Infidelity isn’t rare; however, 78% of marriages survive infidelity in the United States, so there is reason to believe that the relationship can be saved.1,2,3 While infidelity often feels like a marriage-ending event, it can be the beginning of building a much deeper, more intimate relationship.2
Can a Marriage Be Saved After Infidelity?
Finding out about an affair feels terrible, but with proper help, your relationship can be saved. Affairs are like a symptom of a disease. If properly diagnosed, couples can go on to thrive. Don’t think of infidelity and emotional affairs as a destination that a couple arrives at randomly. The truth is that blissfully happy couples don’t have affairs.
Here are some reasons people cheat on their partner:
- Falling out of love
- Not feeling committed
- Differences in sexual desire or bedroom death
- Feeling neglected
- Being unappreciated
- Sexual boredom and routine
Research shows that infidelity can be a traumatic event that causes lasting damage.4 The individual who cheats must take responsibility for their choices, but it’s safe to say that if an affair occurs, the marriage probably wasn’t in good shape to begin with.
How Does Marriage Counseling Work?
In marriage counseling, a trained therapist sits with both partners (in-person or virtually) and helps them work on their relationship. Couples therapy is more likely to focus on how partners treat each other versus how an individual sees the world. For example, in couples therapy, one client’s depression is seen as something that impacts both partners and the quality of their connection, not just the individual.
Does Marriage Counseling Help After Infidelity?
No therapist can fix anything in one visit, but it’s possible for marriage counseling to help after infidelity. It will take some time to understand the broader scope of the relationship problems, but healing is possible.5 One study found specific benefits to couples who survived affairs, including closer marital relationships, increased assertiveness, better self-care, placing a higher value on family, and prioritizing marital communication.6
The Benefits of Marriage Counseling After an Affair
Affairs can create a rift in our version of reality. It can completely unmoor a person to experience this kind of betrayal. That said, there are benefits to attending marriage counseling together after an affair, including better understanding, renewed trust and intimacy, better communication, and reduced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
After an affair, marriage counseling can help couples:
1. Understand How the Affair Came to Happen
Couples therapy can help the betrayed partner (as well as the perpetrator) better understand how the affair came to happen so it no longer seems like a random, unpredictable event. The more that a person can feel that their life is predictable, the better prepared they will be to start the recovery process.8
2. Identify Pre-Existing Problems In the Relationship
After an affair, couples therapy can help identify any pre-existing problems, patterns, or red flags that may have existed leading up to the infidelity. In exploring these red flags, the couple can practice better methods of interaction and communication.
Here are examples of pre-existing relationship problems:
- The couple has stopped sleeping in the same bed
- They stopped having regular sex
- They stopped sharing their fears and concerns with each other
- One partner felt perpetually judged or shamed by the other
3. Reignite Intimacy
By listening to a couple talk about their patterns, a sharp therapist can hear that they are not utilizing oxytocin to keep their bond feeling deep and close. Then the therapist can coach them in ways to reinstate certain touch-sessions, for example holding hands while they watch Netflix or throwing a leg over your partner while reading in bed together.
Skin-to-skin contact, even if it’s not sexual, can also improve intimacy. Many couples with children enter into a bad pattern where they miss out on time to touch each other. Physical touch releases oxytocin, which is our bonding and caretaking hormone.9
4. Address Childhood Wounds
Good couples therapists can also look for childhood wounds that might have contributed to the affair, including specific attachment issues. When a spouse or partner doesn’t know about these childhood wounds and instead trods on them constantly, it can lead to avoidance, which is fertile ground for an affair to develop.10
5. Reflect on Both Partners’ Involvement
A couples therapist is going to look at how each partner failed to protect the marriage, consciously or unconsciously. We can fail to protect our marriage from interlopers by ignoring our partner’s needs, being preoccupied with our own issues, or over-investing in our kids or jobs such that our partner always feels less than or unimportant. We all need to feel needed.
6. Get In Touch With Your Own Goals & Values
Marriage counseling can help you learn more about yourself and help your partner learn about themself. We grow and change over time, and working with a marriage counselor can be a good way to learn if your goals and values have changed over time or if they are still in sync with your partner’s goals as well. It can be hard to know off hand, so digging deep to understand what may have changed is the first step towards healing.
7. Rebuild Trust
Marriage counseling can help to rebuild trust in a relationship by giving safe space for the couple to experience and to express the full spectrum of their emotions. Trust is the foundation of any healthy relationship, and when that trust is broken it can feel impossible to rebuild that foundation. Marriage counseling can help to rebuild those pieces and equip the couple with tools to be able to carry forward if any future issues with trust arise.
8. Prioritize Communication
Marriage counseling helps to highlight the importance of communication. We need to be able to understand the reasons why our partners think and behave the ways they do, and be able to reciprocate in order for the relationship to grow. It can be hard to know how to do that, and learning healthy ways of communicating is part of what marriage counseling can help with.
