Wave washing over a heart carved in the sand.

Surviving Infidelity As A Couple: Can Your Marriage Make It?

There’s a question everyone in the aftermath of infidelity asks: Can we survive this? Usually, at least for the betrayed, there’s a more singular concern: Can I survive this? While the prospects of surviving infidelity as a couple may seem counterintuitive in the wake of decimated trust, it happens every day.

“Surviving” a traumatic experience like infidelity isn’t without ambiguity. We are, after all, talking about human relationships, not blood tests or mathematical formulas.

Does survival mean you don’t get divorced as soon as the affair is discovered or disclosed? 

Does it mean you never get divorced? 

Does it mean you and your spouse take ownership of your roles in your marriage and renew your commitment to its survival? 

Does it mean you try to save your marriage but eventually succumb to the damage done?

The questions are relevant when talking about surviving infidelity as a couple because “survival” means different things to different people.

Even the most cursory Google search will provide a variety of statistics regarding infidelity and how couples navigate its aftermath. 

For example, up to 40% of marriages will suffer a spouse’s unfaithfulness. And more than half of those couples will stay together.

But what about the affairs that skim along under the radar? Or never reach a point of unequivocality? Or never get discovered or disclosed before fizzling out?

And what about the marriages that survive for a while – perhaps years or until the children leave home – but just can’t stick it out?

Statistics can zero in on any chosen aspect of research. So it’s important to “listen” to what’s really being said – the parameters of the study, the number of subjects, the conclusions, the definitions of relevant terms.

Extensive study by the American Psychological Association, for example, found that 53% of couples who experienced infidelity were divorced within five years.

So, technically, did they “survive”? 

Was the affair just the straw that eventually broke the camel’s back? 

Did the first-betrayed spouse have a retribution affair several years after his/her spouse’s affair? 

Was the eventual divorce really about the affair or about years of accumulated marital grievances and dissatisfaction?

The point is, there are statistics that shed light on every possible outcome.

But you’re not just another statistic. No spouse and no marriage is.

So, when it’s your marriage that has to deal with infidelity, things get personal. And statistics become nothing more than bookmarks on pages of possibility and probability. 

Handy references, encouragement when needed, cautionary predictors when you can’t make sense of your own circumstances. They serve their purpose, but they shouldn’t be the basis for your own decision.

The hope of surviving infidelity as a couple has an important underlying question: Why do some couples make it and others don’t? 

What is it that successful couples know and do that enables them to survive infidelity, both as a statistic and as a model for healing?

There is no platitude in telling you that a marriage ravaged by infidelity can survive. It can even thrive – again or for the first time.

But don’t delude yourself into thinking that wishing makes it so. 

Surviving infidelity on your own is hard enough. 

Surviving infidelity as a couple…well, to steal a line from the movie Jaws, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

As incongruent as it sounds, the underlying qualities of your marriage before the affair can set you up for success or failure after the affair.

But wait. Affairs happen only when marriages are “bad” and couples are unhappy, right?

Not necessarily.

As boggling as it is to believe, affairs are not limited to the miserable, angry, and sexually dissatisfied. 

Many happily married people with no glaring issues in their marriages are baffled by their own lure to cheating. And their underlying motivations are often deeply seeded beneath layers of longing for self-discovery and self-fulfillment.

Sounds almost…”innocent,” doesn’t it? Like an inoffensive, unacknowledged component of “the human condition.”

But infidelity is offensive, disruptive, divisive, devastating. And it is always a preventable implosion into the most painful experiences of the human condition because it involves choice.

What does all this have to do with your marriage and whether it can survive an affair?

Everything, actually.

Surviving infidelity as a couple demands that both of you are committed to coming through the other side together. 

The inherent irony of this fundamental requirement is that it insists upon the best of each and both of you. You will be like “hostile witnesses” working toward the same outcome – enemies hell-bent on reclaiming and strengthening your alliance.

There will be non-negotiables for and from both of you.

The cheating spouse must end the affair. Completely. Forever.

S/he must be truly, authentically remorseful. Without remorse, s/he will eventually lose any resolve to go through the required self-surrender ahead.

S/he must lie prostrate before the altar of accountability. Dramatic but true. Passwords, curfews, no correspondence privacy.

S/he must also face the tribunal of painful, humiliating, embarrassing questions from the betrayed spouse. And there must be answers. Honest, exposing, hurtful answers. 

All this laying bare must be suffered with a commitment to just the hope of healing the deep wound, making reparation, and coming through together.

And what about the betrayed spouse? Does s/he get to revel in the cheater’s reversal of fortune with endless reminders and punishment?

Some would say yes.

But you’re here to learn if your marriage can survive an infidelity. And surviving infidelity as a couple implies work, sacrifice…and forgiveness…from both of you.

The betrayed spouse has work to do, as well. 

Feelings need to find raw but healthy expression. 

Questions need to step on the scale of necessity-and-benefit-vs.-potential lasting harm.

Both spouses, including the betrayed, must take responsibility for the marriage itself. What made it less than what it could and should have been? What does it need now to be all it can be?

Surveillance, monitoring, and distrust need to have time limits. How else will the offending spouse be able to prove remorse, change, and a strengthened commitment?

This work is hard. It’s delicate. And it’s long. 

Learning how to communicate with your spouse after an affair takes more than a reliance on established communication skills. 

It takes guidance and modeling, ideally from a husband-wife therapy team that can ground your journey in gender-balance and demonstrate healthy, safe conflict-resolution skills.

It also takes a willingness to bring to the table all the qualities that made your relationship good in the first place:

  • Do you have an underlying respect for one another? 
  • Have you always wanted one another’s happiness and well-being?
  • Have you always enjoyed one another’s company?
  • For the most part, do you speak kindly to one another, even when disagreeing?
  • Do you genuinely care about one another’s feelings?
  • Do you have happy memories of your life together? 
  • Do you admire your spouse’s parenting? 
  • Is the depth of your grief (and anger) rooted in the perceived loss of love and joy that defined your relationship? 
  • As angry, lost, and confused as you are right now, would you miss your spouse and your friendship if you divorced?

Couples that make it through infidelity together never forget what happened. How could they? The scars are always there.

But scars tell stories. 

And sometimes the story of a near loss becomes the playbook of commitment to a marriage that will stand the test of time.

Can your marriage make it?

The playbook is yours to write.

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, contact her here.

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Mary Ellen Goggin

Mary Ellen is a highly skilled and intuitive relationship guide. She brings over 35 years’ experience with individuals and businesses as a lawyer, mediator, personal coach and educator. She received her J.D. at University of New Hampshire Law School and a Master’s Degree at Harvard University. Mary Ellen co-authored Relationship Transformation: How to Have Your Cake and Eat It Too with Jerry Duberstein — and they were married by chapter 3. Mary Ellen brings a unique blend of problem-solving, practicality, and warmth to her work. She’s a highly analytic person, with geeky and monkish tendencies. She’s a daredevil skydiver, a voracious seeker of knowledge, and an indulgent grandmother. Her revolution: helping people become the unapologetic rulers of their inner + outer realms. Read more about the retreats