Can a Marriage Survive Infidelity?
Marriage and relationships
As a therapist specializing in couples therapy, the most common question people ask me is this: can a marriage survive infidelity?
Marriage and committed relationships move through changes and stages. When married couples are together for a long time, they face challenges as each individual moves through the natural phases of life. They will have experiences together and apart. And the way that they deal with those challenges (if they move away from or toward each other) leaves them more or less vulnerable to infidelity.
When people make vows and commitments for their lives together, they place trust and faith in another human to uphold their promises. And in most cases, care for their emotional well-being. While marriage is common, the idea of trusting another person to be your support system is inherently vulnerable. When the person to whom you’ve made these promises, and who has made these promises to you, is the one who betrays you, the aftermath can be utterly devastating. In a single moment of disclosure or revelation, your entire sense of reality, safety, and comfort can be shattered. Your idea of your marriage as you knew it is lost forever. You might even question if you can trust yourself.
As devastating as they are, affairs in relationships are extremely common.
At least one or both parties in half of couples (married or cohabitating) will break vows and go outside of the relationship.
Infidelity is one of the most challenging events a couple will face together over the course of their story. Emotional trauma, emotional abuse, broken trust, and the pain of betrayal are all factors that need to be dealt with to survive infidelity. The way an affair is handled at the onset of disclosure is crucial in the potential for repair and for the marriage to survive. An affair does not necessarily mean the end of the relationship, but healing takes time.
In this post, I will break down if and how a marriage can survive infidelity, how couples can engage in a healing process, and the importance to rebuild trust to move forward.
Being in love doesn’t protect people from lustFrank Pittman
Can a marriage survive infidelity?
When you are in the midst of disclosing or discovering infidelity in your relationship, the idea of healing might feel completely hopeless- which is totally understandable. The cheating partner might not have the capacity to face their actions. And the betrayed partner might not be able to imagine healing from intrusive thoughts and uncomfortable emotions resulting from the experience of betrayal. The question of whether a marriage can survive infidelity might seem completely out of reach.
Some couples who have had an unfaithful partner may end up getting a divorce. Sometimes partners cheat as a way to escape a marriage that is not working.
However, many couples who experience affairs do not ultimately get a divorce. For some couples, the infidelity reveals something that needed to be addressed in the relationship that the incident brings to light. For some, the affair is actually a cry to their partner for attention. (Important note: there is typically not an excuse or justification for infidelity. However, understanding why the affair happened can help the healing process for both partners).
If you have been betrayed, or if you have betrayed your partner and feel regret and remorse, there is hope to build a new relationship based on trust and connection if both partners are willing.
What is infidelity in marriage?
In the book Not “Just Friends”, Shirley Glass defines infidelity as a traumatic event for the betrayed partner. Where a person once felt safe and secure in their relationship, they now feel attacked, threatened, and unsafe. Betrayed partners can experience grief, anxiety, obsessive thoughts, and physical health symptoms as a result of the stress of finding out about an affair.
Different relationships may have different implicit or explicit definitions of what constitutes an affair. Sexual intercourse does not need to have occurred for there to be infidelity. Generally, when there are secrecy and lies that surround a relationship outside the marriage, an affair is alive- whether emotional, physical, or sexual.
The impacts of infidelity bleed beyond just the unfaithful partner and the betrayed partner. Other members of the family, even if details of the affair are not disclosed, will inevitably be impacted by the stress on both of the partners. Going through such a stressful and impactful event almost always makes partners less effective at work and in their social relationships as well.
Conceptions in the media portray affairs as selfish people seeking thrilling, new sexual experiences. However, the reality is that affairs are generally not premeditated, manipulated events. But rather, gradual crossing of boundaries in a relationship outside the marriage until the individuals realize how far they have gone. Typically when affairs have happened, a perfect storm of factors- opportunity, a vulnerability, and an experience of lust- collide.
Another misconception about affairs is that being in love can protect a marriage from infidelity. However, there is no research to support this conception. Instead, relationships need conscious boundaries to protect from the gradual shift in peer, social, or work relationships to ones of infidelity.
Signs your marriage will survive infidelity
As a couples therapist working with partners who have had infidelity in their relationship, here are some promising signs, and some necessary conditions, for healing moving forward.
