Reliable statistics on affairs are understandably hard to come by (would YOU tell that truth on a survey?), but most point to the rate of infidelity having remained pretty constant over last two decades – around 21% for married men and between 10-15% for married women.
A conservative estimate is that one third of all marriages will experience infidelity at some point over the course of the relationship.
So. This is happening.
And it looks like it’s happening both in marriages that are in trouble in other ways and in those that are mostly okay. A study by biological anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher found that 56 percent of men and 34 percent of women who’d had affairs claimed to be “happy” or “very happy” in their marriages.
So not only are affairs happening, folks, but it seems likely that we might not always be able to predict when and where. That’s a little scary, I think.
Feedback I’ve received lately reveals that most of you agree that the work of keeping a relationship strong is not for the faint of heart. And many of you also seem to believe, as I do, that strong, healthy partnerships can overcome a myriad of relationship problems – some pesky, some more significant – and arrive on the other side of the healing journey even healthier and stronger than before.
But what about a marriage that has been rocked by an affair? What do you do if your partner has betrayed your trust in this highly intimate, extremely hurtful way? What then?
I expect many of us would feel quite morally justified in ending a relationship in which our partner had been unfaithful, and I expect many more of us would support, even applaud, a friend or family member who took this definitive step.
Now, there are more than a few unattractive forces at work in the feelings we have about these cases (moral superiority and judgment, victim shaming . . . ), but I think that, at the heart of it all, when we insist that these women shouldn’t have stayed with their partner, what we are really saying is that, putting ourselves in their shoes, we can’t imagine how WE could have decided to stay.
If you’re someone who feels this way, I can’t say that I blame you. Because a partner engaging in an affair – whether emotional, physical or both – has got to be one of the most devastating experiences a person can go through. And even if a marriage could survive an affair, could the resulting relationship ever be truly fulfilling? How does a relationship recover from something like that? It makes sense that we default to throwing in the towel.
But here’s the thing. The research turns out to be in favor of the ones who stay.
The surprising reality is that most marriages recover from an affair. Peggy Vaughan, a San Diego researcher, surveyed 1,083 people and found 76% of those whose spouses had affairs were still married and living with the spouse.
Now that figure may be a bit high, as respondents were self-selecting visitors to Vaughan’s affair resources website. But affair recovery estimates from a sampling of marriage therapists are in the 30-80% range, which puts the likelihood of recovery from an affair right in line with recovery from other relationship problems (the current divorce rate is estimated to be around 40-50%).
And still more research supports the conclusion that an affair does not have to be a deal-breaker. In the older couples studied by relationship researcher Karl Pillemer, “A single episode of infidelity was not considered to be an automatic end” to the relationship.
So what do these couples know that we don’t?
Well, are you sitting down?
The truly mind-blowing reality is that many couples who’ve successfully recovered from an affair actually experience their relationship as closer and more satisfying than it was before. Moreover, some outcome studies even indicate that couples who save their marriage after infidelity report the highest satisfaction levels of their mutual history. For these couples, as Esther Perel notes: “. . . the affair becomes a transformational experience and catalyst for renewal and change.”
“Well, hey!” you say, “Why don’t we ever hear about these success stories?” Okay . . . seriously . . . would you tell this story to your friends? Yeah, me neither.
But the reality is that the effect of an affair on a marriage doesn’t have to be negative; it can, and often is, either neutral or positive. And as is often the case, the defining factor is the strength of the couple’s commitment to work on the issue together and remain in the marriage.
So. There’s hope. A lot of hope, actually. But if you’re someone who’s experienced infidelity in your marriage, what exactly do you do? How do you even begin to work on this issue?
First, find a good couples therapist. As Alexander Dumas wisely notes, “The bonds of wedlock are so heavy that it takes two to carry them, sometimes three.”
Second, settle in for the long haul. Because healing from something like this takes time. It can take several months just to get over the initial shock of the revelation of an affair, and full recovery and healing can sometimes take several years.
Third, commit to engaging in the following difficult tasks as you move toward healing and hope:
If you were the unfaithful partner, you must be prepared to:
- End the affair with conviction and finality – Cut off contact with affair partner completely and get rid of any physical reminders of the infidelity (mementos, furniture, etc.)
- Offer complete transparency – To counteract your previous secret-keeping and hiding, offer openness, accountability and honesty. This will help your partner learn to trust again.
- Help your partner check up on you by offering passwords to all social media accounts and personal communication devices and programs as well as a report of all unavoidable encounters with your affair partner.
- Show extreme empathy, understanding and validation of your partner’s strong emotions – They’re hard to take, but it’s you’re job to hold them as your partner works to recover from the betrayal trauma they feel.
- Be willing to answer a myriad of questions about your affair in order to satisfy your partner’s need to understand the meaning of the relationship.
- Strengthen your interpersonal boundaries – make changes in type of behaviors that led to the infidelity.
If you were the deceived partner, you must be prepared to:
- Refrain from making rash decisions – Experts advise you to wait at least three months to even ask yourself whether you feel like staying or leaving, because it takes that long for the initial trauma response to subside.
- Take responsibility for stabilizing your system – Practice extreme self-care and self-soothing, and learn to tolerate strong feelings without needing to act on them.
- Limit your questions, at first – Know the difference between the questions you really want to hear the answers to versus those that you just want the right to ask.
- Work to understand the meaning of the affair to your partner – what was going on with him/her and your relationship that made it possible for the affair to happen (individual and relationship vulnerabilities).
- Forgive – this will probably not feel possible right away, but work to do it eventually.
- Decide to trust – Your partner’s transparency and emotional support will help with this, but end the end the decision to trust or not is up to you. Remember, trust is belief in things you can’t know or see, so you’ll eventually need to stop depending on that access to your partner’s social media accounts.
- Mend the trauma wounds – the affair partner can, and should, help with this healing
- Promote good will and positive relationship experiences – your relationship is (and always was) more than the affair; explore and strengthen its other facets.
- Recommit to the marriage – Make a conscious, deliberate decision to stay with our relationship – now is the time to prove you really meant it when you said “for better or for worse.”
- Build “Relationship B” – Take care of any issues that made the relationship vulnerable to an affair (emotional/physical disconnect, trouble communicating around conflict) so that the relationship that comes after the affair is stronger and healthier than the one that came before.
I know I’m forever saying that relationships are hard work, but this . . . this work is REALLY hard. Relationship Boot Camp hard.
So, yes. Hard work. But, again, (say it with me now) it’s hard work that is totally, completely, worth it.
Because although I can’t promise you that if you do these things your relationship will survive an affair, I can promise you that following these steps will give your relationship the best chance it has.
And I can also promise you that if you do these things and your marriage recovers, your relationship can actually do more than survive . . . It can THRIVE.
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Please contribute a comment below if this post has you thinking about this issue in a different way. And for those of you who are personally experiencing the pain of infidelity right now, I hope you will reach out to me here for more information on finding wise counsel to help you on this difficult journey. I may not be the right person for you, but I promise to help you find that person if I can.