eyes and lent my ears to her words on the subject, I thought to myself “other people also have to see/hear this!”. And so I wrote an article about how infidelity can also help redefine a relationship, create a new relationship for the same couple, instead of wrecking it.  But turns out there’s a lot to say about this topic. Lots of people wonder about the details of the aftermath of cheating. Hence the question – can a relationship go back to normal after cheating? 

What can you expect to read in this article? 

I wanted to talk about the real, flesh, and blood people who’ve experienced infidelity. I wanted to tackle their feelings and wanted to consider the people behind the words.  Which is why I decided to write a second article where I’ll tackle some of the more specific questions people have in their minds after experiencing infidelity. I also wanted to see in which ways they can deal with it – steps they can take to communicate with their partners, try to rebuild trust, make way for a fresh start, and resolve any resentment or its residue that they might be fighting.  Now, I know this is no easy feat, but every crisis – which in its original, ancient greek origin means “a turning point” –  is precisely that – a possibility where you get to start anew, learn from past mistakes and painful events, and look hopefully and optimistically towards the future.  So, my short answer is both yes and no. A relationship can’t go back to normal after cheating. But a relationship can also survive and persist an episode of cheating. The latter is possible if both partners own up to their mistakes and shortcomings, the cheating partner admits responsibility for the act, and both partners are ready to re-evaluate the relationship and are committed to making the necessary changes in it but also in themselves.  “We almost sank, but we didn’t. Our relationship is more robust today. Too bad we had to go through all that to get here, but I wouldn’t go back.”  This is a quote from Esther Perel’s wonderful book The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, a book that I also mentioned in my other article on the topic.  This and more is what I’m going to talk about in this article, so please, read on!

What Are Some of the Questions People Often Ask Themselves After Experiencing Infidelity? 

Numerous questions are racing in people’s minds after cheating, whether they’re the ones doing it or have been cheated on. Here I’m going to try and cover the most frequent ones and see if I can solve some of the dilemmas going around in your minds. 

Is Once a Cheater Always a Cheater (Or, Can Cheaters Really Change)? 

There’s a reason why certain behaviors or phenomena turn into cliches, and the phrase “once a cheater, always a cheater” is definitely one of them.  What this phrase suggests is that a person who’s cheated once will cheat again or will always end up cheating. In short, once someone cheats, they can’t be trusted, ever again.  But, it’s fair to say it’s actually more complex than that. Much more complex.  People cheat for different reasons, and it’s not like there’s only one type of person who cheats which makes them viable to cheat again. Of course, there is such thing as “serial cheaters”, people who do engage in numerous extra-marital or extra-relationship liaisons, and a lot of the time this has to do with narcissistic personalities or a lack in self-worth which they try to replace with sex and affairs. 

Why do people cheat?

There are numerous factors and reasons why people cheat: 
  • People aren’t sure where they are in life or want to make a change but they don’t really know how; 
  • They feel there’s something wrong with their relationship, or they feel somehow dissatisfied from the relationship; 
  • They lack self-esteem and feel insecure; 
  • They’re not getting what they need from their partner (emotional support, sexual satisfaction, etc.); 
  • They feel they don’t/can’t satisfy their partner sexually or emotionally; 
  • They don’t really think about it that much, they just do it for no particular reason (just because an opportunity appeared). 
These and plenty of other life factors and circumstances may contribute to someone cheating, for the first time, or again.  But what’s important to note here is that feelings, circumstances, opinions, power imbalances, needs, and desires in a relationship are not fixed categories and they can change, which also means that cheaters won’t necessarily cheat for the second time. Things change, people change. 

Serial cheaters and the thrill of adultery 

When it comes to serial cheaters, well, that actually may have to do more with them, than with the relationship or their partner.  Some people enjoy the thrill of being furtive or clandestine and doing things in secret. And they often do this with disregard to the feelings of their partner and the relationship agreement they have.  And some people simply can’t commit, they’re not really the monogamous type but aren’t open enough or honest enough about this to their partners. This can be because they’re afraid they’ll hurt their feelings, or because they’re not yet fully conscious of it themselves.  Whatever it is, if you notice that your partner is a serial cheater, I suggest you confront them with this issue and ask them why they do it. If they continue to be evasive or dishonest, well, then, maybe it’s time to consider leaving that relationship. 