9. Reduce Symptoms of Psychological Trauma
PTSD after infidelity is common, so if one partner was cheated on they may respond to changes in schedule or a partner being on their phone a lot with suspicion. PTSD is important to understand in the context of a marriage or relationship. It is important to honor the experience of that partner and find ways to manage it as a couple and be sensitive to it when it is still very raw. This helps the individual with the PTSD symptoms feel more at ease, heard, seen, and valued.
10. Consider the Role of Substances
A couples therapist may inquire about substance use. If one partner is over-using substances when the other is not, they may feel disconnected.11 This can lead to them feeling lonely and enjoying the attention of others outside of the marriage. Again, a couples therapist can educate the couple on the destructiveness of the problem at hand and help them build more solid and healthy patterns.
How to Prepare for Marriage Counseling After Infidelity
If you are considering counseling after an affair, the most important thing to do to prepare for couples therapy is for both of you to commit to at least a handful of visits—this increases your chances of success in marriage counseling. Making sure that the affair is disclosed prior to entering therapy will improve your odds of staying together, too.7
What To Expect When Starting Marriage Counseling After Infidelity
In counseling for cheating, the therapist will probably want to see you regularly at first, so plan on going weekly until the dust settles, which can be a few months. To get the most out of therapy, studies suggest that you continue attending sessions for at least six months.12
When it comes to other expectations for marriage counseling, be prepared to take some responsibility for your side of things, regardless of whether you are the cheater or the person cheated on. A good couples therapist is going to want to look at all sides. Try to be open to delicate questions. Intimacy may be hard to talk about but it’s sometimes part of the larger picture.
Some couples therapists will want to see you separately as well as together. Others believe that this can accidentally reinforce the idea that some things can’t be talked about openly with your partner. You should inquire about your therapist’s stance on this before you get started.
Who Should Attend Marriage Counseling?
Marriage or couple’s counseling can be utilized by anyone in a committed relationship who needs support in navigating their relational issues. It can be for those who are dating with the intent to become engaged, those who are recently engaged, newly weds, or those who have been married for years. Couples counseling can improve any kind of relationship.
How To Find The Right Couples Counselor For You
One of the easiest place to start your search for a marriage and couple counselor is through an online therapist directory. If you want a more personal touch and are willing to confide in a family member, friend, physician, or religious leader, they may know a licensed therapist in your area with whom they’ve had positive interactions.
Since trauma is a very important part of affairs, it’s important to find a therapist who understands trauma—not just how it impacts a person’s mood but also how it impacts the brain.13 Ask the therapist how they plan to address that component of the affair recovery.
Potential questions to ask your counselor before starting therapy include:14
- Do you have experience working with affairs?
- What is your success rate? How do you define success?
- What is your position on telling couples to divorce/stay together?
- Do you have experience with things like sex addiction, pornography addiction, alcoholism, other substance addictions, gambling, etc.?
- Are you familiar with attachment styles?
Another option for couples considering divorce who are experiencing some ambivalence is discernment counseling. This is often brief work with a therapist that’s focused on gaining clarity and confidence in a path forward.
Regardless of the exact approach you move forward with, finding a therapist you trust is key. If you don’t have any confidence in your counselor after 3-4 sessions, then move on and find another one.
When to Walk Away From a Relationship After Infidelity
Some therapists are comfortable telling clients they think the relationship isn’t salvageable while others are not. In either event, it’s ultimately up to the people in the relationship to make that choice. Sometimes, one partner behaves in ways that signal they’re not ready to change. If that’s the case, it may be time to walk away.
Signs that your partner may not be ready to do the work are:
- Refusal to attend therapy
- Attending sessions but not participating fully or canceling sessions frequently
- Continuing to see the person they had the affair with or continuing to act out sexually outside the marriage
- Refusal to hear your side of the situation and only wanting to talk about their own pain, feelings, or needs
- Using any kind of threat (verbal, physical, emotional, financial) to keep you in the relationship or to get you to stop talking about the affair
- Continuing to be evasive when asked direct questions such as “Why were you home late last night?” or, “Have you seen that person since you told me?”
- Refusal to turn over passwords to accounts, have GPS monitoring on their devices, or be fully transparent in an effort to restore trust
- Refusal to undergo testing for sexually transmitted diseases
- Blaming you for the affair without acknowledging any of their own responsibility
- Minimizing your feelings of betrayal (using sayings like, “It was only once,” or, “I don’t love that person.”)
Final Thoughts On Marriage Counseling After Infidelity
Most couples survive infidelity and actually report levels of happiness that are as good if not better than couples who sought help for other problems. While it can be painful to talk about betrayal and admit the ways we may have contributed to the problem, the rewards are substantial. Learning healthier ways to manage problems can promote healing and lead to a sense of pride for both partners.15,16,17