Knowing which marriages survive infidelity can help you find hope (or know it's over).
If your world has been thrown off its axis by an affair, you may wonder which marriages survive infidelity. You may wonder how it’s even possible to survive such a gutting of the intrinsic trust in a marriage.
And your doubt wouldn’t be unfounded. After all, nothing more completely undermines the most foundational premise of marriage than infidelity.
When your life has been turned inside out by betrayal, it’s only natural to feel confused, ungrounded, and unsure of your future. And that’s true for both the betrayed and the partner who strayed.
If you aren’t ready to sign divorce papers, knowing which marriages survive infidelity can help you assess the prognosis for your own marriage.
Simply knowing that marriages do survive infidelity -- and even come out stronger than ever -- can be a ray of hope.
Dr. Joe Kort, PhD believes that the frequency of infidelity is actually much higher than the numbers often cited. He also says that infidelity is the number-one reason people come to him for therapy. In his experience, these clients genuinely want to work through the trauma of infidelity and come out the other end together.
And he would be the first to say that, when these couples do reach the other side, their marriage is stronger than before the affair.
That may sound all well and good in the land of fairy tales. But if you’re in the throes of emotional trauma from an affair, you may not have the stomach for such in-a-nutshell positivity. You understandably want answers. You want to know which marriages survive infidelity. And you want to know if and how yours will be one of them.
Infidelity expert Dr. Shirley Glass emphasizes three qualities that are the strongest determiners of which marriages survive infidelity.
- Empathy from the unfaithful partner.
Is the unfaithful partner able to be empathetic when the partner that s/he betrayed comes unglued emotionally? Can the unfaithful partner step into the woundedness of the betrayed and bear compassionate witness to the pain s/he caused? And how does the unfaithful partner express that empathy?
It sounds like a no-brainer to expect a cheating spouse who wants to repair the marriage to tolerate the emotions of the one betrayed. But even the offending partner can have a breaking point. It takes a firmly staked commitment to healing the marriage to remain empathetic, especially if your spouse wants you to suffer.
Even the most mutually resolved marriages will experience their share of unpredictable emotions, crying, obsessing, hypervigilance and flashbacks. The unfaithful partner has to exhibit tireless empathy while also not playing into a perpetrator-victim dynamic.
- Acceptance of responsibility by the unfaithful partner.
How much responsibility does the unfaithful partner accept for the choice s/he made?
There are multiple and mutual areas of responsibility that will have to be accepted and dealt with if the marriage is going to survive. What is unequivocally imperative, however, is that the unfaithful partner accepts full responsibility for the choice to have an affair.
Problems that existed in the marriage prior to the affair matter and must be remedied. But they don’t absolve a spouse of cheating as a way of dealing with or avoiding them.
There is no room for blaming the betrayed spouse for the affair. S/he may have accountability for behaviors and actions that weren’t in the marriage’s best interest. But s/he did not cause the affair to happen.
- Positive degree of understanding of vulnerabilities that made the affair possible.
This component of healing is a great predictor of which marriages survive infidelity. It means that both partners are willing to examine where they left their marriage vulnerable and exposed.
Consider a house that isn’t properly sealed. A roof tile is loose. There are cracks around the windows. Small holes punctuate the foundation. Now think about what can get in when the weather gets bad or a critter gets curious.
Affairs happen in the context of opportunity. And the office is the most common breeding ground. Think about it. You show up in the morning showered, nicely dressed, ready to take on the world and reel in the profits. You’re focused, cooperative, and on your best behavior.
Perhaps you have to travel for business, and an attractive business partner travels with you or is a client at your destination. Perhaps an old high school flame reaches out to you on social media after his/her divorce, and you form an emotional attachment. Perhaps you are getting too comfortable with your personal trainer at the gym.
Part of taking responsibility for your marriage is “sealing up the house.” That doesn’t mean you hide from the world. It simply means you take control of what comes into your house.
When you understand the vulnerabilities in your marriage, you can address them head-on. What will you do/not do, share/not share? How and where will you spend time with members of the opposite sex outside your marriage, even at work? How can you strengthen your spouse’s sense of security and trust by addressing and reducing vulnerabilities?
Aside from this “umbrella” of elements that are good indicators of which marriages survive infidelity, several others add to the chance of success. Here are a few more.
- Commitment to honesty and rebuilding trust.
Believe it or not, the responsibility for this doesn’t rest solely on the unfaithful partner.
Yes, the nature of the honesty will be different for both partners, as will the roles in rebuilding trust. But both partners will have to be equally committed to transparency about their feelings and the affair.
And the unfaithful partner will have to accept that his/her life will be lived in a fish bowl for some time. Being proactive in assuring the betrayed partner of trustworthiness is a huge sign of taking responsibility and of a commitment to healing the marriage.
- Openness to counseling.
Recovering from infidelity is difficult enough, even in the safest environment. It’s exceptionally difficult to do with only the polarized partners.
Emotional safety is a non-negotiable if there is going to be honest disclosure of vulnerabilities and feelings.
The unpredictability of flashbacks, painful feelings, and obsessions can make it difficult to put parameters around dealing with the affair. It needs to have boundaries in order to be safe and effective while leaving protected time to actually “live.”
- Willingness to work through the perpetrator-victim mindset.
It’s all but inevitable. The unfaithful partner will be seen as the guilty one who “did this” to his/her spouse. And the betrayed spouse will take on a “victim” stance.
While this is understandable in the early stages after an affair has been discovered, it’s not conducive to a marriage coming out stronger. Healthy boundaries are incredibly important, especially during this delicate time of reconciliation and healing.
There’s a difference between taking responsibility for a damaging choice and being punished as a perpetrator of intentional cruelty. And there’s a difference between expressing the pain of betrayal and playing the role of a victim who has no responsibility for the marriage.
No matter who has done what before or during the affair, no one can build or heal a marriage alone.
- Willingness to work together on a new marriage.
When a couple enters therapy with the resolve to make their marriage better than it was before the affair, their marriage has great promise. They know that the marriage they once knew can’t exist anymore. And it probably shouldn’t.
Will they still keep certain qualities of their “first” marriage? Of course. But in order for them to forgive one another and themselves, they have to feel the infusion of new life into what the infidelity destroyed.
The question of which marriages survive infidelity is best answered by the mutuality of determination in the partners. They both have to really want the reconciliation and healing of their marriage.
They also have to be willing to faithfully take on their respective responsibilities for making that happen.
Marriages riven by the betrayal of infidelity can come back together. And those with the greatest success are those in which both partners decide that their reconciliation won’t be in vain.
I’m Dr. Karen Finn, a divorce and life coach. I help individuals navigate the repercussions of infidelity. You can join my newsletter list for free weekly advice. If you’re interested in taking the first step toward working with me, you can schedule an introductory private coaching session.