Research repeatedly suggests that 60 to 70 percent of married men and women have had an extramarital affair — indicating that most married couples at some point will have to determine whether their relationship can survive infidelity.
Extramarital affairs happen for many reasons and occur even in marriages where partners love each other. For some, affairs represent a way to get a spouse to face up to problems in the marriage or, alternatively, to file for divorce. Others may see affairs as a means to avoid intimacy or as a distraction when facing a crossroad.
Whatever the cause, what happens to a marital relationship after infidelity depends largely on the individuals in the marriage? If both partners are interested in staying together and willing to examine their culpability in the situation, infidelity can signal the beginning of a new relationship.
To heal the marriage, each partner will have to commit to change. Clearly, the betrayer needs to discontinue any contact with the other man or woman and communicate to the spouse that the affair has ended. Betrayers also need to be willing to change some behaviors. They may need to check in more often and be more accountable for time spent away from their spouses.
Betrayed spouses, on the other hand, need to be willing to look at how their own behaviors may have contributed to the situation. They need to be willing to acknowledge their partners’ attempts to rebuild trust and stop bringing up the affair any time there’s conflict. And ultimately, betrayed spouses will need to forgive.
Communicating about the affair is also important — and delicate. Betrayed spouses will need some understanding of why the affair happened. Their own assumptions could be completely wrong and distract from the real issues in a marriage. When discussing why, talk generally about where you met and the degree of involvement but avoid details. The betrayed partner will always have more questions, and it’s important not to get mired in them. A qualified marriage and family therapist can be your greatest asset in facilitating healthy communication, especially in the early stages.
Rebuilding intimacy is possible. In fact, crises like these can provide couples an opportunity to decide what kind of marriage they want and begin building it. Getting to know each other again will be an important step. Instead of assuming you already know everything about your spouse, look instead for new or undiscovered traits. A whole new level of excitement and passion may result.
Finally, be patient. In addition to open communication and a willingness to trust and be vulnerable again, creating a healthy marriage after an affair (or any other major upset) requires time — including time together and time to heal.
As published in the June 2004 Edition of the La Crosse Tribune.