Infidelity can shatter even the strongest relationship, leaving behind feelings of betrayal, guilt, and anger. For the one-quarter of married couples who have suffered this breach of loyalty, according to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, overcoming those feelings can be extremely difficult.
But with the support of family, friends, a good therapist, and each other, it is possible for a couple to put the cloud of an affair behind them, and in some cases, emerge as a stronger unit.
For others, an affair is too heavy a weight for a relationship to bear, and parting ways may be the only answer. But before a fighting couple both head for the door, there are steps that can be taken that might help the relationship get on the track to healing. Experts tell WebMD why someone might have an affair, how an affair can be overcome, and how to know when it's time to call it quits.
Cause and Effect
"There are many different reasons why someone might have an affair," says Michele Weiner-Davis, MSW, a marriage and family therapist in Illinois. "Sometimes it is purely a case of bad judgment -- a person may feel satisfied with their marriage, but a late night at the office with a co-worker and a couple of glasses of wine can lead to lack of impulse control. More commonly, it's a search for an emotional connection -- wanting someone to pay attention to you, flatter you, be attracted to you."
Whatever the reason for the affair, the effect infidelity has on a relationship is devastating.
"Nothing rocks a person's sense of self, trust, and marriage more than infidelity," says Weiner-Davis, author of The Sex-Starved Marriage. "Infidelity leaves people questioning their sanity, as well as everything they believe to be true about their spouse, and about the viability of their marriage. Infidelity is crippling."
People find themselves crying a lot, not being able to concentrate, being upset, and feeling depressed.
"These are all of the initial emotions that go with the discovery of the betrayal," Weiner-Davis tells WebMD. "However, emotions change over time."
When the initial shock of an affair is over, then it is time for both people in the relationship to examine what role they played in letting the relationship slide down such a slippery slope:
- "You have to stop the affair, first and foremost," says Jamie Turndorf, PhD, a couples therapist in New York. "You can't reinvest in the marriage if you have one foot out the door."
- Remember that there will be ups and downs after an affair. "The road to recovery after an affair is jagged, and that is completely normal," says Weiner-Davis.
- "The person who had the affair needs to be willing to discuss what happened openly if the betrayed spouse wants to do that," says Weiner-Davis.
- "The person who had an affair has to be willing to be accountable for his or her whereabouts, even though he or she thinks that may be unfair," says Weiner-Davis.
- "There needs to be a willingness to make promises and commitments about the future, that an affair will not happen again," says Weiner-Davis.
- The betrayed person should set the timetable for recovery. "So often the person who cheated is eager to put the past in the past, but he or she really has to honor the other person's timetable," says Weiner-Davis.
- "The person who had the affair should examine the personal reasons for straying and what needs to change to avoid the temptation in the future," says Weiner-Davis.
- As for moving forward, both people in the relationship should take responsibility for building a new foundation. "Both people in the relationship should ask the other what he or she can do to rebuild the connection and what actions should be avoided because they are breaking it," says Turndorf, author of Till Death Do Us Part (Unless I Kill You First). "Even the person who was cheated on should say to herself, 'What role did I play in driving you away and what can I do to make you more connected to me in the future?'"
- Try marriage therapy or take a marriage education class. "You really need to find a counselor or therapist who is pro-marriage, and can help get your relationship back on track," say Weiner-Davis. "Steer clear of therapists who see infidelity as a marital death sentence -- it isn't."
Calling it Quits
When taking steps toward repairing a relationship after an affair just doesn't seem to be working -- and marriage counseling has failed as well -- a couple may start to think about calling it quits.
"When you can't stop fighting, when there is an inability to partially identify with the other person, when there is too much hurt and too much anger, and you are unable to bury the hatchet, these may be warning signs that the relationship can't be saved," says Turndorf.
For Carol Corini from Maynard, Mass., who was married for 19 years when she found out her husband was having an affair, this was the case.
"We always got along pretty well and we both thought it was a good marriage," says Corini. "But he just changed: he had problems getting older, he obsessed over every wrinkle, stressed over turning 50, and he started hanging out with younger people at work. And one day he told me that he didn't think it was wrong to get divorced if people aren't happy, and I thought that was weird -- but I didn't think he was having an affair."
After Corini found out the truth, her first reaction was shock.
"At the time, I was devastated and I wanted to save our marriage," says Corini. "I would have gone to therapy and tried to fix it, but he said he didn't think there was a need for that. He was looking for something different -- a challenge, a change, someone younger. He had this girlfriend for six months to a year before he said he wanted a divorce."
George S., a salesperson from Boston who asked to remain anonymous, was married for five years before he found out his wife was having an affair.
"I noticed a couple of things: there was little to no passion on her side, which was unusual," says George. "She would jump down my throat for everything, and that was a snowball effect -- that would make me not show her affection. And in my gut, I knew -- she'd come home late at night at 3 a.m. and say she was out with her friends, and that's just not her."
George had already asked his wife to try marriage counseling, and she agreed, but then it fell apart.
"I was out one night and I saw her with another man," says George. "She was still wearing her wedding ring."
After taking some time and thinking about it, George decided against saving the marriage.
"I think the reason why the marriage couldn't be saved was that a predisposed decision was already made in her mind to not save it -- which is why she was having the affair even though we were in counseling," says George. "Finding out about the affair put things together for me and I realized I just didn't want it anymore."
For these marriages and others, there is no hard and fast rule that indicates a marriage is over.
"There is no objective criteria that says a marriage can or can't be saved," says Weiner-Davis. "A person has to decide what he can or can't live with, and what energy he is willing to invest in making things right."
After the Affair
Many couples can't get over the devastation of an affair -- like Carol Corini and George S. -- but some can.
"I'm a firm believer that the vast majority of marriages can be resurrected after infidelity," says Weiner-Davis. "And as odd as it sounds, an affair can be a blessing in disguise -- not that I would recommend one because I don't, but through the process of healing, a couple may find that they've grown closer."
Even though it may be hard for both people in a relationship to consider that their future life will feel normal again, explains Weiner-Davis, it is possible.
Both Weiner-Davis and Turndorf emphasize the importance of a good marriage counselor or therapist, the support of family and friends, and ultimately each other, in rebuilding a marriage after infidelity.
Published Oct. 27, 2003.
Medically Updated: April 2006.