When a spouse cheats, should you stay or should you go?
The discovery of infidelity leads many couples to seek therapy, as they typically struggle with a range devastating emotions. Shock, disbelief, confusion, fear and outrage are all common; so are doubts about the future of the marriage. As one of my clients recently explained:
We have a wonderful marriage. At least I thought we did. My wife and I have been together for twelve years; we have great kids and a great life. Never in a million years did I think she was capable of cheating. I always viewed an affair as a deal breaker -- as something that could not happen to me. I assumed that if she ever cheated, I'd be out the door. But the reality is that I have no clue how to deal with this mess, and no idea whether I will stay.
My client is not alone. Many people assume that they would end their marriage if they discovered infidelity. Unfortunately, no marriage comes with an absolute guarantee, and -- while there is no valid excuse -- even good people in great marriages are sometimes unfaithful.
There are many myths and misconceptions about infidelity. The biggest one is that if an affair happens, the marriage is doomed. As a couples therapist, I have worked with enough amazing couples in strong marriages to know that this is not the case. Some people even strengthen their relationship as they do the hard work that it takes to recover from the devastating consequences of an affair.
If you discover that your spouse has been unfaithful, there are some basic steps that you can take to determine if your marriage is savable. These tips are not necessarily the complete solution to an exceptionally difficult situation; however, they can be a useful framework to help you determine whether you and your spouse are up for the hard work to re-build trust and get through the pain and loss associated with infidelity. It's a tough road, but one that many couples have traveled with success.
1: Read the book Not "Just Friends"
Pick up Shirley P. Glass' book, Not "Just Friends". It has an exceptionally modern and thoughtful take on fidelity and will be relevant to both you and your spouse. Ask your spouse if he or she is willing to read this book with you and complete the exercises. If your spouse agrees and is actively engaged in the reading from the moment the book is in his or her hands, this is a very encouraging sign.
2: Seek Couples Therapy
Find an experienced couples therapist. Infidelity is traumatic enough to warrant reaching out to a professional for help and support. Visit the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy's web site to find a skilled professional in your area. This site only lists therapists who have met rigorous training standards and completed hundreds of supervised hours in couples therapy. If your spouse is willing to see a therapist with you, this is another encouraging sign. If not, this is a cause for concern.
3: Ask Your Spouse to Cut Off Contact with the Affair Partner
Ask your spouse if he or she is willing to end the other relationship for good and cut off all contact. I'm not just talking about physical contact. For the marriage to recover, there must be no contact, electronic or otherwise. This other person must be completely out of the picture; it will therefore be necessary to un-friend this person on Facebook, un-follow this person on Twitter and delete this person from all phones. If your spouse works with this person, collaborate with the couples therapist to set up the parameters to manage this difficult ongoing challenge. Perhaps your spouse can change divisions or departments or at least cut out the after-work office happy-hours.
Is your spouse willing to cut off contact? Is your spouse willing to let you know when this person attempts to make contact (which they will) and to discuss with you whether and how to respond? If your spouse is willing to completely cut this person off, that is an excellent sign. If you are hearing all kinds of excuses, this is cause for serious concern.
Unfortunately, your spouse's infidelity is something you never forget. However, this does not mean that your relationship is doomed. The steps listed above are by no means easy, but if your spouse is willing to do whatever it takes, then staying together is a choice worth considering, especially if children are involved. Remember that infidelity is much more common and much more complicated than people realize, and you are not alone in this difficult journey.