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Many people feel completely heartbroken to find out that there has been an act of infidelity in their marriage. If you have just discovered an affair, you may wonder if you can ever trust your partner again and what your relationship might look like if you tried to rebuild it.
The good news is that when both partners are committed to healing the relationship, it is possible for a marriage to survive.
Even if your partner has remained faithful, you may have friends or family whose lives have been turned upside down by an affair, and cheating spouses are readily portrayed in the media. This may lead you to wonder if your marriage could survive an affair and if you could be doing anything to make your relationship stronger.
In this article, we will look at what infidelity is and answer the common question — “can a marriage survive infidelity?”
What is Infidelity in Marriage?
There is no one definition of infidelity, and what one person considers cheating may not be the same for another.
If you have agreed to be monogamous as part of your marriage, then you have most likely promised emotional and sexual exclusivity to your spouse. Therefore, having an extramarital relationship with another person is not something that your partner has consented to. This breakdown in trust can be incredibly painful for the partner who has been deceived.
Infidelity could include:
- Sexual or physical intimacy outside of the marriage
- Emotional intimacy with someone other than your spouse
- Online relationships that could have an emotional element or include cybersex.
If you and your partner both agree to a non-monogamous relationship, you will need to decide what you are willing to consent to inside and outside your marriage. If extramarital sex has been agreed to, then this is not a form of infidelity.
What Are the Types of Infidelity in a Marriage?
Infidelity is no longer as simple as sex outside of the marriage, and this can make it harder to spot in some cases. It is important to note that what one couple would consider infidelity may not be the same as the view held by another couple.
Even more importantly, both partners should be aware of the “rules” of their own relationship, particularly if they have different views on what constitutes infidelity. Check in with your partner regularly to ensure that you are on the same page regarding what infidelity is in your marriage.
The following are all breaches in fidelity that may occur in a marriage.
Physical or Sexual Infidelity
Physical or sexual infidelity is most commonly thought of as an affair, whereby an intimate relationship occurs outside of the marriage. In some cases, there may also be an emotional connection too. However, in others, this form of infidelity remains purely physical.
One partner forms an emotional connection with someone else. Although there is no physical or sexual contact, knowing that your partner has developed a deep connection with someone else can be incredibly hard to cope with.
Often, the unfaithful partner will shift their emotional connection from their spouse to someone else. It can cause disharmony and feelings of rejection within the marriage even when the infidelity is not discovered.
Cyber or Online Infidelity
It is now easier than ever to cheat online with someone you know or with a stranger. Engaging in online messaging, social media, chat forums, and groups that specifically contain sexual contact can all be viewed as cheating.
Some couples would consider viewing pornography or other erotic stimuli as cheating.
Money can be a difficult topic for many people, and talking about finances may be difficult even within a marriage. If one partner becomes deceitful or dishonest about what they earn, how much they spend, or their debts or loans, this could be considered financial infidelity.
In some cases, a partner may hide money from their spouse in a private bank account.
You may hear jokes about someone being “married to their job,” but object infidelity occurs when a person appears to be more focused on something other than their partner. This could be work, their phone, watching or partaking in sports, or pursuing a hobby.
Object infidelity can leave the other partner feeling left out, rejected, or betrayed in the same way an affair with another person might.
Each couple may have a different definition for this, but micro-cheating is often a type of behavior that is a gray area for couples. It might include flirting or spending more time with someone else, but there is usually no intention to stray from the marriage.
The risk is that micro-cheating could develop into a more defined form of betrayal.
Combined infidelity describes cheating in more than one way. This is common, especially if an extramarital affair involves sex with an emotional connection or micro-cheating with someone at work while also engaging in cybersex with a stranger.
If you and your partner have not discussed your boundaries or beliefs on fidelity, it is wise to do so to ensure you both share the same values.
How Common Is Infidelity?
The General Social Survey has provided data on extramarital affairs across the adult population of the USA. Research based on a 17-year period ending in 2016 has indicated that:
- Infidelity occurs in around 15 to 20% of married couples
- Around 21% of men report infidelity, compared to 13% of women
- Extramarital sex is most likely to occur with a personal friend, a coworker, or someone they have known for a long time
- Compared to women, men are less likely to see sex as always wrong and instead are more likely to see it as almost always wrong, sometimes wrong, or not wrong at all
- Compared to women, men are more likely to report more extramarital sex within the last year and across their lifetime
- Compared to women, men are more likely to report having extramarital sex with someone they only knew casually.
