The pain and shock of discovering a partner’s infidelity can be one of life’s most traumatic events. As such, it should come as no surprise that it often takes several years for couples to effectively repair a relationship after infidelity comes to light.
Some things to keep in mind about surviving infidelity:
- Many couples are able to recover from infidelity and can develop a stronger relationship with more intimacy and closeness (see counseling helps).
- Several factors influence how successful couples are at saving a relationships after an affair: the quality of the relationship prior to the discovery of infidelity, both partner’s commitment to making a relationship work, effective communication skills, and counseling are critical to successful recovery.
- The true motivation underlying infidelity can sometimes be hard to identify. As such, couples may come up with explanations which do not adequately explain what happened. If this is the case, the underlying problem does not get addressed and cheating is likely to happen again. Even ending a relationship may not resolve the problem because infidelity can often follow individuals into their next relationship.
- Serial cheating is much more difficult to resolve than a onetime affair as it is often linked to personality characteristics, which can be very difficult to change.
- While infidelity often occurs in healthy relationships, infidelity can also be an indicator of larger relational problems such as a fundamental incompatibility or a lack of love and companionship.
Stages and Advice for Dealing with Infidelity:
Stage 1 – Trauma of Discovery
Romantic relationships are built, in part, on positive illusions.
Discovering infidelity shatters those illusions, it creates a lot of uncertainty, and it raises fundamental questions such as:
- Who are you?
- How could you do this to me?
- What is our relationship about?
The initial shock of discovering an affair and the uncertainty it creates, often leads to the following reactions: depression, anger, shame, obsessive thoughts, dwelling on the details of the affair, inability to concentrate, and monitoring a spouse’s every move.
The best way to deal with these initial reactions is to discuss one’s feelings in a supportive, non judgmental environment. An environment where someone will simply listen without offering knee-jerk reactions or advice.
Advice is typically not useful at this point in time, as people are too emotionally distraught to think clearly or make decisions that are in their best interest. Having someone who will listen, however, is important. Feelings become less intense and less intrusive when they are shared with people who care.
As such, it may not be useful to express one’s disappointment with a spouse at this point in time. Immediately after the discovery of an affair, cheating spouses are probably unable to listen and provide support. And sharing such intense, emotionally charged feelings with a spouse may create a defensive reaction a denial of what happened, an attempt to shift the blame, or withdrawal. Unfortunately, such responses are only likely to intensify one’s negative feelings.
As a general rule, sharing feelings with someone who is not willing (or able) to listen often has the opposite effect unacknowledged feelings become more powerful.
Ultimately, support groups, individual counseling, family, friends, and message boards can be very useful when dealing with the initial shock of infidelity.
Stage 2 – Relational Trajectory
After the initial shock has subsided, it helps to make an assessment of how both partners want to resolve the problem. Is there a genuine concern, expressed by both parties, to try and save the relationship?
Or is one side ambivalent about how they feel or confused about what they want to do? If so, how will this ambivalence get resolved? To save a relationship after infidelity, it requires two people working toward the same goal.
Again, individual counseling is often useful for couples who are ambivalent about their feelings or are uncertain about the future of their relationship.
In some cases, a post-nuptial agreement may be worth considering. Is a cheating spouse willing to demonstrate his or her commitment to the relationship by putting their financial assets on the line?
Stage 3 – Repairing a Relationship and Restoring Trust
If both parties decide that they want to try and save their marriage, the next phase is the most difficult.
To begin with, it requires understanding the motivation underlying the affair and taking steps to change the factors which led the unfaithful partner to cheat.
People often lack insight into their own behavior, and if they do understand why they cheated, they often do not want to disclose this information with a spouse—thinking that doing so will only cause more problems. However, if the real issues are not identified, they are less likely to get resolved.
And by approaching this problem as a couple, it can empower a spouse, who has been cheated on, by providing a sense of control. Working together to fix the problem can bring back a sense of certainty or reassurance, which is important when trying to restore trust.
In addition to identifying the motivation underlying the affair, it is essential to candidly discuss the details of what happened. Again, most cheating spouses attempt to hide the details of the affair, thinking that telling the truth will only lead to more problems.
But, concealing the details of the affair, often leads to lingering questions, which if not addressed, are unlikely to go away on their own. And if questions linger, it can be nearly impossible for a spouse not to dwell on the incident.
Revealing the truth can be painful, but it is necessary when trying to move forward.
Both of these issues, identifying the motivating factors underlying the affair and discussing the details of what happened, are difficult for most couples to manage. These tasks require tremendous insight and effective communication skills. If these two issues are not handled effectively, it can lead to further problems—more anger, resentment and frustration.
Given the skills needed to work through these issues effectively, couples counseling is almost always needed (see Is It Time For Marriage Counseling?).