While the majority of couples disapprove of infidelity, national surveys show that 15% of women and 25% of men have had intercourse outside their long-term relationship. Those percentages increase when including emotional affairs or affairs that don’t lead to intercourse.1 In general, extramarital relationships can be devastating, but couples who face them aren’t necessarily doomed. Recovery is possible with effort and support.
Infidelity is a violation of a prior agreement made between partners regarding their sexual and/or emotional exclusivity. What each person considers infidelity may differ (e.g., one partner may consider watching pornography as cheating while the other doesn’t, or one partner may perceive infidelity to be only sexual while another believes an emotional affair is as much of a violation). Setting clear boundaries and expectations about what fidelity means to each partner is important.
What Causes an Affair?
The causes of infidelity are varied and complex, with interplaying relational and personal factors contributing to the unique situation. A lack of relational or sexual satisfaction is one prominent contributor. Fulfilling relationships include reciprocity of affection and validation, as well as honest communication. If these attributes and others such as safety, relationship stability, and emotional and physical intimacy decline, the relationship may become susceptible to infidelity.
Relationships may also be vulnerable during times of transition, such as when young children begin attending school or after adult children leave the home. Personal factors that contribute to infidelity include unhappiness or low self-confidence. The thrill or pursuit of an affair can be invigorating and ego-boosting, too.
Reasons why people cheat can include:
- Lack of affection
- Being emotionally unavailable
- Feeling lonely or neglected by partner
- Fear of intimacy
- Avoidance of conflict
- Seeking change or variety
- Falling out of love
- Commitment issues
- Self-esteem/body issues
Should You Save Your Marriage After an Affair?
Although healing from infidelity or an emotional affair is challenging, if you and your partner are willing to put in the work, you can find happiness again. However, you must be honest with yourself. Is this relationship something you want to continue? There is no “right” decision. Ask yourself whether you have the energy to invest in healing.
Note that even if the relationship doesn’t work out, putting in work can still help you recover and move on. If you or your partner are having a hard time making a decision regarding whether or not to work on or continue the marriage, discernment counseling can help you figure it out.
How to Save a Marriage After Cheating: 11 Steps
If, after cheating, you and your partner decide to try and save the marriage, there are some steps to take, including seeking marriage and couples counseling, practicing transparency, and atoning for betrayal. Taking these steps gives you a better chance of saving the marriage or at least coming out stronger on the other end.
Here are eleven steps to save a marriage after an affair:
1. Seek Couples Counseling
A couples therapist can help you navigate rough waters and keep you on the right path. This is a crucial first step. Experts claim that trying to fix the relationship without help from a skilled professional is a bit like attempting to perform knee-replacement surgery with a “home kit.”2
To prepare for couples counseling, call and ask questions to understand how they work. Ask about their training, experience, and process of treating infidelity. Of course, you will need to be sure they are a good fit in other ways as well, such as location, schedule, price, etc.
2. Don’t Make Any Rash Decisions
Taking some time and space after an affair can help you cool down your thoughts and feelings so you can make decisions with a regulated nervous system. When you are in the height of your sadness or anger, you may make decisions you’ll regret later.
3. Take Time Apart
Taking time apart to rethink and reconsider your goals and values in life is important. Time apart can help to rediscover the intimacy in the relationship and give both partners a softer approach to their issues when they come back together.
4. Be Accountable & Atone for Your Actions
If you are the one that cheated, you must be willing and able to express ongoing remorse without defensiveness or excuses.3 Regardless of the issues in the marriage prior to the affair, the decision to have the affair rests solely with the partner that cheated. The betrayed partner has to see their partner take full responsibility for their actions.
5. Talk About the Affair
Many well-meaning people often give the advice that the affair should not be discussed. Although talking about the affair is painful for both parties, it must be done. The partner who had the affair had a whole secret life the betrayed partner did not know about. If these secrets remain secret, the disconnect will continue.
The betrayed partner must be given space and time to ask questions about the affair and understand what happened. The partner who had the affair must be willing to provide full disclosure.
Here are several questions to ask the partner who cheated:
- When and how did you meet this person?
- Where did you go? How often did you meet?
- How often did you communicate and in what ways? What did you talk about?
- Was there sexual activity (kissing, hugging, sexual talk)? When and how did you decide to make it physical?
- Do any of our friends know? How did they find out? Do people at work know? What about family?
- What attracted you to him/her?
- Do you love him/her? When did you know you were in love? Do you still love him/her?
- When did you last see him/her?
- Have you broken up? When? How?
The only questions the betrayed partner should not ask are questions about specific sexual acts. Affairs are traumatic for the betrayed partner and many people will experience symptoms of infidelity post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or betrayal trauma as a result.4
Ideally, these conversations should occur in a couples therapy session. However, if you do have conversations at home, limit any late-night confrontation as sleep deprivation can worsen negative emotions. If the conversation begins to escalate, take a break and work on self-soothing. Escalating quarrels during this time will only enhance negativity and disconnection.
