The moment you find out your partner has been cheating on you, just about everything changes. Trust has been broken, and it may be difficult to imagine a future knowing that your closest companion has been intimate with someone else. So where do you go from here?
Heading to divorce court is certainly one route, but you shouldn't assume it's the only option or the best one for you: Statistics vary, but research shows that a sizable percentage of marriages manage to survive infidelity.
"Couples can heal from affairs," says Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, a relationship expert and the founder of the Marriage Restoration Project, a global initiative to keep couples together and happy. He discourages couples from immediately separating or filing for divorce—provided you're both on board. “Either you want the marriage to work or you don’t.”
Here's what you should know if you find yourself in that exact situation.
STEP 1: MAKE SURE THE AFFAIR ENDS IMMEDIATELY
One of the very first things to do is to determine whether your partner is willing to immediately dissolve the outside relationship. “Stopping the affair is non-negotiable,” said Jill Murray, Ph.D., a licensed marriage and family therapist based in California. “The person with whom the partner was having the affair with can no longer be in their lives, even in a peripheral way."
If that means changing jobs, switching gyms, or even relocating a new city, it has to happen. It's the only way to ensure that your partner is 100 percent committed to moving on, says Murray. After that commitment is made, it’s time to figure out what went wrong and why.
STEP 2: TALK IT OUT
Ideally, decide on a time when you can sit down together and have what's bound to be a difficult conversation. It's often best not to have this conversation the same day you learned about the affair, but rather to postpone it at least a few days, if not longer.
“Set aside time in the future so you will both be mentally ready to share and hear these uncomfortable details,” says Slatkin. “The betrayed should come ready to ask about whatever information they need to have so that all doubts can be removed, and they can start getting over the affair.”
Craig Foust, a marriage counselor based in St. Louis, Missouri, says it's also important to get to the root of why the infidelity happened.
“The person cheated on may continually ask questions that seem repetitive, however, the core of the issue to be explored is when/how did the distance in the relationship [between you and your spouse] develop,” says Foust. “When did we start to have problems? What were the signs? Were both of us aware of the distance growing between us? Answering these questions will be critical.”
STEP 3: ENLIST PROFESSIONAL HELP
Infidelity is a pretty serious issue for a couple to contend with on their own. If keeping your marriage intact is a priority, Foust recommends seeking out a marriage counselor who can guide you through the process.
"It's no different than seeing a physical therapist for a leg injury: You may be able to walk on it, but you can cause lasting damage if it is not allowed to heal properly," says Foust. "The same goes with healing after an affair. The average couple may be able to stabilize their marriage, but often there are deep-rooted marital issues that only become noticeable over time or to an outsider looking in."
STEP 4: CARVE OUT QUALITY TIME
After you've had the tough talks and both agreed that you're going to stick this out, it's time to work on rekindling your connection. It won't be easy to do, especially in the beginning, but it's crucial to bouncing back as quickly as possible. “Spending quality time together shows investment in the relationship, from both sides, and helps to re-establish some type of normalcy,” says Foust.
While it might be a challenge to find mutually agreeable activities when things are feeling so rocky, Suzanne Coburn, a licensed professional counselor, says you need to at least try to have fun.
“A date night is one idea, but even better is an activity that builds relationships: Go for a hike, go bowling, walk in beautiful gardens, attend a sports event together. What did you enjoy doing together when you were first dating? Do that,” she says.
IF THAT DOESN'T WORK, KNOW WHEN IT'S TIME TO WALK AWAY
Many people have been successful at mending a relationship after an affair, and hopefully you'll be among them. But sometimes the wounds are just too deep for that to be possible. In other instances, both parties aren't truly committed to making it work, and that's another deal-breaker.
If you're having trouble getting past infidelity, Murray suggests taking a step back to assess whether your spouse is actually empathizing with your feelings or is intent that you should "get over it."
“If the person is backsliding into old, secretive, or lying behavior, or there’s just too much anger and hurt to recover from, it may be time to call it quits,” she says.
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