The scourge of infidelity can feel like a death blow – to your heart, to your marriage, to your family. And yet, you may be clinging to every breath of hope that you can survive it. But do you know how to save a marriage after cheating has imploded its very foundation?
We all know it happens. Men do it. Women do it. Hollywood exploits it. And cheating has a spectrum that spans from emotional to sexual.
A 2019 survey revealed that only 16% of couples who experience infidelity survive it.
And yet, a host of factors influence that statistic.
Married couples are more inclined to fight for their relationship. Women are more inclined than men to stick things out after being cheated on. And one-night stands are more often tolerated than emotionally-vested, long-term affairs.
The unfortunate reality of infidelity is that not knowing how to save a marriage after cheating can itself be a death blow. From denial to uncontrolled, misdirected anger and blame, couples trying to DIY their own recovery often cause their own demise.
With the right information, skills, and guidance, employed by choice and determination, couples can come through this betrayal.
Without these better angels, couples are likely to fall into the 84% of failed relationships.
As marriage therapists, we deal with the heartbreak of infidelity all the time.
Through our marriage retreats, we teach proactive marriage protection as well as how to save a marriage after cheating.
The fact that a couple may “learn the hard way” doesn’t mean their marriage will forever be dumbed down by a scarlet letter.
Those who genuinely want to change themselves for the salvation and enrichment of their marriages can truly triumph. We have celebrated many couples who have transformed their relationships into extraordinary examples of commitment, perseverance, and forgiveness.
Every relationship and every infidelity is unique, despite common, recognizable attributes. As we explore these tips for how to save a marriage after cheating, be honest about your own role in implementing them.
Whenever we delve into this sensitive topic, we do so knowing that some people are looking for a way out. And some are overturning every stone for any hope of staying together.
While there are “things that must be done,” the same conclusion umbrellas all of them:
In other words, just as marriage is a choice and infidelity is a choice, so too is surviving infidelity in your marriage a choice.
Here are some of the essential steps to saving your marriage after an affair.
End the affair completely.
This may not be so difficult if the affair was a one-night stand. But, when an affair involves a deep emotional investment and/or has gone on for a long time, ending it can be difficult.
The cheating spouse may feel “committed” to two people and may feel responsible for the welfare of the affair partner. The idea of never seeing or speaking to the person again may seem out of the question, if not impossible.
Your marriage, however, has to be given your full attention and commitment if it is to survive. Trust can never be restored otherwise.
Don’t make any rash decisions.
Discovering an affair is shattering to every fiber of your being. In a flash…everything is changed, imagined, “gone.”
Either one of you may be inclined to run (or kick the other out).
But this isn’t the state of mind that makes good lasting decisions. Scream, cry, beat a pillow, sleep in separate rooms until it’s safe for you to drive somewhere for some space.
Just don’t do anything with lasting consequences while in a state of anger, panic, or despair.
Give one another space if necessary.
You may need to process the affair in your own space or with limited contact, as in the presence of a therapist.
Whether that means separate rooms or separate homes for a while, honor what space is necessary to provide peace and clear thinking.
Get help for your marriage as soon as possible.
If you knew how to save a marriage after cheating, you probably wouldn’t be in this position in the first place.
The skills necessary for saving a marriage are the same skills that help a marriage to thrive in fidelity.
Using the same mindsets and communication skills that got your relationship to this point is the proverbial definition of insanity.
If you aren’t ready to throw in the towel on your marriage, give yourself the greatest chance of success. Reach out to the experts.
You may have never dealt with this before. But we deal with it all the time.
Be accountable for your actions.
It’s easy to expect the cheating spouse to fess up and take all the blame. And, when it comes to using an affair as a way to deal with unmet needs, that spouse bears full responsibility.
However, in terms of the marriage’s vitality and malaise, both partners bear accountability. No one person gets credit for all the good while the other takes all the blame for the bad.
This process will undoubtedly be difficult for the betrayed spouse who is reeling from shock and emotional devastation. But there are always ways in which the marriage languished in vulnerability and thirsted for more tender care.
Coming to terms with those areas of weakness is an essential step in rebuilding a stronger marriage.
Be honest about your feelings.
How sad it is that many couples have to suffer something like infidelity in order to learn emotional intimacy. But how redeeming and hopeful it is that so many hunger for it and are willing to learn.
Both partners will need to be honest – and accountable – in expressing their feelings. Feelings of hurt. Feelings of longing. Feelings of anger. Feelings of loss. Feelings of fear, shame, embarrassment, hopelessness.
This won’t be a one-time conversation. It will be ongoing. Expansive. Involved. Heart-rending. Difficult. Exhausting. Risky.
This is one of the steps of healing that is profoundly helped by the guidance of a husband-wife therapy team.
Work to restore trust.
The work of restoring trust will fall heavily on the shoulders of the cheating spouse. S/he will have to become almost impossibly transparent, humble, and accountable.
But trust goes both ways, and the betrayed spouse will also have to work to be trustworthy.
For example, s/he will expect to receive honest and complete answers to very delicate questions about the affair.
The other spouse will understandably be hesitant to be completely forthcoming if met with shame, ridicule, or revenge when trying to answer.
The betrayed spouse has to be able to trust that the cheating spouse has ended the affair and is completely committed to the marriage.
And the spouse who strayed has to be able to trust that his/her willingness to be transparent will be respectfully received.
Work to forgive.
The challenge and transformative power of forgiveness cannot be better articulated than how Dr. Jay Kent-Ferraro describes them:
“Forgiveness that is grounded in ‘true love’ is as much about the willingness of the forgiver to evolve as it is for the forgiven to be worthy of forgiveness based on a genuine shift in expected behavior over time. Both are fundamentally choices; whether or not a marriage can be repaired rests more upon a decision to grow by leveraging the hurt, as brutally painful as it is, and choosing to use it as a source of evolution, both individually and as a couple, rather than a rallying call for the destruction of a marriage and family.”
No one walks down the aisle knowing how to save a marriage after cheating. The mere contemplation of the idea can seem almost taboo.
But so many couples end up desperate to know, not ready to give up, despite facing what seems unforgivable.
And, once again, all the effort involved in saving your marriage will come down to this: Is your marriage worth it? Are you willing to do the work? And are you willing to give it time?
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.