Few marital problems cause as much heartache and devastation as infidelity. Money worries, health issues and disagreements about children can strain a relationship — but infidelity undermines the foundation of marriage itself.
Divorce isn't necessarily inevitable after infidelity, however. With time to heal and a mutual goal of rebuilding the relationship, some couples can emerge from infidelity with a stronger and more intimate relationship.
Infidelity isn't a single, clearly defined situation — and what's considered infidelity varies among couples and even between partners in a relationship. For example, is an emotional connection without physical intimacy considered infidelity? What about online relationships?
Keep in mind that affairs are largely fantasies. The person outside of the marriage is often idealized and seen as an escape from real problems.
Why affairs happen
Many factors can contribute to infidelity, some of which aren't fundamentally about sex. Some factors stem from individual problems, such as low self-esteem, alcoholism or sexual addiction. Marital problems that have been building for years can also fuel an affair. Generally, a person who's having an affair:
- Experiences sexual attraction to someone other than his or her partner and decides to act on this feeling rather than suppress it
- Keeps the affair going in secret by resorting to lies and deception
- Confides in someone other than his or her partner about his or her marital problems
- Feels a stronger emotional connection in a romantic way to someone other than his or her marital partner
- Develops unrealistic fantasies about someone other than his or her partner, and doesn't listen to information to the contrary
Discovering an affair
The initial discovery of an affair usually triggers powerful emotions for both partners — shock, rage, betrayal, shame, depression, guilt, remorse. At this point, it's important to proceed with caution:
- Don't make rash decisions. If you think you might physically hurt yourself or someone else, seek professional help immediately.
- Give each other space. The discovery of an affair can be intense. You might find yourself acting erratically or unlike yourself as you attempt to grasp what has happened. Take a "timeout" when emotions are running high.
- Seek support. Share your feelings with trusted friends or loved ones, or talk to a spiritual leader or counselor. Objective, nonjudgmental support can help you process what you're feeling.
- Take your time. Avoid delving into the intimate details of the affair right away. While you might share simple facts upfront, consider waiting to discuss more-complex issues — such as motivation — until you're further along in the healing process.
Mending a broken marriage
Recovering from an affair is a difficult and lengthy process. Still, it's possible for a marriage to survive — and even improve — after an affair. Consider these steps to promote healing:
- Don't decide. Before choosing to continue or end your marriage, take the time to heal and understand what was behind the affair. Learn the lessons that might prevent future problems.
- Be accountable. If you were unfaithful, take responsibility for your actions. End the affair, and stop all interaction or communication with the person. If the affair involved a co-worker, limit contact strictly to business, or get another job.
- Be honest. Once the initial shock is over, discuss what happened openly and honestly — no matter how difficult talking or hearing about the affair might be.
- Consider shared goals. It might take time to sort out what's happened and to consider whether your relationship can heal. If you share a goal of reconciliation, realize that healing the marriage will take time, energy and commitment.
- Consult a marriage counselor. Seek help from a licensed therapist who is specifically trained in marital therapy and experienced in dealing with infidelity. Marriage counseling can help you put the affair into perspective, identify issues that might have contributed to the affair, learn how to rebuild and strengthen your relationship, and avoid divorce — if that's the mutual goal. Consider asking your counselor to recommend reading material on the subject, too.
- Restore trust. Go to counseling together to confirm your commitment to the marriage and to prevent secrecy from continuing to erode your relationship. If you were unfaithful, you might be anxious to put the affair behind you and move forward — but it's important to let your partner set his or her own timetable for recovery.
- Forgive. Infidelity is emotionally devastating. Forgiveness isn't likely to come quickly or easily, but it can become easier over time. Keep in mind that forgiveness doesn't mean forgetting or discounting what happened.
Not every marriage affected by infidelity can — or should — be saved. Sometimes too much damage has been done or reconciliation remains elusive.
If you do choose to rebuild your marriage, focus on rebuilding trust. Talk about your fears with your partner — whether you're afraid of being betrayed or never being trusted again. Share your feelings, listen to each other and reset your marital boundaries.
If both of you are committed to rebuilding your relationship and you have the strength and determination for the task, the reward can be a partnership that grows in depth, honesty and intimacy.