Surviving infidelity is something that none of us expects we’ll ever have to do. But as a longtime marriage counselor and affair recovery counselor, I know that, unfortunately, many people do find themselves in this difficult place at some point in their lives.
If you have recently discovered that your partner has been unfaithful, I’m so sorry. The road to surviving infidelity is not an easy one, but I know that you can walk it, whether you do so alone or with your partner.
There’s no denying that infidelity is crushing. It will shatter life as you’ve known it. But as you begin picking up the pieces, you will also have an opportunity to build something new. While there’s no magic bullet for recovering from infidelity, I can offer you a roadmap of what to expect, and show you how to treat yourself with compassion, care, and grace every step of the way.
Coping with Infidelity
Our culture rarely recognizes betrayal as the form of trauma that it is. But betrayal is traumatic, especially when you’re cheated on by the person you trust and rely on most. If your life was a table, discovering that your partner has been having an affair would be like having one of the legs suddenly kicked out from under you. It’s destabilizing to say the least.
Initially, you will likely experience a sense of shock. You may feel intense waves of fear, anger, and hurt as you begin to come to terms with this painful new reality. You will be riding these emotional waves for a while (but not forever), and your job is to give yourself permission to feel everything that comes up and to treat yourself with compassion as you do.
Be gentle with yourself. This is a time to focus on the basics: prioritizing sleep, eating nutritious foods, seeking emotional support from family and friends (and ideally from a good therapist specializing in infidelity recovery), and managing other sources of stress in your life so that you can give yourself the strength to heal. Practicing good emotional self-care during this difficult time is like adding another leg under your table.
You may feel pressure to make up your mind about whether you wish to work on your relationship, or walk away after infidelity. It’s wise not to make any life-altering decisions about your future in the immediate aftermath of discovering your partner’s cheating. There will be time to make big decisions after the waves have calmed and you are able to get more information about whether or not your marriage is worth saving.
Our authentic relationship experts know how to help you learn, grow, and move forward into a bright new chapter.
Surviving Infidelity: What to Expect
Every affair is different, but they also tend to resemble each other to an eerie degree. Whether it’s an emotional affair, a sexual affair, or financial infidelity, there are some changes that typically happen in relationships after a major betrayal.
Educating yourself about these common dynamics can help you understand and manage the feelings that arise at different stages of infidelity recovery:
- The partner who cheated does not immediately repent.
When someone is cheating on their wife or husband, they are acting in a way that is out of alignment with important beliefs they hold about themselves; the kind of person they are, their values, and how they treat others. They will feel guilt and shame about that, and they tend to reflexively push those feelings away rather than facing them head on, especially in the beginning.
To do this, the partner who cheated may minimize the affair, lie about it, invalidate their partner’s feelings, or even justify their cheating by placing blame on their partner. This is all incredibly shocking and painful for the betrayed partner, sometimes even more so than the cheating itself. A good affair recovery counselor can help the partner who cheated process their feelings of guilt and shame so that they can take accountability for their actions and the couple can begin to heal.
- The affair doesn’t end the instant it’s uncovered.
Unfortunately, the cheating partner often continues cheating for a time, even if they swear to cut off all contact with the affair partner. People who are engaging in infidelity are indulging in a fantasy that is usually quite intoxicating; while the relationship itself is built on a foundation of deceit and delusion, their feelings are very real, and they won’t go away overnight.
If you are the partner who cheated, the best thing you can do at this point is to cut off all contact with the affair partner immediately. But if, like many people, you aren’t able to do that, the next best thing is being honest with your spouse about your continued relationship with the affair partner. Force yourself to live in the light. You will be surprised how quickly the cracks in the fantasy begin to show.
- Both partners idealize the affair partner.
To the cheating partner, the affair partner represents a titillating escape from their real life and their real problems. They may believe that, if they could only be with the affair partner, then they would finally be happy. In reality, the vast majority of affairs never turn into committed relationships, and those that do usually don’t end well.
The betrayed partner often wonders what the affair partner has to offer that they don’t, and they may begin “competing” unconsciously for the love and attention of their spouse. This along with other issues can make sex after infidelity a fraught area. The betrayed partner often feels pressure to compete with the fantasy by becoming more exciting and gratifying, while also feeling wounded, angry, and haunted by mental movies of their partner having sex with someone else.
- The betrayed partner can’t ‘get over it.’
Many people want to know how to let go of the past and get over infidelity, but it doesn’t really work that way. The betrayed partner cannot simply forgive and forget, no matter how many times their partner apologizes. After infidelity, “sorry” isn’t good enough. Trust has to be rebuilt. The relationship itself has to be rebuilt.
The partner who was cheated on will struggle to let go of anger, no matter how much they want to. They will have trust issues (understandably), and they will be hypervigilant about their partner’s whereabouts for a long time. Meanwhile, the partner who cheated will feel ongoing guilt and shame as they see how their actions have impacted their partner, and they will feel eager to put the incident behind them. This difference naturally leads to conflict, and if the couple doesn’t have support working through it, they may begin to lose hope that their relationship can be repaired… and that is what causes relationships to fail.
Can a Marriage Survive an Affair?
Recovering from an affair can feel impossible, especially if you stumble across these roadblocks and don’t know how to make sense of them. But couples can and do heal their marriage bonds and survive infidelity, and believe it or not, many go on to have stronger, more satisfying connections than they ever had before.
If you are on the fence about whether you would like to save your marriage, or end it, I recommend working with a discernment counselor, rather than jumping straight into couples counseling. A few sessions of discernment counseling will help you get more information about what the path to surviving infidelity would look like for your relationship, and how committed and motivated you both are to walking that path. Once you know that, then working on your relationship can be truly productive.
Infidelity is devastating. It will change you and your relationship — but not necessarily for the worse. There is a doorway in the darkness that leads up to the light. You can choose to walk through it, alone or together.
If you would like support on this journey from a compassionate affair recovery expert on our team, I invite you to schedule a free consultation.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
P.S. — For more advice on surviving infidelity, check out our “affair recovery” collection of articles and podcasts.
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Music in this episode is by Pink Floyd with their song “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.” Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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