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The Effects of Infidelity on a Marriage

By Anna-Sofie Hickson ; Updated June 13, 2017

An affair can be destructive to a marriage. Indeed, infidelity is one of the leading causes of divorce. While it's ideal to work towards preventing infidelity in the first place, if an affair takes place it's necessary to understand your feelings and how it can impact your marriage, says author and psychologist Susan Heitler, Ph.D. in the article "Recovery from an Affair." Not all affairs, even those that are long-standing, necessarily end in divorce. Instead, both partners can learn and grow from the experience resulting in a full recovery. To heal the pain and renew a sense of trust in your relationship, it's important to analyze exactly how your marriage will change after the affair. (ref 1)

Discussing Reasons for Infidelity

When an affair has occurred, the injured partner will want to know exactly why and how the infidelity happened. In fact, the injured partner will recover quicker if he or she is able to understand their part in the affair, says Heitler. (ref 1) The truth is that affairs are never wholly caused by one partner as both spouses are responsible for thier marriage, says Emily Christensen, PhD. in the article "Impact of Infidelity." One person chooses to have the affair but this happens because something is out of balance with the relationship as a whole. This might include lack of affection within the relationship, fear of intimacy, or avoidance of conflict. (ref 2)

To empower the hurt spouse, the offending spouse must divulge exactly what they've been thinking and doing, recommends Heitler. The hurt spouse must get enough insight in order to feel that their partner will not offend again. Secrets must come out into the open, though be choice in how much is said as an overly negative portrayal of the partner's doings might make the hurt partner's trauma worse. The offending spouse should also be transparent with all their communications such as mobile phone records and texts as well as computer emails and so forth. Eliminating any hiding behaviors will help the other spouse to recovery that much quicker. (ref 1)

The first reactions of the hurt spouse are likely to be highly negative, says Heitler. He or she might say, for example: "I've been humiliated" or "You were so selfish." This is a natural reaction that the unfaithful partner needs to swallow as part of the process. It's important that over time the hurt partner's reactions change to a more balanced understanding of the context of the affair as well as his or her contribution to an imbalance in the marriage and an appreciation towards how the affair renewed communication and trust. (ref 1)

Working Towards Forgiveness

Infidelity creates a lot of emotional weight in a marriage that can inhibit growth and healing, says clinical psychiatrist and author Dr. Scott Haltzman in the article "Infidelity And How It Affects Marriage, Children And Families." (ref 3) Admitting the affair and breaking it off is necessary but there's plenty more work to do after. Part of this work is giving a heartfelt apology. It's one thing to be remorseful, but offering an apology that will satisfy your partner requires communication finesse. (ref 4)

To deliver a satisfying apology, communicate everything you've done to hurt your spouse, recommends Haltzman. This shouldn't include just sleeping with someone you shouldn't have, but hurting your family, deception, being absent from home etc. Next, admit how your actions have affected your partner. This usually includes severe emotional pain but could also include inconveniencing their time, financial strain, and more. Finally, promise to make up for your wrongs. Say, for example, “I know I can never undo what I did, but here’s what I plan to do going forward.” These could include being completely transparent, committing to go to couples therapy, and agreeing to remaining faithful henceforth. Then do something nice for your spouse, such as agreeing to visit the in-laws or booking a weekend getaway. (ref 4)

The wronged spouse will also want to deliver an apology somewhere down the road. It doesn't have to be immediately after the affair but it helps relieve the emotional weight that sits on a marriage post-infidelity. For example, the spouse might want to say, "Honey, I'm very hurt about all the things that have happened over the past X-months. Saying I forgive you doesn't take away the wrong of what you've done, but it says I'm ready to move on with you to a better place. You're forgiven." Forgiving the cheating partner helps the two of you move on and also frees you of anger and resentment. (ref 3)

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Feeling Your Feelings

An affair is bound to bring up huge doses of emotion, says Haltzman. Shame is common, both for the offending party and for the wronged partner. The latter might feel like he or she has screwed up the marriage in some way to cause this error. Emptiness is also common -- it's the result of extreme shock and seeks to protect our mind from trauma. After time this feeling, or lack of feeling, goes away. Possessiveness is another typical emotion. The thought that your partner has been with someone else may remind you how much you consider your partner your property. (ref 5)

Other common emotions post-affair are annoyance and relief. Annoyance because your partner has made a huge error in judgement that is affecting your life adversely. Relief because the wronged party may have sensed that something was going on. Now that the cat is out of the bag, the two of you can finally work on the problem -- together. (ref 5)

The key to dealing with all of these swirling emotions, recommends Haltzman, is to let yourself feel your emotions and to give yourself room in your life from your responsibilities to feel them -- meditating or taking a walk allows you to reflect on your emotions. Don't let your emotions rule you, however. If you feel stuck in them, seek the wise counsel of a therapist. Finally, communicate with your spouse about these feelings. If the relationship is shaking, ask him or her to simply listen while you calmly communicate exactly how you feel. This should pave the way for deeper communication later. (ref 5)

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