Infidelity is a betrayal of the deepest nature, compromising the very foundation of a marriage. This is true even when the affair is “only” emotional -- when a partner turns to someone other than (and instead of) their partner for deep personal connection. In the wake of an affair, many couples struggle intensely with the question of whether their relationship can heal.
There is no one single destiny for marriages after an affair. Each path forward is difficult, but it’s also as unique as each relationship. As I explain in my brief video “After the Affair: How to Save Your Marriage,” there are couples that not just survive, but also thrive. The couples who are able to move past infidelity are similar in that the partners tend to respond in certain basic ways:
The spouse who cheated shows remorse. Healing can only happen when the person who committed adultery fully admits and takes responsibility for their actions. The person must also show remorse for the damage they’ve done with no hedging or justifying the infidelity. They must plainly acknowledge that going outside the marriage was wrong. They can make a lot of headway by saying something like, “What I did was wrong. I’m truly sorry for it and for the pain that I caused you.”
The spouse who cheated validates their spouse’s pain. The spouse who remained faithful will undoubtedly feel a range of emotions, such as hurt, betrayal, sadness, and anger. The one who cheated must hear, acknowledge, and validate their feelings. This is a process that will require many conversations as the spouse processes their emotions.
Listening again and again can be wearing, but it’s essential that the unfaithful partner be patient. They must remain empathic and compassionate, even as their spouse visits and revisits their past actions -- ones that they cannot change.
Importantly, the hurt partner must ultimately be looking for their pain to be soothed and for reconnection, not just for retribution. Remaining deeply angry and clinging to a desire to emotionally beat up their spouse cannot repair the relationship; and it will only damage it further. However, hopefully, if their spouse can listen compassionately to their pain, they will eventually feel comforted. The pain will be eased, though not forgotten. At that point, the marriage might be able to move along a path toward reconciliation.
Both spouses work together to repair their relationship. They must assess the state of their marriage before the affair. While having an affair is not acceptable, problems in the marriage that might have led to this must be addressed. By talking openly about how each of them contributed to their struggles, they can work on improving and strengthening their marriage. Their conversations must be open, honest, and unfold in a way that rebuilds trust, caring, and a sense of being a team.
The hope is that your efforts can improve communication, increase caring interactions, and nurture a closer connection. This takes persistence and a commitment to returning to a loving relationship. While such efforts will not change the past or eliminate the pain of betrayal, you and your partner can use that painful past to create a stronger, healthier marriage.