can my marriage be saved after an affair?

November 12, 2018

This is the second installment in my Affair series this month.  If you missed the first one, catch up here.

What do you do if you find out your spouse had an affair?  How do you decide whether to try to save the marriage or leave it?  These are good questions and they are complicated to answer. There isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ approach to affair recovery, as many contributing factors determine the severity of the betrayal and level of hurt.  Nevertheless, if you’ve found yourself in this situation, there are a few critical things for you to do, or consider, as you work to recover from the rupture to your relationship.

Initial Damage Control

When an affair comes to light, the first few weeks are usually the toughest, with both of you in survival mode.  The objective during this time should be damage control – making sure you are preventing further injury to the relationship. Specifically,

  • Limit your discussion about the affair – This does not mean avoiding all talk of the affair. In fact, it must be talked about for healing to occur. But this does mean setting limits as to when and how long you will talk, so that you aren’t taking about it every minute you are together.
  • Stay calm & be patient for answers – There are things you should not talk about, especially at the beginning and especially without the assistance of a therapist. I always tell clients who struggle with this that they will get their answers, just not all at once. Disclosure, like recovery, is a process.
  • Make some topics off limits – Betrayed spouses often think they want and need to know “everything”. But there are some things, specifically the graphic details of the affair, that are not helpful to recovery and therefore should not be discussed. In my experience, these only serve to re-traumatize and create images in your head that are difficult to ever move past.  I’m going to cover obsessive thoughts and flashbacks in my next installment and will touch on this in greater detail then.
  • Don’t do more damage – I’ve seen many times where the betrayed spouse feels a sense of entitlement and will behave badly, shoveling anger and shame at their spouse, and telling the kids and anyone else who will listen what happened. Don’t. Even a cheating spouse doesn’t deserve this kind of retribution. It’s not about letting anyone off the hook. It’s about getting through a tough situation in the healthiest way possible.
  • Get checked for STDs And insist your spouse does the same.  I’m always amazed at how often the betrayed spouse is hesitant to do this, and even more amazed when they blindly believe their spouse who promised they always used protection. This is the same spouse who just cheated on you!  Get checked and cease all sexual contact, at least until your spouse has also been checked.
  • Find a good couples therapist Affairs are tough. Really tough. This is not the time to try and go at it alone, without the help from a professional experienced with affair recovery.

Should you stay or go?

Did your spouse reveal the affair or did you catch him/her?  Was it one affair or multiple ones? How long did it last? Who was it with?  Was it a physical or emotional affair? These are just some of the factors that may influence what the post-discovery process will look like for you.  

Generally, you can expect the first year post-discovery to be a roller coaster of emotions.  Yes, a year. Affair recovery is not for the faint of heart.  

You may find yourself feeling softness towards your spouse and hope for your marriage one day, only to be in so much pain the next, that you can’t imagine continuing in the relationship.  This vacillation between hope and despair is normal and it’s why I recommend allowing your emotions time to settle before making permanent decisions.

To be clear though, I am not telling anyone they must stay in their marriage for a year after an affair. When your spouse cheats, you have every right to leave the relationship. And if you know that’s what you want to do, then this doesn’t apply to you.  But for those of you tortured by the thought of whether you want to stay or go, I encourage you to ride it out, letting the waves of emotion settle first, while gathering more information.

As you are processing whether you want to stay in the marriage, here are some important things to consider:

  • The level of betrayal – Is there a common pattern of repeated betrayal? Does your spouse lie or manipulate often? Or, are they generally dependable and trustworthy?  
  • Does your spouse take ownership? – Are they remorseful when they hurt you and do they know how to make repair? Or are they ambivalent? You may have feelings of ambivalence towards the marriage because of the affair, but you may also see it in your spouse, as ambivalence tends to bounce between the partners. If your spouse is ambivalent or fails to show much remorse, it can be very painful and will increase the work to be done within the repair process.
  • How motivated is your spouse to help you heal? Is your spouse willing to talk about the affair and work as a couple to help you get through the hurt and pain caused by his/her choices? Or, do they simply want to apologize, hope you forget and move on?
  • Is there a sexual addiction? If yes, this adds another layer to the recovery process, assuming your spouse is motivated enough to address the addiction. If he/she is unwilling to address it, you can expect the chances of repeat offenses to be very high.
  • Is your spouse willing to end the affair? By end it, I mean no further contact or communication with the affair partner. If they are not, I generally recommend putting the marriage on hold and initiating a controlled separation.  This could mean living in separate parts of the home or one of you moving out. It definitely means not sharing a bed or engaging in sexual relations.

I’m still unsure

If you or your spouse still find yourself questioning whether staying together is or isn’t the right answer, we can help you fully evaluate your options.  One of our counselors or coaches can guide you through a discernment process designed to provide further clarity and assess your level of motivation to work on the relationship. They can help you visualize what your future together or apart might look like 5, 10, or 15 years down the line, and help you remember what was good (and what was hard) in the past.  You will also evaluate how your decision will impact the rest of your family, including the kids. All of these are important factors as you decide how you want to move forward after the affair.

Can my marriage be saved? Can we heal from this?  

My short answer – YES. Most marriages do heal after an affair.  Not surprisingly, your odds generally increase in proportion to your motivation and commitment. I find that when one or both spouses are somewhat ambivalent and on the fence about the marriage, the marriage is healed about 50% of the time. But when you have two committed, highly motivated people – even when they are coming into the process hurting and extremely reactive – as much as 80% of those marriages find healing.  An affair absolutely does not have to mean the end of your marriage. There can be hope for your marriage after an affair, and if that is your goal, we can help you find it.

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