Get the Better newsletter.
By Danielle Page
When Elle Grant’s husband started spending a lot of time at work with his female associate, she wasn’t immediately suspicious. “It had never worried me because he didn’t like her,” says Grant. “She was unattractive, difficult at work. But something kept nagging at my brain.”
Grant finally confronted her husband about her gut feeling that something was off. Slowly, the truth began to come out. “He admitted a little, then, over the next days and weeks, he admitted more. I was shocked and devastated.”
Despite the affair, the couple stayed together and are currently closing in on their 23rd wedding anniversary. But for many couples, infidelity is the nail in the coffin. A study conducted by the Austin Institute found that unfaithfulness in a marriage accounted for around 37 percent of divorces in the U.S.
It’s not an easy thing to heal from — but according to marriage and family therapist Amanda D. Mahoney, patients who find success staying together after someone cheats have one main thing in common: “There’s a willingness to process the potential symptoms that may have contributed to the affair versus focusing solely on the act of the affair itself,” she explains.
That’s not to be confused with justifying the decision to cheat by pointing to issues in the relationship as excuses. But if you’re able to get real with your partner on what hasn’t been working — without playing the blame game — it’s a good sign that your relationship has the potential to be repaired.
In fact, it may not simply be repaired, but you may come out even stronger than before if you handle it the right way.
“If you and your partner are coming together after the fact and you do want to work this out and stay together, it can be one of the more important catalysts for growth in a couple relationship that’s out there,” says Jen Elmquist, relationship specialist and co-host of Evine After Dark.
For Grant, an author and journalist living in Toronto, packing up and leaving wasn’t immediately in the cards. “I had three young children and didn’t want to do anything to disrupt their lives if I wasn’t absolutely sure I wanted out of the marriage,” she says. Instead, she focused on her own healing with the help of a therapist, while her husband spent time in therapy separately.
How to Move Forward when someone cheats
If both you and your partner want to take the necessary steps to heal from an affair, it can be done, but it’s going to be a long road. Here are a few important actions to take together that can help repair your relationship.
Make sure there is remorse
“There needs to be an adequate level of remorse. So if you’re the partner that has cheated, you really do have to feel deeply sorry. It can’t be something that can in any way come off nonchalant. There has to be deep sense of regret and remorse for what happened,” says Elmquist. “And if your partner has cheated on you and you’re not feeling that remorse from them, that’s going to be something you’re going to want to look for as the starting point for you to get back on the same track.”
Be honest about why it happened
This is the hardest step and will largely dictate whether or not you’ll both be able to move forward. “People can make poor choices at times,” says Mahoney. “The question then becomes: does that poor choice and/or symptom(s) now have to dictate the future of a relationship? The answer largely depends on the motivating factors behind the affair.” Underlying unmet needs in the relationship, poor communication, attachment difficulties and antiquated gender roles can all be impetus for an affair — ones that Mahoney has helped couples work through in her practice.
“Infidelity is very complex, there’s a lot of depth and complexity to why people might cheat and how you can find a way back to each other,” adds Elmquist, who says insight is curcial. “Why did this happen? Where was the breakdown? What was it in our relationship that ultimately caused us to have an open door for someone else to walk into it? Having that insight in your relationship is going to be important.”
But if the person who cheated isn’t willing to be upfront about why it happened — or starts pointing blame, repairing things might not be possible. “[The reason] can’t be overly simplified, such as ‘I’m a man’ or ‘it just happened,'” says marriage coach and author Lesli Doares. “The only way to rebuild trust is to be completely clear why it happened so when faced with a similar situation in the future, a different choice will be made.”
Grant’s husband admitted he was a sex addict and sought out therapy on his own to work through it. “By the time I felt strong enough to leave, my husband had been in therapy for a couple of years and had done so much work to understand why he’d risked a family he loved for relationships that didn’t really matter,” says Grant. “I respected how hard he’d worked. He had done everything he could to support me as I healed.”
Remove temptations to re-engage with the affair
If the affair is really, truly over, taking the physical steps to cut off contact with the person and set up boundaries is crucial to your partner’s healing process. “Deleting contact information, blocking numbers and removing social media contacts will be essential,” says Dr. Brandon Santan, a licensed marriage and relationship therapist practicing in Tennessee.
