Do you want to save your marriage after infidelity? If so, if you are ready to do some very hard work and repair what has been damaged, I will outline what research suggests successful couples do to make it through the discovery of an affair. What most people don’t realize is that many couples actually stay together after infidelity. However, how each partner responds after discovery can have a significant influence on whether the relationship heals or not. Many couples choose to stay together, but genuine healing may never happen. I believe it is not enough just to make it through an affair, instead the focus should be to heal the wounds and improve the relationship. My hope in this article is to outline the principles successful couples implement to make it through this most difficult time in their relationship.
There are few things that are more heart-wrenching than discovering a partner’s affair. It is common for sexual betrayal to trigger extreme shame, anxiety, depression, and even post-traumatic stress (PTSD) (1, 2, 3) These challenges often increase in intensity when couples attempt to discuss and resolve what happened without having any tools for resolution. Fortunately, therapists and the clients they treat are gaining a better understanding of what many couples are doing to save their marriage after infidelity.
Here’s a list of 3 specific things that couples can do to make it through the discovery of infidelity.
#1: Learn How to Discuss the Affair
One of the most important findings regarding the discovery of sexual infidelity is that couples are more likely to make it when they are openly talking about what happened. This may sound counter-intuitive, but research with more than 1000 couples conducted by Dr. Peggy Vaughn found the following:
A couple is more likely to stay married when they thoroughly discuss the whole situation.
• 55% of those who discussed the situation very little were still married (and living together)
• 78% of those who discussed the situation a good bit were still married (and living together)
• 86% of those who discussed the situation a lot were still married (and living together)
Regarding this Dr. Vaughn wrote, “The amount that the affair was discussed with the partner was significantly associated with present marital status.” In addition to the findings above, Dr. Vaughn found that, “A couple is more likely to stay married when the offending spouse answers their partner’s questions.”
• 59% of those who refused to answer questions were still married (and living together)
• 81% of those whose partner answered some of their questions were still married (and living together)
• 86% of those whose partner answered all their questions were still married (and living together)
Regarding these findings, Dr. Vaughn wrote, “The extent to which the partner answered questions was significantly associated with present marital status.” In looking at these findings, it is clear that openly discussing what happened and answering questions willingly will increase your chances of staying together. Unfortunately, many who have betrayed their spouse struggle to know how to openly discuss what happened without becoming overwhelmed by their own feelings of shame. This inability to answer questions and discuss what happened often adds to the couple’s problems. For example, when a betrayed spouse wants details and they aren’t given any, they begin to ask more questions. They want to know why, where, and who. They become investigators—which often feels confining and restrictive to the offending spouse.
One solution for couples who choose to work on their relationship is to do a formal disclosure.
#2: Prepare for a Formal Disclosure
Often the first time you discover your spouse’s sexual betrayal, it is a tremendous surprise. You may have felt something was wrong and may have even wondered if an affair was possible, but it is still shocking. Since the emotions are usually very raw, few couples know how to deal with this information without help. In the wonderful book, Mending a Shattered Heart, Dr. Jennifer Schneider has a chapter where she describes this process. She writes, “If you engage in counseling, you likely will have the opportunity to participate in a formal disclosure in which you will hear from your spouse and ask questions. This should be done in a safe setting—in the office of a knowledgeable therapist (or perhaps in an inpatient setting), after preparations are made to ensure the best possible outcome. Several individual therapy sessions come before the formal disclosure, some with you, some with your spouse or partner.” (4)
Many couples have never heard of doing a formal disclosure. As a result, they struggle for months or years trying to make sense of what happened. Often the betrayed spouse has so many questions that the partner feels overwhelmed. As a result, they may respond defensively which only makes their betrayal more painful. Statements like, “I don’t want to talk about this anymore,” are interpreted as they don’t ever want to talk about what happened again.
In many situations, the sexual betrayal is so complex (e.g. Multiple affairs, a long-list of sexually acting out behaviors) that the betraying spouse minimizes their behaviors because they feel their spouse will leave them if they knew all of the details. In situations like this, limiting information usually comes back to hurt the couple again as more and more information leaks out. One way to reduce these problems is to prepare for a formal disclosure.