Can Cheaters Really Change? 

The main problem with “once a cheater, always a cheater” and questions like “can cheaters really change” is that we set up people for a loss from the very beginning. We don’t give them enough space to grow and change, because we’ve fixated their personalities and values to that one morally wrong thing they did.  But the reality for a lot of cheaters out there is actually much different.  People often tend to disregard the range of negative emotions that flows out of infidels after the event of cheating. People who’ve wronged their partners this way can also feel self-loathing, anger, or disappointment at themselves, wishing they could take back what they did. 

How your partner takes responsibility for cheating is a good indication of whether they’ll do it again

One of the best ways to know whether your partner is going to cheat again and feels genuine remorse for their actions is to see how they own up to it. If your partner admits that he or she has cheated and is being honest and open about it, then that’s definitely a good start.  Another thing is how willing they are to work on any underlying issues in your relationship (this goes for both of you if you both decide to stay) and how willing they are to work on the issues and reasons that caused them to cheat in the first place.  People cheat for different reasons, I’ve said this numerous times throughout both my articles on infidelity, and I’ll say it again. Sometimes they do it because they want a way out of a relationship, and sometimes they do it as a cry for help for the one they’re in.  So, if the person who’s cheated actually ends up taking responsibility for it, it’s a good indication that they won’t do it again. So, if your partner doesn’t really want to do much introspection and much self and relationship re-evaluation, then it’s definitely not a good sign that they won’t cheat again or that they want to work on your relationship, even if they initially say they do. 

Can You Really Forgive Your Partner for Cheating on You? 

I assume that a lot of you reading this article aren’t just curious about the issue but have actually gone through the experience of being cheated on. And you’re here because you need answers and help.  Infidelity is definitely one of the worst things that can happen to a relationship or marriage. But, infidelity can also bring the relationship or marriage back to its feet and give it a fresh start. Getting here is, of course, hard, and nobody wants to do it by experiencing infidelity, but here we are. It has happened and now you have to deal with it.  And the answer is, yes, you can forgive your partner for cheating on you. But it’s a process. 

What does it take for you to forgive your partner for cheating?

  • Your partner needs to admit it and take responsibility for the act and apologize/feel remorse; 
  • Your partner needs to want to work on the relationship/marriage; 
  • Both of you need to communicate better and open up, giving each other space to communicate your issues, desires, resentments, to ask your questions without being judgmental or resentful towards each other; 
  • Both of you need to work on rebuilding trust in your relationship; 
  • Both of you need to reflect on what might’ve brought the one person to cheat and the potential faults of your relationship.
Remember that if you’ve experienced infidelity, you don’t need to fall into the “victim” image. This is not going to help you cope better or rebuild your relationship.  You will need to support each other throughout the process of healing and be aware that it takes time, and that you will face some setbacks, but that shouldn’t discourage you. If there’s room for improvement, it’s important to just keep going forward. 

How Can You Stop Cheating On Someone You Love?

Cheating can sometimes turn into compulsive behavior.  A 2017 study published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior shows that people who’ve cheated once are also three times more likely to cheat again. Now, I didn’t put this statistic here to lower your morale or discourage you in any way; I just wanted to address the fact that sometimes cheating can be a compulsive behavior and that it’s important to recognize it when it is.  If you recognize yourself among the people in the statistic, or you recognize your partner, friend, family member, there are ways you can address this issue and break this pattern of behavior. 

Try to identify the motives behind the behavior

By identifying why you cheat in the first place, you can stop yourself from doing it again. Whether you do it because of boredom, sexual fulfillment, trying to get even to your partner about something, or you think it’ll infuse your relationship with more passion, it’s important to analyze these motives and get to the bottom of them. 

Be open with your partner

If you want to fix your relationship after cheating, rebuilding trust is paramount. One of the most important steps in doing this is by being open and completely honest with your partner. It also means your words and your actions will have to match full time.  

Ask for professional help

There’s nothing wrong with asking the help of mental health professionals. If you find it extremely difficult or impossible to stop your compulsive cheating behavior, then it might be a good idea to talk to a professional. These people are trained to be extremely attentive and non-judgmental. They can help you get to the root of your problem if you’re unable to do so yourself. 

