You’ve got a choice to make. It doesn’t even matter who did what. You’re standing at a three-tined fork in the road, and there’s no turning back. One of you betrayed the other and your marriage, and the only secrets left undisclosed are the details. “Surviving marital infidelity” is now the tagline for your day-in-the-life-of documentary.
You can succumb to the weight of betrayal, pain, embarrassment, anger, and shame, calling it quits in an effort to wipe the slate clean. Cut your losses, suffer the blow, fabricate the story you’ll tell going forward, and end things now.
You can stay in your marriage and try to move on as if nothing has happened. Maybe even buy a bigger house so you can tiptoe around the elephant in the room for the rest of your lives.
(Good luck with that.)
Finally, you can stay in your marriage and do something about it. You can step off the pillory, cut off the scarlet letter of Puritan damnation, and commit to the painful but redemptive work of repairing your marriage.
There is also the possibility that you and your spouse will want to travel different tines. And then what?
You may not even know how to make a choice right now. And you may not even recognize when you are making a choice. Surviving marital infidelity is just that difficult, whether you survive with your marriage or without it.
If you and your spouse want to come through this together, despite the invisible horizon in your landscape, you’re going to need help.
You’ve seen or even known couples who have come through infidelity. You’ve also seen or known couples who just couldn’t do it.
Why do some couples make it and others don’t? What do the successful couples know or do differently that the now-divorced couples don’t?
Whether or not a marriage survives an affair is influenced by a cluster of tangled factors. The type (sexual, emotional) and length of the affair, whether it was discovered or disclosed, the identity of the affair partner…. They all affect the temperament of the recovery and your decision-making processes.
Ultimately, it’s the vowed determination of the spouses to see their marriage through the “worse” in hopes of reaching the “better” that saves them.
Some couples may wonder if surviving marital infidelity is possible without counseling. While there may be legitimate reasons (e.g., financial) that a couple can’t go to couple’s therapy, counseling greatly increases the chance of success.
Let’s look at 6 of the most impactful reasons that surviving marital infidelity requires therapy.
Infidelity is not only painful, it’s confusing.
Learning that your marriage, family, life, and dreams have been unraveled by one person’s choice messes with your mind. It confuses and challenges everything.
Even the person guilty of the affair can feel conflicted, confused, and indecisive.
Here you are, two parties of the same marriage, and you are suddenly living in two different universes. Different needs, different hurts, different questions, different fears.
Making a permanent decision in this early, uninformed state would perhaps be easy, but it’s not wise.
The fact that you don’t have clarity doesn’t mean that it’s not available to you. It’s simply not going to reveal itself out of nowhere.
You can’t rebuild your marriage with skills you don’t have.
Surviving marital infidelity – coming through it together – requires graduate-level communication.
If you’ve coasted along in your marriage without attention to your communication skills, post-affair isn’t the time to expect miracles from them.
It’s often when you’re exposed to healthy communication that the source of many of your issues reveals itself.
Working with a husband-wife therapy team, for example, can immerse you in a calmer, more intimate, collaborative counseling experience. You receive both the safety to bare your soul and a modeled education in how to do so effectively and responsibly.
Given that saving your marriage is going to take a ton of communication, doesn’t it make sense to get a higher education?
There may be underlying issues that only a trained psychological professional can recognize and treat.
Let’s make one important point perfectly clear: No one is responsible for another person’s choice to cheat.
But…both spouses are responsible for the condition of their marriage before the affair. And both are responsible for how they deal with the aftermath.
Having said that, it’s possible that there are underlying issues that only a trained professional can recognize.
For example, one or both partners may have an avoidant or anxious attachment relationship style.
And, while neither is an excuse to have an affair, their possibility could point to latent, misunderstood, un-/mis-communicated, or rejected needs.
There are other possible influences, such as depression, medical conditions, and even past history of sexual violence toward one of the partners.
Returning to the importance of communication, issues must first be understood and owned before they can be expressed and reconciled.
Both spouses will need to learn how to trust again…in very different ways.
In the early days of your relationship, it was probably easy to see things with a common vision. You dreamed together, planned together, stuck together.
You relied on one another as devoted allies and knew the other had your back.
Now, however, you are in this precarious position of having to build an alliance between the betrayer and the betrayed.
You both have to learn to trust again, but in very different ways, from very different vantage points.
In the first Sex and the City movie, Miranda and Steve see a couple’s therapist to deal with Steve’s indiscretion. Steve asks how he’s supposed to know that Miranda won’t punish him for the rest of his life.
The therapist answers, “You don’t. And she doesn’t know for sure that you won’t have another indiscretion.”
Trying to DIY recovery from infidelity is risky.
It’s natural and understandable to ache for some kind of relief now. You want assurances that simply can’t be given by signing on a dotted line.
You want to know what and whom you can trust. You want to know what you have. And, if you are the betrayed spouse, dammit, you want answers! Details, confessions, groveling. You want the freedom to hold a 24/7 tribunal.
You have a right to answers, and you both know you do.
But, despite the indiscretion, your spouse deserves boundaries and safe disclosure, too.
It’s unlikely that the two of you know how to put healthy boundaries around your discussions.
Therapists who specialize in marriage, infidelity, and divorce know how to navigate this very delicate matter. They know how many miles you can safely travel in one day without doing more harm than good.
And they know how to guide the exploration into fragile emotions without letting either of you break.
Perhaps you and your spouse are driven apart as much by the same old fights as you are by the infidelity. Perhaps those fights even gave one spouse the resignation to find peace and affection outside the marriage.
If you couldn’t resolve your fights on your own then, how do you think you’re going to resolve them on your own now?
There is no guarantee, obviously, that your marriage will survive the affair that broke it.
However, if you can see through the darkness of all the hurt to even a glimmer of light and possibility, you have hope. And hope is a worthy foundation on which to build.
Surviving marital infidelity is the test of a lifetime. But it can lead you to a depth of intimacy you once took for granted or didn’t even know existed.
When answering Miranda and Steve’s fears about not being able to trust again, their therapist says, “All you can know for sure is that you want to move forward and that the love you have for one another won’t let that happen. And that’s what we’ll discover here.”
Mary Ellen Goggin offers relationship coaching for individuals and collaborates with her partner Dr. Jerry Duberstein to offer private couples retreats. To learn more about working with Mary Ellen, schedule a ½ hour complimentary consultation.