6. Provide Transparency & Verification
When an affair is revealed, trust is shattered. In the beginning stages of healing, the betrayed partner will be on alert for ongoing betrayals and will need transparency and verification. Transparency means that the partner who had the affair is 100% open and honest about their life including their whereabouts and any unavoidable contact with the affair partner.
Ideally, the relationship with the affair partner can be severed completely. However, this is not always possible. If contact with the affair partner is unavoidable, the partner who cheated must voluntarily share all interactions with their spouse when they occur.
Verification means that the betrayed partner is able to verify what their spouse is telling them is true. Verification may include the betrayed partner having access to their spouse’s phone, email account, GPS, bank statements, etc. Whatever the betrayed partner needs to trust should be discussed and provided.
7. Explore What Went Wrong & Reasons For Returning to the Relationship
Understanding what made the relationship vulnerable to an affair (i.e., why people cheat) is necessary to feel safe again. Most of the time, couples can identify a feeling of distance and disconnection. But what led to that? Both parties must understand their role. However, this must be done without blaming the betrayed partner for the affair.
It is also important that the betrayed partner understands why their spouse has returned to the marriage. This is another step that is required for the betrayed partner to feel safe, move forward, and begin to trust again.
8. Rebuild Trust
Rebuilding trust takes time, effort, forgiveness, and an ongoing effort to prioritize the relationship. Remember, both partners play a role in rebuilding trust, and it’s a key factor in any healthy relationship.
9. Set Boundaries About Any Future Betrayals
It must be explicitly discussed and made clear via setting healthy boundaries that another future betrayal would mean the end of the relationship.2 Although this conversation can be difficult, it provides necessary clarification and understanding about the consequences of broken trust in the future.
10. Work On Forgiveness
If your partner is working on atoning, doing things differently, and earning your trust back, it’s your job to continue to work on forgiveness. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you forget or condone the behavior. It means that you’re making a conscious decision to work with your partner on rebuilding trust in your relationship. This isn’t easy, but it’s one necessary for the marriage to survive.
11. Work Together to Build a New Relationship
Understanding what made the relationship susceptible to an affair is important, but it’s not enough. You must also work together to learn how to do things differently. This involves learning how to share, attune to one another’s feelings and needs, have structured conversations, fight fair, and manage relationship conflict productively. Most of us were not taught these skills, so seeking help from a trained couples therapist is crucial.
Once you feel closer emotionally, you can begin the process of rebuilding your intimate relationship as well. This step involves learning how to communicate in a healthy manner about sex and developing a satisfying sexual relationship for both of you.
How to Respond if You Were the One Cheated On
If you have been betrayed, you will experience a vast range of intense, painful emotions. Your whole world has been turned upside down and you may question whether you ever knew your spouse at all. There are, however, steps you can take to help yourself (and the marriage) begin to heal, including sharing your emotions, seeking support, and practicing self-care.
Here are positive ways to respond if you were cheated on:
1. Share Your Emotions (Without Attacking Your Partner)
You have every right to feel difficult feelings and express them. In fact, it’s crucial for your own healing to do so. However, the manner in which you express these feelings is important. You need to be heard and understood, but if you express your emotions with criticism or contempt, it creates a barrier between you and your partner.
To share feelings and needs without blame, follow these steps:5
- “I feel:” share a feeling such as sad, angry, hurt, betrayed
- “About X:” describe what’s making you feel this way as nonjudgmentally as possible
- “I need:” share a positive need with your partner
2. Seek as Much Support as You Can
There will be times when you need to express yourself and vent without worrying about how you are saying things. As such, it is important to find people in your life that you feel safe doing this with. This could be a friend, family member, and/or individual therapist. Having a few people like this would be ideal so that if one is unavailable, you can call another.
3. Practice Self-care
Although you may not feel like engaging in self-care, this is a time when these practices are most important. Try to stick to a routine as much as possible, get some exercise, eat healthy, and do your best to get good sleep. Engage in pleasurable activities and find additional outlets for your emotions, such as journaling, meditation, or yoga.
4. Be Patient & Gentle With Yourself
There will be good days and bad days – times when you feel like things are improving only to be triggered and sent into a regression. Although frustrating, this is normal. With time and support, the pain will lessen. If you try to rush the process or deny your feelings, healing will take longer. Be patient with yourself and show the same compassion you would to a friend.
How to Find a Marriage Counselor
When it comes to finding a marriage or couples counselor, begin your search in an online therapist directory where you can narrow down your search by specialty, cost, location, and more. Find a couples therapist who has specific training and/or experience with infidelity. Without this experience, they can actually do more harm than good. You want to make sure that you are getting the kind of sound advice that will improve your chances of full reconciliation.
Final Thoughts on Saving a Marriage After Cheating
Talking to a therapist or reaching out to a trusted friend or family member can help you get through the pain of an affair, and if both you and your partner put in time and work, you can mend old wounds. Whether you want to reconcile is up to you, but no matter what path you choose, remember, you’re not alone and you won’t always be suffering.