- Both partners are committed to taking the steps required to heal
- The cheating partner comes clean about the infidelity and is open to answering questions the betrayed partner has
- The cheating partner takes accountability for their actions and the impact they had on the relationship
- The cheating partner is willing to be a source of healing for the betrayed partner
- You both feel connected enough to each other to have hope
Tips for moving on from infidelity
End the affair + be 100% honest
The first non-negotiable step in working toward the healing process in scenarios of infidelity is to create safety for all partners. To establish a sense of safety, the cheating partner must commit to work toward honesty and full disclosure. This means that the cheating partner must end the affair and answer questions the partner has about the events that occurred honestly.
While some people may worry that sharing the details of the event may further traumatize the betrayed partner, it is critical for the unfaithful partner to answer their questions honestly to rebuild trust. If the betrayed partner does not have all of the information, they cannot consent to their involvement in a relationship in the future.
Couples should seek to communicate openly and honestly about the affair, while avoiding the four horsemen where possible. The cheating partner should be open to sharing and answering questions as they work to rebuild trust and their credibility, a process that will take a long time.
The unfaithful partner must acknowledge the impact of their actions on their partner. In addition to answering questions, they must be open to holding accountability for the damage and trauma of the relationship and of their partner.
The cheating partner should be open to exploring what was happening for them individually that resulted in emotional and sexual vulnerability. While they should not seek to excuse or justify an affair, they can offer their partner a chance to empathize and have a clearer understanding of the events that occurred. And ensure they create a new way of interacting to prevent another similar encounter in the future.
Go to couples counseling
Couples therapy is typically necessary to survive infidelity. Affairs are such hugely impactful, traumatic, triggering events, that married couples almost always need a neutral, trained third party to guide them in conversations that will be effective in their healing process.
A couples therapist, particularly an Emotion-focused therapy couples therapist, can help couples to stabilize emotionally as they evaluate whether and how they wish to move forward. They can help couples to acknowledge and process their pain. Which, left untreated, will project outwards on other relationships in the couples’ lives and on their ability to function.
A therapist will also guide you in how to talk to one another about the affair. While anger is understandable, communication patterns that center on interrogation, shaming, or defensiveness will not guide you closer to the healing process.
Once stabilized, a therapist will help you to understand why the affair happened. And the ineffective patterns present that left the relationship at risk. The reasons the cheating partner decides to betray their partner may or may not be conscious. Meaning, they may decide to pursue something outside the relationship or succumb to lust and excitement, without evaluating what their emotional needs were. While any context discovered will not excuse or justify the affair, understanding the conditions that lead to it will help both partners have clarity in their story and trust in their future together.
Eventually, a therapist will guide couples in how to develop secure attachment. Which is a safe, reliable bond that will keep you connected in future instances of distress.
If you are located in Florida, we offer Marriage Counseling in Naples, FL– virtual services- reach out to inquire about availability.
Let go of your old relationship
When I work with couples who have experienced infidelity, I always tell them at the start of treatment to be ready to process, grieve, and release their old relationship so that we can make space for something new, stronger, and connected.
While the conditions of your relationship do not cause someone to act out infidelity, it is extremely important to create new ways of communicating in the relationship and boundaries to protect the relationship to reduce the vulnerabilities of an affair happening in the future.
Letting go of your old marriage is a complex process that involves grieving. Partners may grieve their ideas of what their past looked like after being told new information about their partner’s actions outside the marriage. They may also grieve a sense of innocence and assurance they thought they could rely on. Couples should support each other in making space for all of these emotions by communicating honestly. And being open to hear one another.
Create shared meaning
Married couples who decide to move forward from infidelity and come out stronger than they were before have something in common- they want their suffering to mean something. They want their pain to translate to new growth and stronger bonds than they’ve had in their relationship before.
This step and transformation is possible. It also requires a lot of work and time for the betrayed partner. And the unfaithful partner, to see this painful, traumatic experience as an opportunity for healing. Once partners can have empathy for one another’s pain associated with the relationship, they can work together to build a shared story about their experiences and a new narrative for their future together.
Don’t rush it
Couples therapists tend to agree that outside of domestic violence, infidelity is the most difficult relationship problem to overcome. It can take years to overcome this type of betrayal and its ripple effects.
When you consider the experience of being human, most of us have the same basic emotional survival needs- to be connected to others we care about, to be able to trust our partners, to be needed and loved. Infidelity can shatter our ability to attain these needs in an instant.
Healing is possible. Healing happens gradually, in small shifts and stages, that allow partners to see one another again. Level set your expectations, give each other space for the wide range of emotions that will surface, allow the process time, and the marriage may survive.
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