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David Baxter PhD

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Infidelity: Mending your marriage after an affair
By Mayo Clinic Staff
May 5, 2006

Infidelity causes intense emotional pain ? anger, disbelief, fear, guilt, shame. But an affair doesn't have to mean the end of your marriage. Work hard to understand and rebuild.

When an affair is first discovered, both partners feel as if the world has collapsed ? you're left wondering whether your marriage can survive.

Few marital problems cause as much heartache and devastation as infidelity. Only physical abuse is more damaging to a marriage. Money worries, disagreements about children or a serious illness can strain a relationship. But because of the deep sense of betrayal, infidelity undermines the foundation of marriage itself. An affair is far more likely to lead to divorce than is any other issue.

Nearly one in four married men and more than one in 10 married women have had extramarital affairs ? ranging from casual flings to long-term relationships with deep emotional attachments. Ongoing emotional and physical relationships are hardest on a marriage.

Despite these numbers, divorce doesn't have to be the inevitable resolution. Marriages can survive infidelity. With counseling, time and a shared goal, some couples emerge from infidelity with a stronger and more honest relationship than before.

When an affair is discovered
The initial discovery of an extramarital affair can trigger a range of emotional extremes for both partners ? shock, rage, shame, depression, guilt, remorse. You may find that you cycle through all of these emotions many times in a single day ? one minute vowing to end the marriage and the next wanting desperately to save it. At this point, it's important to take one step at a time:

  • Get support. For your own well-being, seek support from family, friends, a pastor or counselor ? anyone you trust and feel comfortable with. Talking about your feelings with those you love can help you cope with the intensity of the situation. Objective support can help you clarify what you're feeling and put the affair into perspective. However, avoid confiding in people who you know will take sides ? this tends to increase the emotional intensity of the situation.
  • Give each other some space. Both partners need a break from the emotional stress generated by the discovery of an affair. Although difficult, experts advise disengaging when emotions are running high.
  • Take time. Avoid delving into the intimate details of the affair with your partner at first. Postpone such discussions until you can talk without being overly accusatory or destructive. Take time to absorb the situation.
What is infidelity to you?
Infidelity isn't a single, clearly defined situation. There are different kinds of infidelity. What's considered infidelity varies among couples and even between partners in a relationship. What may be unacceptable for some couples, or one partner, may be tolerated, or even acceptable for the other. For instance, is it infidelity if your partner is attracted to someone outside the marriage ? but never acts on it? Is an emotional connection without physical intimacy infidelity? An affair usually involves:

  • Sexual attraction
  • Secrecy and deception
  • Emotional intimacy greater than in the marriage
Marital recovery
Recovering from an affair is difficult and an ongoing process. But it's possible to survive an affair. Marriage counseling can help you put the affair into perspective, explore underlying marital problems, learn how to rebuild and strengthen your relationship, and avoid divorce ? if that's the mutual goal.

Understanding why an affair happened is crucial to recovering your marriage. Affairs can happen in happy relationships as well as troubled ones. The reasons vary:

  • The involved partner may not be getting enough from the marriage relationship or, conversely, not contributing enough to it
  • Low self-esteem
  • An addiction to sex, love or romance
  • Fear of intimacy
  • A life transition, such as the birth of a child or an empty nest
  • Acting on impulse while under the influence of alcohol or other drugs
  • A means of ending an unhappy marriage
Moving on: Steps to help recover your marriage
Although every relationship is different, often these steps are necessary to help mend a broken marriage:

  • End the affair. First, the affair must end. This includes any and all interaction and communication with the lover. True reinvestment in your marriage can't happen without this.
  • Be accountable. If you've had an affair, take responsibility for your actions. If you were cheated on, consider the role you may have played in your spouse's unhappiness and reasons for straying.
  • Determine your shared goal. Be sure you both agree that you want to mend your marriage. It may take some time to sort out what's happened and to see if your relationship can heal. If you both arrive at the goal of reconciliation, it's important to realize that recovering the marriage will take time, energy and commitment.
  • See a marriage counselor. Find a marriage counselor who will help you restore your marriage if that is the mutual goal. Seek help from a counselor who?s trained in marital therapy and experienced in dealing with infidelity. Avoid therapists who see an affair as the end of marriage.
  • Identify the issues. Infidelity often points to underlying problems in your marriage. Examine your relationship to understand what has contributed to the affair, and what you need to do to prevent it from happening again.
  • Restore the trust. Make a serious commitment to rebuilding your marriage. Go to counseling together to help visibly confirm the commitment and to prevent secrecy from continuing to erode your relationship.
  • Talk about it. Once the initial shock is over, discuss what happened openly and honestly ? no matter how difficult talking or hearing about this may be. Know that you might need the help of a marital therapist to be able to talk constructively about it.
  • Give it time. If you were the one cheated on, you can set the timetable for recovery. Often the person who's been unfaithful is anxious to "put all of this behind us" to help cope with his or her guilt. Allow each other enough time to understand and heal.
  • Forgive. For many people, this is the hardest part of recovering from an affair. Forgiveness isn't likely to come quickly or easily ? it may be a lifelong process. But if you're committed to your partner and your marriage, forgiveness tends to become easier over time.
  • Recommit to your future. What you're going through is emotionally devastating. But times like this often make people and marriages stronger than ever before.
The end ? or not
Not every marriage touched by infidelity can or should be saved. Sometimes too much damage has been done or both partners aren't committed. Painful as it is, it's important to acknowledge when this is the case. But if both of you are committed to rebuilding your relationship and you have the strength and determination for the task, the rewards can be great ? a partnership that keeps growing in depth, honesty and intimacy.

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