This suggests that although the rate of infidelity has remained fairly constant during this time, attitudes towards extramarital sex have shifted slightly. The research demonstrated a small increase in Americans who felt that extramarital sex was not always wrong, indicating more tolerance towards cheating. Changes in attitudes may relate to an overall greater acceptance of casual sex.
What Age Does Infidelity Occur?
The General Social Survey found that people born in the 1940s and 1950s reported the highest rate of extramarital sex. This suggested that the prevalence of affairs was highest in older couples than younger couples.
The age at which an affair occurs may reflect how the adulterer feels about their marriage and the risks they are willing to take. Although being unfaithful does not have to mean the end of a marriage, our observation of other couples and those we see in films or TV shows may indicate that having an affair can put a marriage in jeopardy.
Because of the perceived risk, couples in their twenties or thirties, or those in their seventies onwards, may be less likely to have an affair as they would not want their marriage to end as a result.
Extramarital affairs are both a cause and consequence of a failing marriage. Those in middle age who are unhappy in their marriage may embark on an affair because they are unhappy or may be more willing to risk the consequences of being found out. Conversely, older or younger people may be more satisfied in their relationship or less willing to risk the marriage ending.
Why Do People Cheat?
There are many reasons that infidelity can occur. Often, the reason that someone is unfaithful can help predict whether your marriage has a chance of recovering from infidelity.
Different types of infidelity in marriage may occur depending on you and your partner’s current circumstances, and the overall health or strength of your relationship.
A healthy relationship requires both partners to feel satisfied emotionally, physically, and sexually. This can often be achieved through open communication, validation of the other partner’s feelings, and emotional, physical, and sexual intimacy. If any of these factors is missing, then the chance of an affair occurring could be increased.
Common reasons for infidelity include:
- Lack of physical or sexual affection
- Poor emotional support from a partner
- Loss of commitment to the relationship
- Unwillingness to dedicate time to the relationship so that one partner feels neglected
- One partner seeking excitement, variety, or change
- Falling out of love
- Avoidance of conflict that leads to problems not being discussed or addressed
- Experiencing the stress of transition times such as the birth of children, change of career, loss of parents, or children leaving home, which can lead to relationship vulnerability
- Personal factors or emotional stresses, including mental health decline, poor self-esteem, narcissistic tendencies, addiction, or desiring the thrill of a new relationship.
Past events can also increase the risk of an affair: childhood trauma, exposure to a parent who had an affair, cheating on a previous partner, or difficulties with attachment or intimacy.
Often, a combination of factors and the opportunity can prompt the start of an affair. If you are concerned that any of these factors could be relevant to you or your partner, it is wise to have an honest conversation together about how you are both feeling.
Opening the dialogue between you could help prevent one or both of you from being tempted to stray.
What Impact Does an Affair Have on a Marriage?
Sadly, research reported by the American Psychological Association indicated that extramarital affairs are “one of the most damaging problems couples face.”
An affair can lead to anxiety and depression in the uninvolved partner and psychological distress for the partner who had an affair.
Increased rates of marital distress and conflict were also noted. If the affair was an “exit strategy” for the cheating partner, reconciliation might be unlikely.
Infidelity can be one of the most difficult relationship problems to work through. As such, the divorce rate of infidelity couples was twice that of non-infidelity couples five years after a couple started therapy. However, recovering from infidelity is possible if both partners are willing to work hard on the marriage.
How Can a Marriage Survive Infidelity?
The time after an affair can be incredibly painful, frustrating, and upsetting. However, the best chance of surviving infidelity in your marriage is achieved if you can both listen to each other and try to see the other’s point of view. There must also be the ability to forgive, as well as a very strong commitment to see your relationship survive the affair.
For many couples, a marriage after infidelity can be stronger than before the betrayal. This is particularly true if the affair was a “cry for help” or a signal that something needed to change within the relationship. Understanding the cheating partner’s feelings and their view of the relationship may help you both to build a relationship that is stronger.
One of the most important steps in helping your marriage survive is accessing counseling that will specifically support your relationship following infidelity.
Infidelity counseling is one of the key steps to recovering from infidelity. This form of talking therapy gives you and your partner a safe space to work through your emotions, feelings, and expectations for your future. If you both still love each other, you may be able to experience healing after infidelity.
