Should You Stay in a Relationship After an Affair?
Love is a beautiful thing. However, a once sweet love can quickly turn sour after discovering your partner has been unfaithful. Despite feeling betrayed, you may wonder if there may be a chance that the two of you could remain together and work things out. But is this the right choice? We consulted with marriage and family therapist Eboni Harris and love, intimacy, and sexuality coach Michele Fabrega to get their opinions on how to proceed after infidelity.
The Cheat Sheet: What are some common reasons for cheating?
Eboni Harris: Affairs happen for so many reasons such as sex addiction, someone seeking something missing from their marriage, or a result of being under the influence. Whatever the reason, the person who cheated made a decision to break the rules of the relationship and they alone are responsible for that decision.
Michele Fabrega: There are many reasons for an affair and often several of these are involved: novelty seeking; feeling unfulfilled, sexually or otherwise, in one’s relationship or with oneself; opportunity and whim; revenge and trying to hurt each other; feeling depressed or lost; feeling neglected and unappreciated; desiring freedom; wanting to rediscover lost parts of oneself; a way to feel alive and/or to escape from recent losses in one’s life. Sometimes, a person might have a sex addiction and may find it very difficult to stop this behavior. Also, if someone drinks or takes drugs, she or he might make decisions under the influence that she or he would never make sober.
CS: If you were cheated on and choose to stay, what are some ground rules you should set with your partner going forward?
EH: The partner that cheated has to give the betrayed partner time to grieve. They are grieving the loss of the relationship they thought they were in. As the person that cheats, you do not get to tell your partner how to move on or how soon they should get over it. The next rule needs to be transparency in the relationship. After infidelity has been discovered, there will be lots of questions and arguments over details. Be as honest and as clear as possible. This seems to be the hardest part because the unfaithful partner will still try to protect themselves and/or their betrayed spouse. They only see more damage being done if they are completely transparent. While this can be true, spouses seem to fare better when they can turn to their spouse and know they are getting the truth rather than deception or defensiveness. As for the betrayed spouse, it is important to work through their anger. It is important that they do not make decisions based in revenge, especially if they haven’t decided how they would like to move forward. It is OK to take breaks, to be upset, to cry, to yell, scream, etc. It is not OK to have revenge affairs, damage property, or abuse your partner (physically or emotionally).
MF: Both partners need to look honestly at the role they each played that led to the affair. What was the state of the relationship before this happened? The person who had the affair needs to express their regret at hurting their partner. Taking a broader view can really help a couple move through it. Some people might insist that their partner end any connection with the affair partner. This can seem like a good idea, yet it can lead to its own problems of a partner feeling that they are “on-leash” and are a “bad dog.” Over time, this can lead to shame and feeling “less than,” which are not conducive to growing a healthy relationship. It’s important to put aside curiosity about the actual details of the affair; this serves no value except to create more hurt. Instead, get to know why the person had the affair. What did the experience bring them? What was missing from their life? What did they learn about themselves and what they want? Also, it’s important for the person who was deceived to have a chance to share their feelings and be heard by their partner, yet this is not permission to blame and criticize. A counselor can help the deceived partner share their feelings skillfully and responsibly, like using “I” statements and staying on one’s own side of the net, for example talking about their own thoughts, feelings, and body sensations.
CS: How can marriage counseling help? How do you know a specific marriage counselor is right for you and your spouse?
EH: Marriage counseling can help couples work through the grieving process. Along with giving couples a safe place to discuss the infidelity and how it has and will change the relationship, counseling can also educate couples on the work it takes to restore their relationship. Even if the couple had other issues prior to the infidelity, the focus should first be on helping the couple cope with the relationship as it is presently. Betrayed partners often have symptoms that look similar to post-traumatic stress disorder. It is important to find a therapist who understands that infidelity is not caused by problems in the relationship. If you feel like the therapist is blaming you or your actions for your spouse cheating, that is not the right person to help your relationship. Look for a therapist who allows you to grieve that lost relationship and helps you understand that you will have to build a brand new relationship. It is always good to find a therapist who has experience working with infidelity but it is most important that both of you feel safe and comfortable in sessions.
MF: Marriage counseling is a great source of healing and support. For most couples, I think it is a key investment to have the best chance at getting to a better place together. Where else can a couple get confidential support and guidance without judgment? A couple who is recovering from an affair might not want to reveal the affair to friends or family, since this can bring judgment and unwanted advice. Deciding what to do after an affair is an individual and very personal decision and no one else can really know what is best except the people involved. Both people need to feel comfortable with the counselor and this person needs to be unbiased and compassionate toward both people in the couple. Staying away from blame and getting into discovery mode is key. What are each of us missing in our relationship? What do we need from each other? What do we need for ourselves as individuals? Some couples might even choose to change their agreements around monogamy going forward.
CS: How do you know when it’s time to get a divorce and move on even after trying to work on the marriage?
EH: No one can tell you the exact moment to get a divorce. Rebuilding trust is a long and stressful process. After infidelity it sometimes feels like you are creating a new marriage. Here are some reasons you may want to consider divorce:
- The infidelity has not stopped since the discovery and your partner does not show any intention of ending the affair.
- If your partner is unwilling to go to counseling or receive any type of assistance to help you mend your relationship.
- Your partner still blames you for their infidelity and/or will not take full responsibility for their actions.
- As the person that cheated, you are not willing to go through the long and arduous journey it takes for you and your partner to get through your infidelity.
MF: I think it depends. Sometimes, if a relationship was already dying, it can be hard to take it to a better place. Yet in some cases, people can be even happier than they ever were before the affair since they are more real and honest with each other — they have more connection and intimacy than before. They re-discover what they love about each other now that they’ve risked losing each other. Sometimes, they can reawaken their sexual desire for each other or even find a new level of passion together.