What is a full-disclosure? A disclosure often includes many of the following elements:
- History of sexual acting out behaviors (e.g. First exposure to pornography)
- Sexual behaviors that have happened outside of the couple’s committed relationship (e.g. Two affairs, visiting a topless bar, getting massage for sexual purposes)
- Time frame of the sexual betrayal
- Frequency of betraying behaviors (e.g. Weekly meetings, on business trips, etc.)
- Answers to betrayed spouse’s questions
Usually disclosures are most effective if they are facilitated by professional therapists who have been trained in helping couples navigate through this difficult process. You may think that you can handle this on your own, but often couples muddle through the difficult conversations because neither spouse knows what to say or how to respond to what has happened. Anger and denial along with blame and accusations are common. Often the offending party wants to avoid long conversations and the offended spouse can’t get enough information.
One of the key benefits of doing a disclosure is that the details of what happened are brought out in a single setting rather than over weeks, months, or even years. Furthermore, when doing a disclosure the couple is prepared well by their therapist. Two researchers who study the disclosure process, Dr.’s Corley and Schneider found that 96% of partners feel that disclosure of sexual betrayal was a proper course for them to take. (5)
In the process of doing a formal disclosure with a trained professional, couples are assessed for levels of trauma and possible sexual compulsivity (addiction). Through the valuable assessments clients are given even more direction of areas that may need to be addressed. Sometimes an affair is a manifestation of other sexual behaviors that may need to be resolved (e.g. Compulsive use of pornography).
If you would like to find a trained professional to help you save your marriage after infidelity, consider finding a therapist who understands the disclosure process. If you are concerned that the affair is a manifestation of other sexual behaviors that haven’t been discussed or resolved, I would strongly recommend finding a Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist (CSAT) who has been trained to administer assessments on sexual compulsivity and sexual betrayal. They have also received training on doing formal disclosures. You can find a CSATs in your area by visiting www.sexhelp.com
#3: Understand What You Are Committing To
Unfortunately, many couples make rash decisions after discovery. Relationships can quickly be over or forgiveness can quickly be given. Either way, couples who truly want to save their marriage after infidelity should slow down and ask themselves a few important questions. These questions are:
- How did we get here? In other words, what are the underlying reasons for the affair. I encourage both partners to spend a lot of time pondering and reflecting on this question. Usually writing thoughts is helpful when it comes to this topic.
- Is the affair over? In other words, has the spouse who had the affair stopped all interactions with the person with whom they had the affair?
- What does the betrayed spouse need to heal? (e.g. A formal disclosure, seeing their spouse seek professional counseling on their own, etc.)
- What is the spouse who had the affair doing to ensure that another affair won’t happen again? This question is not easy and usually takes planning. Because affairs are boundary violations, the offending spouse needs to learn how to establish boundaries in all relationships.
- How will trust be rebuilt in the relationship? Developing trust is a process that usually includes time, effort, and regular accountability. Both spouses benefit by pondering and journaling about how trust can be rebuilt in the relationship.
- If we move forward in this relationship, what are we committing to? This is perhaps the most important questions couples can address as they prepare to move forward. When couples honestly address their level of commitment and have this discussion it enables them to reboot their relationship. I have witnessed couples renew their marital vows to each other after betrayal. Those are precious moments because they usually come after lots of hard work and pain.
If you want to save your marriage after infidelity and have a more meaningful relationship, I would encourage you to review the three suggestions offered in this article. First, learn how to be more open and answer questions. Second, prepare and do a formal disclosure. And third, understand what you are both committing to as you work to heal.
- Johnson, S. (2002). Emotionally focused couple therapy with trauma survivors. New York: Guilford.
- Glass, S. (2003). Not just friends: Protect your relationship from infidelity and heal the trauma of betrayal. New York: The Free Press.
- Steffens, B A., & Rennie, R. L. (2006). The Traumatic Nature of Disclosure for Wives of Sexual Addicts. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 13, 247-267
- Carnes, S. (2011). Mending a Shattered Heart. Gentle Path Press. Carefree Arizona (2nd Edition edited by S. Carnes. Chapter 2 by Jennifer P. Schneider, “I Need to Know Everything That Happened…Or Do I?
- Corley, M.D & Schneider, J.P., (2002). Disclosing Secrets: When, to Whom, and How Much to Reveal. Wickenburg, AZ: Gentle Path Press.