Can Marriage Survive an Affair?
By David C. Olsen, PhD, LCSW, LMFT
Author of The Couples Survival Workbook: What You Can Do to Reconnect with Your Partner and Make Your Marriage Work
Once again we are watching the impact of an affair in the national spotlight. This time it was the head of the CIA, the highly esteemed General David Petraeus, one of a long line of national figures caught in the midst of an extramarital affair. But as we watch the media sort out the details, we forget about the deep pain of two marriages that are now very damaged.
One of the questions that I am frequently asked is “Can a couple survive an affair?” My answer is yes, with a lot of hard work. Affairs do great damage, and leave long lasting scars. But a marriage can be saved IF the couple is willing to follow the following 4 steps. All of these steps are very difficult and require a great deal of patience with both yourself and your partner.
1. The affair must end! Nothing can progress in couple therapy until the affair is over. That means no contact of any type, including email or phone contact. This is never easy, and for the person who had the affair, there is sometimes grief over the loss of the affair partner, most of which is obviously very difficult to share with their spouse. However, if the marriage is to survive, all contact must stop.
2. Trust building must begin. This means full disclosure up front. With the exception of sexual details, the person who had the affair must disclose all of it, including how often there were meetings, how often there were lies, how much money was spent, etc. If these details come out later, the marriage is again traumatized and the healing process has less of chance to proceed. Trust-building also means no secrets. All passwords to all accounts, and devices must be given up. Everything must be on the table. If your spouse calls you and wants you to take a picture on your phone showing where you are, then take the picture. If they want to check the history of all your texts and all your phone calls, then provide it. This is the only way trust can build. Without full disclosure, mistrust grows.
3. Feel your partner’s pain. The person who was betrayed often feels traumatized. They often feel like the foundation of their lives was knocked out from under them. They are not sure what to trust, or whether they can ever trust again. A slideshow runs through their minds of pictures they do not want to think about. They do not know what to do with the hurt or rage or pain. The worst thing the offending spouse can do here is respond with defensiveness, or bring up past marital problems as if that justifies an affair. That will make the pain far worse, and does not bode well for recovery.
If the spouse who had the affair can accept their partner’s pain, listen, have empathy, and continue to give their partner space to heal, there is hope. But if they begin to get impatient and say “It’s been three months already, get over it!”, things are not going to go well.
4. Finally, if couples can get through these three stages, they can begin to move toward forgiveness. Forgiveness is a process. It begins with the person who had the affair truly understanding the damage they caused, and sincerely asking for forgiveness. Now, the betrayed spouse has a little more work to do. The first stage of forgiveness is for the betrayed partner to stop using the affair as a “club” or a way to punish the other. There comes a point where it has to stop coming up in every argument (“Well a least I didn’t …..). The betrayed spouse must make a conscious decision to start moving forward.
The next stage is more complicated and involves rebuilding deep intimacy. This can be frightening and bring up significant levels of vulnerability. It often begins by exploring pre-existing problems in the marriage that may have set the stage for the affair. This may involve being honest about ways the two have disconnected, emotionally or sexually, often years before an affair started.
If all of these stages are followed, there is great hope for couples rebuilding a marriage. A marriage can actually emerge even stronger because each has done what is needed to address the underlying causes of disconnection and mistrust. However, no one is suggesting that this is easy work! Most often it requires the help of a trained marital therapist.