Infidelity causes intense emotional pain — anger, disbelief, fear, guilt, shame. But an affair doesn't have to mean the end of your marriage. Understand how a marriage can be rebuilt after an affair.
By Mayo Clinic staff
When an affair is first discovered, both partners feel as if the world has collapsed — you're left wondering whether your marriage can survive.
Few marital problems cause as much heartache and devastation as infidelity. Money worries, disagreements about children or a serious illness can strain a relationship. But because of the deep sense of betrayal, infidelity undermines the foundation of marriage itself.
Divorce doesn't have to be the inevitable resolution to infidelity. With counseling, time to heal and the mutual goal of rebuilding the relationship, some couples emerge from infidelity with a stronger and more honest relationship than before.
When an affair is discovered
The initial discovery of an extramarital affair can trigger a range of powerful emotions for both partners — shock, rage, shame, depression, guilt, remorse. Both members of the couple may cycle through all of these emotions many times in a single day — one minute vowing to end the marriage and the next wanting desperately to save it. At this point, it's important to take one step at a time:
- Get support. For your own well-being, seek support from family, friends, a pastor or counselor — people you trust and feel comfortable with. Talking about your feelings with those you love can help you cope with the intensity of the situation. Objective support can help you clarify what you're feeling and put the affair into perspective. However, avoid confiding in people who you know will take sides — this tends to increase the emotional intensity of the situation.
- Give each other some space. Both partners need a break from the emotional stress generated by the discovery of an affair. Although difficult, experts advise taking a "timeout" when emotions are running high.
- Take time. Avoid delving into the intimate details of the affair with your partner at first. Postpone such discussions until you can talk without being overly accusatory or destructive. Take time to absorb the situation. You may need to air out your feelings with someone who is a good listener before you can have a constructive conversation with your spouse.
What is infidelity to you?
Infidelity isn't a single, clearly defined situation. There are different kinds of situations that some may consider infidelity. What's considered infidelity varies among couples and even between partners in a relationship. What may be acceptable for some couples may be unacceptable for others. Similarly, what is tolerable for one partner in a relationship may be intolerable for the other partner. For instance, is it infidelity if your partner is attracted to someone outside the marriage — but never acts on it? Is an emotional connection without physical intimacy infidelity? What about online relationships? If your partner is regularly chatting intimately with another person online, is that infidelity?
As a general rule, a person who is having an affair:
- Feels a strong sexual attraction to someone other than his or her partner
- Feels the need to keep the relationship a secret, and uses lies and deception to do so
- Feels emotionally closer to this person than to his or her partner
Recovering from an affair is a difficult and ongoing process. But it's possible to survive an affair. Marriage counseling can help you put the affair into perspective, explore underlying marital problems, learn how to rebuild and strengthen your relationship, and avoid divorce — if that's the mutual goal.
Understanding why an affair happened is crucial to recovering your marriage. Affairs can happen in happy relationships as well as troubled ones. The reasons vary:
- The involved partner not getting enough from the marriage relationship or, conversely, not contributing enough to it
- Low self-esteem
- An addiction to sex, love or romance
- Fear of intimacy
- A life transition, such as the birth of a child or an empty nest
- Acting on impulse while under the influence of alcohol or other drugs
- A means of ending an unhappy marriage
Moving on: Steps to help recover your marriage
Although every relationship is different, often these steps are necessary to help mend a broken marriage:
- End the affair. First, the affair must end. This includes any and all interaction and communication with the lover. True reinvestment in your marriage can't happen without this.
- Be accountable. If you've had an affair, take responsibility for your actions. If you were cheated on, consider the role you may have played in your spouse's unhappiness and reasons for straying.
- Determine your shared goal. Be sure you both agree that you want to mend your marriage — but don't make this decision in the heat of powerful emotions. It may take some time to sort out what's happened and to see if your relationship can heal. If you both arrive at the goal of reconciliation, it's important to realize that recovering the marriage will take time, energy and commitment.
- See a marriage counselor. Find a marriage counselor who will help you restore your marriage if that is the mutual goal. Seek help from a licensed counselor who's trained in marital therapy and experienced in dealing with infidelity. Avoid therapists who see an affair as the end of marriage.
- Identify the issues. Infidelity often points to underlying problems in your marriage. Examine your relationship to understand what has contributed to the affair, and what you need to do to prevent it from happening again.
- Restore the trust. Make a serious commitment to rebuilding your marriage. Go to counseling together to help visibly confirm the commitment and to prevent secrecy from continuing to erode your relationship.
- Talk about it. Once the initial shock is over, discuss what happened openly and honestly — no matter how difficult talking or hearing about this may be. Know that you might need the help of a marital therapist to be able to talk constructively about it.
- Give it time. If you were the one cheated on, you can set the timetable for recovery. Often the person who's been unfaithful is anxious to "put all of this behind us" to help cope with his or her guilt. Allow each other enough time to understand and heal.
- Forgive. For many people, this is the hardest part of recovering from an affair. Forgiveness isn't likely to come quickly or easily — it may be a lifelong process. Talk to a counselor or spiritual advisor about what forgiveness really means. Don't use forgiveness to cover uncomfortable issues that you think are too hard to face. If you're committed to your partner and your marriage, forgiveness tends to become easier over time.
- Recommit to your future. What you're going through is emotionally devastating. But times like this can make people and marriages stronger than ever before.
The end — or not
Not every marriage touched by infidelity can or should be saved. Sometimes too much damage has been done, or both partners aren't committed. Painful as it is, it's important to acknowledge when this is the case. But if both of you are committed to rebuilding your relationship and you have the strength and determination for the task, the rewards can be great — a partnership that grows in depth, honesty and intimacy.