The discovery of betrayal can highlight the weakest areas of your relationship. Being able to see and discuss these honestly may be a good way to strengthen and work on your marriage.
Infidelity therapy can help you to confront the difficult parts of your relationship that you might previously have felt afraid to raise with your partner.
What Is Involved in Marriage Counseling?
In the same way that there are several types of infidelity, there are also many ways to heal a marriage.
Marriage counseling allows you to draw on the expertise of infidelity counselors or therapists to begin to see your relationship both objectively and subjectively. In this way, both you and your partner can begin to see the other’s opinions and feelings, as well as work through your own complex emotions.
To start repairing your marriage after infidelity, you and your partner may need to meet with a therapist together and separately. Combining couple sessions and individual therapy can be particularly helpful if there are parts of your relationship that feel difficult to discuss in the presence of your partner. Or if you feel that your emotions are too raw to share with your partner at first.
Working with a therapist privately in this way may also allow the partner who has strayed to discuss their feelings for the other party in a safe place without causing further harm to their spouse. When you later work together with your therapist and your spouse, you can all focus on your marriage and how to get it back on track.
What Does Marriage Counseling for Infidelity Involve?
A marriage counselor will have experience or specialist training in infidelity therapy. Couples counseling is complex, as a therapist must often manage two people’s conflicting emotions or beliefs. In infidelity counseling, emotions commonly run at their most extreme.
One of the steps a counselor can take is to start a treatment plan for infidelity. This might include:
- Strongly recommending that the affair is ended if this has not already occurred. Communication with the other party must end immediately if the marriage is worked on.
- Providing a safe space for both couples to talk about their personal and family backgrounds, upbringing, childhood, career, or hopes for the future. In understanding a person more holistically, both partners may better understand disparities in personalities or within the relationship.
- Discussing relationship needs, including the emotional, physical, sexual, financial, and social needs of both partners.
- Focusing on letting go, moving forwards, and finding forgiveness.
- Discernment counseling is a chance for couples who are unsure whether to continue the marriage to decide if they should stay and work on the relationship or if separation is the best option.
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) may help the partner who has strayed to address cheating behavior related to relationship dissatisfaction.
- Intense work on communication skills and difficult conversations.
- Exercises in honesty and acceptance of responsibility for one’s own actions.
- Development of conflict tolerance to voice disagreements in a healthy way.
Trying these couple’s counseling exercises for infidelity with the guidance of a therapist can help you and your partner start to rebuild your relationship. It may even help you create a stronger relationship than ever before.
Speaking openly with a counselor may also help you and your partner establish the ground rules of infidelity in a marriage. This is especially important if this is not overtly discussed before the affair.
Does Marriage Counseling Work After Infidelity?
Marriage counseling for infidelity is likely to give your relationship the best chance of surviving an affair. However, it is wise to be aware that studies have shown differing success rates for couples following marriage counseling when one partner has been unfaithful.
However, infidelity does not have to mean separation or divorce. Psychologist Dr. Shirley Glass has stated that an affair will leave a form of scar tissue. However, she has seen that more couples are willing to work on a relationship, which may be related to men being more willing to consider therapy.
The caveat is that if the male partner does not realize the severity of the situation quickly enough, the female partner may have irreversibly distanced herself from the relationship before therapy. The chance of success at this point is likely to be low. Seeking professional support as soon as possible is therefore recommended.
For couples who do access psychological support, Dr. Glass advises caution that a marriage after infidelity may never be the same again, but this doesn’t mean that it won’t be stronger or better in some ways. Those who stick with therapy and truly want the relationship to survive are likely to have a good chance of saving their marriage.
If you ask yourself whether marriage counseling works after infidelity, the answer may depend on whether you and your partner are truly willing to make it work together.
Alternative Ways to Access Therapy
For some, online infidelity counseling is the right way to access specialist support following an affair. The aftermath of an affair can leave you feeling extremely injured, and the thought of attending in-person counseling may be overwhelming.
Online counseling allows you to access professional support in the comfort of your home. This may be ideal for those with childcare responsibilities or in situations where you and your partner need to have some physical space from each other.
When one partner has an affair, it is often a devastating time. While emotions are raw, it can be difficult to know how to manage infidelity, how to start rebuilding your marriage, how to recover, or whether you even want to stay together.
When there is any form of infidelity in marriage, seeking professional counseling and support can help both you and your partner understand more about each other, give clarity to your future, and heal emotional wounds.