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When Your Partner Cheats: Healing From Infidelity

Will this couple be able to move past a betrayal?
Will this couple be able to move past a betrayal?
© 2009 Jupiterimages Corporation

Few events cause as much turmoil in a marriage as infidelity, which can reduce a marriage to rubble, shattering trust and creating a breeding ground for insecurity, mistrust and resentment.

Reliable statistics on the frequency of marital infidelity are hard to come by because affairs can't be objectively measured like divorce and marriage. What's more, researchers say there is no way to verify what individuals report about affairs on surveys.

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One often-cited expert, Peggy Vaughan, author of The Monogamy Myth, estimates that 60 percent of husbands and 40 percent of wives will have an affair at some point in their marriage; however, less than 10 percent of people who have affairs divorce and marry their lovers.

Infidelity Is Not a Death Sentence

As painful and devastating as infidelity is, family therapists say it is a wound that can be healed — albeit slowly. "We need to get the word out to the millions of American couples who are coping with an affair: Infidelity is a treatable crisis," maintains William Doherty, professor and director of the Marriage and Family Program at the University of Minnesota and author of the book Take Back Your Marriage.

Sound like a monumental task? It is, so for guidance on how the betrayed and betrayer can heal from infidelity Discovery Health Online turned to Michele Weiner-Davis, MSW, the best-selling author of several relationship-mending books, including The Divorce Remedy. A therapist, who has counseled thousands of couples, Weiner is an unabashed advocate of staying together. No matter how bleak and dark things may be, virtually any marriage can be brought back form the brink of splitting up, she insists.

First and foremost, Weiner wants you to know that there is no "quick fix" to repair the damage caused by unfaithfulness. The process takes time — often years — and you need a great deal of patience to handle the disappointment and disillusionment along the way. "Be prepared for many 'back to square ones,'"she says, adding that the setbacks will diminish over time.

With that said, here are what Weiner considers the most important steps for couples seeking to heal from infidelity.

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What the Unfaithful Needs to Do:

  • Be brutally honest about the affair. The unfaithful has to be able to talk about the affair as often and in as much depth and detail as the partner desires. Women in particular, says Weiner, need to know why it happened. They feel that unless they uncover the root cause of the affair, it could happen again. The truth also facilitates healing by short-circuiting the imagination. What the betrayed imagines took place is usually much worse than what actually occurred. If talking about the affair is intensely uncomfortable, you may want to work with a family therapist or marriage counselor to get past initial minefields.

To find a therapist, contact The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, which represents more than 15,000 marriage and family therapists who have met the organizations training and education requirements. Their Therapist Locater service can help you gather information — education, professional licenses, health plan participation, achievements, etc. — on therapists in your area.

You should also ask your physicians, clergy or friends for recommendations.

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  • Get self-reflective to figure out why you went outside of the marriage. If dissatisfaction with the marriage was the cause, you must bring it up with your partner so that the two of you can make changes. Addressing the vulnerabilities in the relationship that contributed to the affair is critical to preventing a reoccurrence.
  • Express remorse and act trustworthy. You must be sincerely remorseful about the pain you caused your partner and commit over and over again to being faithful, especially early on when mistrust is rampant. Show you mean what you say by respecting your partner's need for reassurance. For instance, you may be asked to account for the time you two are apart because of the lack of trust. "It will feel overwhelming, but it is not forever," notes Weiner.

What the Betrayed Needs to Do:

  • Demand whatever it will take for you to heal. Granted, the unfaithful has to do the lion's share of the work to heal the marriage, confirms Weiner, but the betrayed needs to express what must be done to regain his or her trust.
  • Spend time together that does not revolve around the affair. "It's absolutely critical to connect again as friends and lovers; to enjoy one another's company," says Weiner. Go for walks, to restaurants and concerts — whatever it is that brings you two together.
  • Make the choice to forgive. An infidelity is never forgotten. The memory cannot be erased, but the act can be forgiven and gradually fade into the background of a strong marriage. It is up to the betrayed to forgive — the last step in healing. "You don't forgive for the sake of the other person," says Weiner, "but to lighten your own life" and set the stage for a renewed intimacy and connection.

Salvaging a marriage after an affair takes extraordinary commitment and effort. But therapists report that marriages rocked by infidelity frequently emerge stronger than they were before because at the end of the day, the near-fatal disaster motivates the couple to assume shared responsibility for each other's happiness.

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