Reconsider why you’re monogamous in the first place

Sometimes the answer lies right in front of you. You just may not be someone that wants to commit to another person or functions better in an open relationship. If this is the case, then you definitely have to share this with your partner/spouse. Sometimes partners agree to have an open relationship, an ethically non-monogamous, or a polyamorous one.  The key is to be honest and open with your partner, so you can break the circle of deception and hurt you might be causing them. 

Common Reactions and Questions to Avoid in the Aftermath of Infidelity

All kinds of negative emotions are rampant in the aftermath of infidelity, but that doesn’t mean they should roam free for too long. While you should acknowledge the negativity springing up from an experience of infidelity, If you surrender too much and too long to negative emotions and reactions, you might risk tearing apart at the seams your own self and ascribing an irreparable fate to a relationship that might be worth saving.  Verbalizing and becoming cognizant of emotions and emotional states is a step forward towards dealing with negativity, which is why in this section, I want us to look at some of the common questions and reactions you’d like to avoid if your relationship has been struck by infidelity.  

Bottling Up All Your Feelings in Yourself 

This is not good for you in any life situation, whether it’s work-related or partner-related.  Bottling your emotions, not asking for help, and trying to weather it all by yourself will only make matters worse. You risk becoming even more frustrated; and all of these fused feelings, bottled up together simply won’t let you approach the crisis of your relationship caused by infidelity constructively.  Just remember that it’s ok that you’re angry or sad, or let down or disappointed, or lacking any specific reaction or feeling altogether. It’s all a manner of coping with a stressful situation/event, and we all deal with it differently. 

Thinking That the Relationship is Over 

It’s normal to think your relationship is over after it suffers the shock of infidelity, but you shouldn’t cling on to this feeling.  Because it’s not necessarily so. Now, since cheating is an extremely delicate topic with most, it’s really hard to get more precise statistics on how many couples actually manage to survive infidelity.  In an NPR interview, Dr. Scott Haltzman, a renowned psychiatrist and relationships counselor and an author of the book “The Secrets of Surviving Infidelity”, gives one statistic that says how “4 in 10 marriages are challenged by affairs,” but also how “more than half of American marriages survive the affair.”  So I urge you to take a step back from thinking that your relationship is doomed to fall apart if you’ve been cheated on.  I’m not denying that in some cases that’s the only outcome. I’m sure that each affair has happened under different circumstances. But, if there’s room for improvement and/or change, and if you both want to work on it, then you definitely should. For things to work, however, you will need to step away from the doomsday scenario. You’ll need to get into a healing mindset, where you will start taking the first steps towards moving on. 

Asking for the Nitty-Gritty Details 

I understand that a lot of the people who’ve been cheated on have the urge to compare themselves with the person their partner had an affair with – they want to know who they are, what they look like, their personalities, their sexual preferences… But ultimately, this leads nowhere, only to more hurt.  Instead, you can focus on asking more constructive questions concerning the motivations of your partner’s affair and how they felt/feel about it all.  I talk in more detail about this in the section below: When an Affair is Exposed, What are Some of the Specific Things Couples Can Do?

Refusing to Communicate With Your Partner 

When people are angry, they often refuse to communicate or feel they’re unable to.  But after a while, this can make things a lot harder for both of you if you really want to make your relationship work again.  So, don’t hesitate in communicating your feelings to your partner. Anger, hurt, disappointment, tell them all that lies on your heart but try not to be aggressive. No amount of yelling or endless remarks can get you to a better place and start the process of healing. 

Getting Even 

People deal with the hurt of infidelity in different ways, and one of them is the attempt to get even.  But like infidelity itself, wanting to get even might also have other underlying reasons – maybe they wanted to do this for a long time and they were just waiting for an opportunity to show itself.  Even if your partner has cheated on you, it doesn’t mean that you won’t betray their trust in you by doing the same. If you want your post-infidelity relationship to work, then this is definitely not a good way to do it. 