Because Grant’s husband worked with the woman he cheated with, this was more complicated. “I do think ‘no contact’ is important, but sometimes it’s impossible,” she says. “In that case, there needs to be transparency about any interactions.”
Move forward with brutal honesty and care
Being cheated on is damaging for a plethora of reasons, but one big factor that needs to be addressed in order to move past it is lack of honesty. “The lying is a huge part of the betrayal,’ says Doares, which is why she encourages the person who cheated to be brutally honest about all the details of the affair to move forward — not just the ones that will hurt his or her partner the least. “The cheater has to be completely transparent and answer any and all questions,” she says.
This level of transparency needs to continue for as long as it takes to build that trust back up again; something that Elle says was key to her healing process. “My husband gave up anything that made me uncomfortable (like going out with the boys after work). I had access to any/all electronics/emails, passwords etc. He told me where he was going and who he’d be with. Seems humiliating in the short term, but he understood that that was how he was going to rebuild trust,” she says.
“You’re going to have to set other things aside for a while and you’re really going to have to pour into this relationship in order for it to have a fresh, strong, new foundation,” adds Elmquist.
Be selective about who you tell
Your gut reaction might be to blast your partner’s indiscretions across social media for all to see, which Travis McNulty, LMHC, practicing in Florida says is a common coping mechanism. “I’ve seen people in this position go to extreme lengths to hurt their spouse in a very public manner,” he says. “Often this is done out of rage and with lack of clarity that usually makes the person who was cheated on look bad or crazy by how they react.” It’s healthy to talk to someone about what you’re going through, especially to a therapist. But telling everyone in your inner circle can end up backfiring.
“The more people that know about it, the more people are going to have their opinions based off of purely trying to protect you from getting hurt,” McNulty explains. “This is the therapist’s worst nightmare because coalitions and allegiances amongst friends and family members really make moving forward difficult.” Especially if you two do decide to work through this. “The person who was cheated on may be able to forgive and move on, but the family still holds an intense grudge that usually puts more pressure on an already vulnerable relationship that is trying to rebuild and move on,” says McNulty.
Grant found support by creating a blog, The Betrayed Wives Club, to connect with others who were also victims of infidelity — a support system she says played a large part in her healing process. “I created my site because I was desperate for a community of women who knew what I was going through and who wouldn’t judge,” she says. Our culture lacks real understanding around how devastating infidelity is. It can be really painful to share your secret only to have someone respond, as a friend of mine did, ‘Well, I wouldn’t put up with it.'”
Consider working with a licensed therapist
After an affair, it can be hard to know what to do or even where to start. If the conversations you’re having with your partner feel like they’re not getting anywhere, consider working with a licensed therapist who can help guide the process. “The therapist’s ability to be a neutral party in the conversation helps identify what underlying unmet needs can be recognized and processed within the couple’s relationship,” Mahoney explains. “During this investigative stage of therapy, couples often have the ability to seek understanding, find compassion, have greater potential to problem solve and move forward.”
I tell couples they are going to have to bury that first relationship and think about starting a brand new relationship with each other.
“Once you have that insight [on why someone cheated], how do you take the learnings from that and how do you put it into actionable change? Because the relationship is going to have to change,” says Elmquist. “I oftentimes tell couples they are going to have to bury that first relationship and think about starting a brand new relationship with each other. And in that new relationship you’re going to put in the same intensity you did in the beginning of your relationship all over again; that same intensity of learning about each other and caring for each other and being intentional with each other.”
Grant and her husband eventually sought couples counseling after they had each worked with separate therapists. “Our relationship is better in a lot of ways thanks to therapy,” says Grant. “My husband has shown up for our life together in a way that he just didn’t before. We have a lot of fun together, he’s a much more hands-on father. Therapy helped him work through a lot of childhood grief, so that his own feelings are a lot more accessible to him.”
“If you’re truly wanting to move on and continue with life with your partner after infidelity and have a loving relationship, it is possible. I see it in my office every day,” says McNulty.