Relationships can be complicated. At the very least, they’re complex because people are complex. And at no time is that more evident than when a married couple is in the throes of surviving an affair. This includes opposing sides of the betrayal, and a possible re-negotiation of commitment to the marriage.
Infidelity used to be largely a man’s game. And wives were often tolerant while suffering in silence, mainly because they had to be. Wives of yesteryear often relied financially on their husbands, keeping them trapped in these types of unhealthy marriages.
But the surge of women entering the workforce from the 1960s on, coupled with the feminist movement, changed things.
Gradually, the dynamics of relationships, marriage, and even infidelity began to shift. Women were now on the same playing field as men, at least physically, and they were exposed to the same “opportunities.”
Statistics on affairs vary, in part because research relies largely on self-disclosure. But they all huddle close enough to drive home an important trend: Infidelity is no longer just a man’s game. (Check out, “The Cheating Wife Phenomenon”.)
One study found that 15% of women and 25% of men had cheated on their spouses. And that number doesn’t include “emotional affairs” that don’t involve physical cheating.
So what are your chances of surviving an affair if you fall into these statistics?
Whether you are the betrayed or the betrayer, can you put the pieces of your marriage back together? And, if so, how?
First of all, the short answer is yes. Infidelity is survivable. Couples prove that every day.
But how they survive it—and how their marriages look on the other side—well, that’s really why you’re here, right?
If you are the betrayed, you will undoubtedly spend a lot of time lamenting “should you stay or should you go?”
Even if you are the cheating spouse, you may anguish over the same question, but for different reasons.
After the initial shock of discovery or disclosure calms, there is the opportunity for clarity. And no good decision is ever made without clarity.
If you have hopes of your marriage surviving an affair, be prepared to go through a series of stages—difficult, painful, excavating, exhausting stages.
Discovery or disclosure
There is always that unforgettable moment. A cheater gets lazy with the lies, a spouse gets suspicious or accidentally stumbles upon evidence, or there’s a confession.
Whether you’re the one left in shock or the one left in shame, this moment is the beginning of a long road ahead.
If you’re the betrayed spouse, and even if you’ve been giving a cold shoulder to your suspicions, learning the truth is emotional.
You will feel to a degree that may seem unforgivable. Shock, devastation, sadness, hurt, anger, loss—they will all flood in and jockey for position.
Consider reading, “How to Survive Divorce. Especially if It’s Not What You Want.”
The important takeaway of this stage, at least for the sake of surviving an affair, is that now is not the time to make any major decisions.
Stopping the affair
One thing absolutely must happen if your marriage is going to survive this infidelity: The affair has to stop. Completely. No “kind-of,” “just friends,” or “sneaking around.” The ultimatum must happen.
As logical as this may sound, it’s not necessarily a no-brainer for the cheating spouse.
Depending on the degree of involvement with the affair partner, a “one-night stand” cut-off may not be so simple.
After all, the affair partner is a person, too, despite the indiscretion. And the cheating spouse may be vested in that relationship beyond just the sex.
But your marriage can’t proceed with healing unless there is the confidence of no other relationship existing in the background.
It’s an inevitable passage through any loss, and it doesn’t ask permission. Grief will happen, whether or not you welcome it.
As difficult as it is to believe, your grief and all that you are experiencing in terms of emotions will be easier to survive if you recognize, acknowledge, and embrace them.
Why is that important to know upfront?
Because grief isn’t linear. It gives the stage to whatever needs the spotlight at the moment: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.
Grief may not be what you think it is. Learn more. Read “Divorce Grief and 3 Myths.”
Some theories include pain and guilt before anger and depression, loneliness, and reflection after.
The relevance of grief to surviving an affair? You are saying goodbye to your marriage as you remembered it and hoped it would be.
Discussing the affair and your marriage
This is the long, drawn-out, painful, exhausting stage of surviving an affair, and it’s best done with professional guidance.
There will be the obvious need for the cheater to answer slews of questions.
There will also be the need for the betrayed spouse to balance what is necessary to know and what is really about wanting to know.
The importance of this stage isn’t limited to discussion of the affair, however. This is the time when you will be dissecting your marriage, too.
While there is never a good excuse that gives license to cheating, affairs don’t exist in a vacuum.
If you are going to go forward with and safeguard your marriage, you will both have to be fearless in examining your marriage.
How and where was it vulnerable? What negatives have you brought to it? What positives have you withheld?
Both of you are going to have to step up and take responsibility for your marriage – past, present, and future.
A therapist, husband-wife therapist team, or a coach that specializes in marriage and infidelity can be a lifeline throughout your post-affair process. You really shouldn’t DIY such a critical journey.
After the shock has worn off and you are entrenched in the work of repair, you will move into acceptance.
This isn’t about accepting infidelity as “OK.”
It’s simply about accepting the fact that your marriage, like millions of others, has experienced it.
And the relationship you are working on now will be “new,” as it will reflect the choices, lessons, and pain of this experience.
When you reach this point in surviving an affair, you may look back and marvel at what your relationship has accomplished.
This is the stage of truly living again.
You have already accepted that your marriage will never be the same as it was before the affair.
But you have done the work and earned the right to say, “That’s a good thing.”
Surviving an affair isn’t simple or formulaic, despite the stages presented to help you through it.
It also isn’t easy. At all.
To the contrary.
And not all couples survive it…or should.
Only you and your spouse truly know if there is something worth fighting for…
…and something worth forgiving.
Choose not to go it alone.
Since 2012, smart women around the world have chosen SAS for Women to partner with them through the emotional and oftentimes complicated experience of divorce. SAS offers all women six free months of email coaching, action plans, checklists and support strategies for you—and your precious future. Join our tribe and stay connected.