Downplaying the Impact it Had on You 

Unfortunately, cheating can really affect the self-esteem of the person who’s been cheated on and make them feel really insecure.  That’s why it’s a good idea to communicate it to your partner whenever you feel this way without rushing into the processes of re-building trust, given that this can’t be done in a day. 

Becoming Paranoid and Constantly Suspecting Your Partner 

Traumatic events such as cheating have a way of creeping up on us even when we think we’re over them.  One of the most common aftereffects of cheating is the feelings of paranoia and suspicion.  If your partner betrayed your trust, it makes perfect sense why you’d feel paranoid or suspicious. You might be tempted to keep a closer eye on what they do or say in order to make sure it doesn’t happen again. But doing so will only further damage the trust in your relationship. “True trust demands that we tolerate what we don’t know about our partners, and intimacy can easily be squeezed out by these attempts at control,” couple and family therapist Hayden Lindsay tells Bustle. She says moving on is less about “protecting the borders” of your relationship, and instead figuring out new ways to trust each other.

Wanting to Fix Everything Right Away 

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and your affair-shaken relationship is also not going to be rebuilt in a day. After a crisis, things will take time to recover. If you don’t grant yourselves this time, you just may end up more frustrated in the end. You may feel like you’re having relapses about your partner’s infidelity and feel like your emotions haven’t been taken seriously enough.  It’s okay to feel like you can’t trust your partner all the time. With time and enough work, the path will become smoother and it will even out. 

Holding a Grudge  and Reducing Your Relationship to the Event of Cheating 

It’s perfectly normal to feel like you will never forget your partner has cheated on you. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t forgive them or that you won’t continue to have a happy and fulfilling relationship.  Holding a grudge, however, is another thing. It often means putting the event of cheating at the center of your post-infidelity relationship. And that’s like being stuck in marital limbo.  Perel notes how couples who do this often end up being emotionally dead. That sounds rather scary, doesn’t it?  Source: Photo by Milan Popovic on Unsplash

When an Affair is Exposed, What are Some of the Specific Things Couples Can Do?

Now, the first thing you need to realize after your marriage or long-term partnership has been shaken by an affair is that there isn’t a “right way” to respond to it nor is there one way for these reactions to unfold.  And whatever the outcome in the end – whether you ultimately end up separating or deciding to work on the relationship and stay in it, it’s going to take a while to rebuild trust and intimacy. Wounds don’t heal overnight, and especially not emotional ones, so remember to give yourselves some time.  Let’s see how you can process infidelity both as a couple and how you can move past it. 

Sometimes There’s No One to Blame – So Don’t Play the Blame-Game

I know a lot of people’s instinctive reaction is to think they’ve done something wrong, but this is an unhealthy approach towards the event of the affair and it’s only going to trap you in a loop of self-loathing, rumination and overthinking. 

Try listening to your cheating spouse

Something similar can be said about the cheating spouse. Regardless of the known and unknown reasons for the infidelity (and sometimes there aren’t any clear reasons at all), what you should try doing is leave some space for your partner to explain themselves. As the person that’s been cheated on, try not to make any hasty decisions (I know this can be hard) like immediately leaving your partner or forgiving them altogether. Just give yourself a bit of time to calm down and then set out some time and space to discuss it with your partner, and let them give you their side of the story. 

… And – ask questions, but bear in mind that some questions are better than others 

Don’t be afraid to ask questions and don’t be intimidated if you need to have this conversation more than once since both of you might need more time to process the situation and open up.  Both of you can try and focus on a more dynamic approach to the event of infidelity by talking about it openly as a way to re-evaluate your marriage/relationship. Asking questions is a crucial step here, but some of them will help you more than others.  Esther Perel says that you shouldn’t focus on questions such as: 
  • Where were you? 
  • Where did you do it? 
  • How often did you do it? 
  • Is he/she better than me in bed?
These types of questions will do more harm than good to your overall emotional condition and will not get you any useful information about the status of your relationship.  

