Infidelity: Mending your marriage after an affair

Infidelity causes intense emotional pain, but an affair doesn't have to mean the end of your marriage. Understand how a marriage can be rebuilt after an affair.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Few marital problems cause as much heartache and devastation as infidelity, which undermines the foundation of marriage itself. However, when both spouses are committed to authentic healing, most marriages survive and many marriages become stronger with deeper levels of intimacy.

Defining infidelity

Infidelity isn't a single, clearly defined situation — and what's considered infidelity varies among couples and even between partners in a relationship. For example, is an emotional connection without physical intimacy considered infidelity? What about online relationships? Individuals and couples need to define for themselves what constitutes infidelity in the context of their marriage.

Why affairs happen

Many factors can contribute to infidelity, and most aren't fundamentally about sex. Some common reasons include:

  • Lack of affection
  • Loss of fondness and caring for each other
  • Breakdown of communication related to emotional and relationship needs
  • Physical health issues, such as chronic pain or disability
  • Mental health issues including depression, anxiety, ADD, learning disabilities or bipolar disorder
  • Addiction, including addiction to sex, gambling, drugs or alcohol
  • Unaddressed marital problems that have been building for years

Discovering an affair

The initial discovery of an affair usually triggers powerful emotions for both partners such as anger, betrayal, shame, depression, guilt or remorse. It is usually difficult at this time to think clearly enough to make long-term decisions. Consider the following:

  • Don't make rash decisions. If you think you might physically hurt yourself or someone else, seek professional help immediately.
  • Give each other space. The discovery of an affair is always intense. You might find yourself acting erratically or unlike yourself as you attempt to grasp what has happened.  Try to avoid emotionally intense discussions as you begin the healing process.
  • Seek support. It can help to share your experience and feelings with trusted friends or loved ones who can support, encourage and walk along with you on your healing path. Avoid people who tend to be judgmental, critical or biased.

    Some spiritual leaders have training and might be helpful. Consider seeing a well-trained, experienced marriage and family therapist alone or together.

  • Take your time. Even though you might have a deep desire to understand what has happened, avoid delving into the intimate details of the affair initially. Doing so without professional guidance might be harmful.

Mending a broken marriage

Recovering from an affair will be one of the most challenging chapters in your life. This challenge will come with a lot of ambivalence and uncertainty. However, as you rebuild trust, admit guilt, learn how to forgive and reconcile struggles, it can deepen and strengthen the love and affection we all desire.

Consider these steps to promote healing:

  • Take some time. Before choosing to continue or end your marriage, take the time to heal and understand what was behind the affair. This is not a decision to make at the height of your emotional struggles.

    Seeking professional help with a counselor who specializes in marital therapy can be invaluable. Learn the lessons that might prevent future problems.

  • Be accountable. If you were unfaithful, take responsibility for your actions. It is imperative, as difficult as it might be, to end the affair and stop all interaction or communication with the person. If the affair involved a co-worker, limit contact strictly to business or get another job.
  • Get help from different sources. Seek the help of nonjudgmental, understanding friends, experienced spiritual leaders or a trained counselor. All self-help books are not equally helpful. Seek advice about additional reading from a professional.
  • Consult a marriage counselor. Seek help from a licensed therapist who is specifically trained in marital therapy and experienced in dealing with infidelity.

    Marriage counseling can help you put the affair into perspective, identify issues that might have contributed to the affair, learn how to rebuild and strengthen your relationship, and avoid divorce — if that's the mutual goal. Consider asking your counselor to recommend reading material on the subject, too.

  • Restore trust. Make a plan that will restore trust and result in reconciliation. Agree on a timetable and process. If you were unfaithful, admit guilt and pursue authentic forgiveness. If your partner was unfaithful, when you are able, offer forgiveness. Together, seek understanding.

Moving forward

If both of you are committed to healing your relationship in spite of all the suffering and pain that might be present, the reward can be a new type of marriage that will continue to grow and likely exceed any of your previous expectations.

Jan. 17, 2019 See more In-depth