Instead, she suggests you stick to what she calls “investigative questions”

These are questions that help you focus on the motives behind the infidelity and the meaning you can extract from the event itself.  These are often questions such as: 
  • What did this affair mean for you? 
  • What were you able to express or experience there that you could no longer do with me? 
  • What was it like for you when you came home? 
  • What is it about us that you value? 
  • Are you pleased this is over?
Of course, these are delicate questions and can yield painful reactions, but they’re also constructive ones and can help you get to a place where the status of your relationship is clearer for the both of you. These are questions that can help you realize whether both, or one, of you, want to stay or go, and also some of the possible faults in your relationship that you might or might not have been aware of. 

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask For Help

And while it’s good to communicate this to your partner, you should also find another outlet where you can feel heard and understood. It can be friends, family members, a local (community) support group, a counselor, or a therapist… whatever you think will work for you. I suggest you try a couple of these ideas and see which one yields the most results for you.  Lots of people after experiencing infidelity turn towards couples therapists and relationship therapists, with or without their partners. Mental health professionals are called professionals for a reason. They can help you communicate better your negative emotions, and help you process feelings of anger, guilt, shock, shame, etc. You don’t have to hold back in front of them because they’re trained to hold an unbiased and non-judgmental approach.  Just remember that there’s nothing wrong in asking for help when you really need it and that taking care of your mental health is just as important as taking care of your physical health. 

Release Yourself From the Pangs of the Past 

It’s not uncommon that after you experience that initial breach of marital trust, you find yourself unable to trust your partner anymore, even when it’s totally uncalled for. While this behavior is quite normal, after a while it can mean you’re struggling to stay out of the past.  I know getting your trust back in your partner after something like that is really hard and it’s a process, it’s definitely not a one-time thing, and it’s got its setbacks and moments of progress.  But, once you’ve both committed to the process of trust re-building, it’s important to stick to it and give your partner some space to earn that trust back and show you you can indeed trust him again. 

Take a look look at this scenario 

A couple with kids, married for more than a decade. The man cheats on the woman multiple times throughout the years and she eventually finds out. But, she decides not to divorce him. However, after three years it seems like she still hasn’t forgiven him or let go of the affair(s). She’s stuck in the past although her husband repeatedly shows signs that he’s ready to mend things. He wants to show her she can trust him, and that he’s indeed committed to her.   If you decide to stay together, then constantly returning to the event (even years after it) as a means of proving moral superiority over your partner is not going to help your relationship at all.  I don’t want to sound as if I’m blaming the one who’s been cheated on for being angry about it. That’s not it at all. I’m just trying to say that if you’ve both shown the desire to stay together and move past it, then you should indeed do so. Holding a grudge can only set you back and gnaw at the relationship. It can make you unable to tackle any of the real issues present in your relationship. 

When you can’t let go of the past, sometimes therapy is the best option 

And that’s why therapy is good in these instances; because it provides for the much needed neutral or third perspective, one that allows you to see things more clearly and explore the motives behind the infidelity and the ultimate meaning that affair had for the cheating spouse, and its relation to you.  Here, it’s not uncommon for people who’ve been hurt by cheating to feel like they’re being attacked since asking them to self-reflect might seem like a call to find the flaws within them.  In these cases, therapists suggest both joint and individual sessions (keeping them confidential, of course), where each partner can resolve their own specific issues, and one where they can work on them together, in the context of their relationship and the affair.  What’s important is to balance the fury of emotions, and to “anchor” the relationship, to recognize that the path towards the rebuilding of trust is not smooth nor is it straightforward, but that it can be reached and walked on.  What’s more, we mustn’t forget and we have to acknowledge that even if people move on and forgive their partners, they still may hurt from the affair. But if you want to move on, you definitely shouldn’t put the focus on “I forgave you/You should be lucky you’re still here”, but on “Let’s build something new over the ruins of the old” instead. You can know and still feel the “ruins”, but they won’t interfere with your new composition. 

You Will Need to Work on Rebuilding Trust With Your Partner 

Rebuilding trust is one of the key points of maintaining your relationship after infidelity.  Rebuilding trust is not a one-time thing – it’s a process that’s going to take a while, and it’s going to require your patience and commitment. But, it can definitely be done.  Source: Photo by Désirée Fawn on Unsplash

What are the essential qualities for rebuilding trust?

According to marriage and family therapist Staci Lee Schnell, who’s also especially passionate about couples determined to stay together, says that there are five essential qualities when it comes to rebuilding trust after infidelity: 
  • Sincerity
  • Consistence
  • Integrity
  • Reliability 
  • Commitment 

Sincerity

Sincerity has to do with being honest and serious about every step that you take in your commitment to save your relationship. It means being transparent and fully open when communicating with your spouse.  This means being honest about what you consider to have been so far the faults in your marriage, or what you’ve been lacking from your partner all this time, about your own (sexual) fantasies, needs and desires, and about what you want to change in your relationship with your partner. 

Consistence

To be consistent means to follow through and to honor the commitments you’ve made at the beginning of your reparatory and healing journey.  “Consistence shows a harmonious agreement within a relationship”, says Lee Schnell.  By following through, you’re showing your partner they can depend on you again, both trust them, but also to do the trusting, again, yourself.  So, for example, if the partner who’s cheated has agreed to visit a therapist for 6 months or a year, they should follow through. The same goes for the partner who’s been cheated on; if they commit to trusting their partner when they tell them they’ll be late for dinner because of work, then they should really follow through and trust them, without becoming paranoid or overly suspicious. 

Integrity

Integrity is an interesting word – it basically means you have the guts to follow and honor the principles of your relationship and act according to a mutual agreement between the partners.  So, partners with integrity won’t keep secrets from each other that would jeopardize their relationship or won’t do the occasional sugar coating. Even when they make a mistake in the process of rebuilding trust, they’ll own up to it. Even if one of them ends up flirting with their co-worker, they won’t sweet-talk their partner into thinking it was just another chitchat by the watercooler.  

Reliability

Reliability and consistency go hand in hand. For your partner, in order to be trustworthy, you also need to be reliable, for your partner to count on you that you’re not doing something that’s hurting them or that you’re here for them even when they’re temporarily demonstrating their worst.  Rebuilding trust feeds of behavior that shows your dependability and reliability. 

Commitment

Commitment and consistency also go hand in hand, so maybe I should’ve put this at the top, since commitment is a big word among couples, especially ones that have already been shaken by infidelity.  Commitment means a lot of things, and owning up to your mistakes, admitting that you’ve cheated and done something wrong that hurt your partner, is definitely one of them. Admitting you’ve cheated and stating that you want things to change are the first steps towards rebuilding your relationship and the trust that’s in its core.  “Commitment shows the dedication each has in the act of repairing the relationship,”  says Lee Schnell.  What Lee Schnell suggests is to talk openly about these five essential qualities when you’re setting goals about re-building the trust in your marriage. Another thing you need to do is regular check-ins to see where you are on the path towards this goal and manage your expectations. 

Try Having Open-Ended Conversations and  Validate Your Partner’s Desires 

So, after an affair, you may end up having conversations you never dreamed of having with your partner. And this can actually serve the purpose of bringing you closer together and saving your marriage.  This, of course, is not an easy terrain to thread and the stakes are often high, as is the reward. You both become extremely vulnerable towards each other the more you open up. But you also don’t put judgment upon the other and their desires, or opinions on the matter.  Rather, the conversation is open-ended, as Perel would say. This also allows us to see our partners in an entirely new light, or rather, an old-new light – people who are once very familiar to us, but also entirely new.  “To break the pattern of internal lies, it’s essential to make space for each person to talk about the past – including the loss, the regret, and the guilt. Every relationship incorporates multiple histories.” says Perel in Rethinking Infidelity

Final Thoughts 

I hope I managed to show you and prove you one thing in this long article. It’s the fact that relationships can survive infidelity and they can be successfully rebuilt after such events.  But it can’t happen overnight. It takes work, it takes commitment, patience, it takes being open, raw, and honest with your partner. You need to truly start listening to them without being judgmental. Accountability is another big word here that I think is just as important for a full post-infidelity recovery.  Now, I understand that for some (or a lot) of people out there this can sound rather overwhelming. But, the good thing is that you’re not alone and you don’t have to do it alone. There are plenty of great marital and/or relationship therapists and medical professionals out there that can help you revive your relationship and make it stronger than ever.  In any event, if you’re ready for a radical change, ready to be vulnerable, open, and honest, then I definitely see a light at the end of the tunnel. Roll up your sleeves and save your relationship!

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