The Harsh Reason Some Couples Survive Infidelity — And Some Don't

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The work involved in surviving infidelity and affairs can seem insurmountable.

For many couples whose relationships have been upended by cheating, the outcome is proof of the seemingly impossible. But like anything else in life, there are always those who will defy the odds.

Somewhere along the line, they decide that they're more powerful than predictions and go the distance — even if the distance has been multiplied by their own wrong turns.

When it comes to affairs and infidelity, there are definitely couples who make it and couples who don't.

The circumstances and reasons behind their affairs may not be remarkably different, but their choices in the aftermath are.

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Why is surviving infidelity easier for some couples?

If infidelity rips out the heart of marriage, how do some couples manage to get theirs beating again, while others don’t?

Make no mistake about it. Resurrecting a marriage from the ashes of infidelity takes work — a ton of work!

Broken spouses often wonder why they didn’t invest the effort in the first place. They could have prevented a lifetime of pain and conditional trust.

Perhaps that’s the difference. Regardless of the humility wrought by hindsight, some couples are willing to embrace better late than never, even with its penalties and high-interest rate.

For those who decide to fight for their relationship, the choices they're making give them a shot at hope.

If you're married, you have a more vested interest in your relationship compared to couples who are just dating. And if you have children together, your vested interest is even greater.

It’s much easier to walk away and chalk your broken heart up to, "Thank God I found out now and not after we got married," if you have a limited investment.

You can suck up the pain for a while, learn from the experience, and move on as a wiser and more cautious dater. But if you're married with kids, a house, careers, and assets, that paints a different picture — and posits a different set of choices.

Suddenly, the idea of "rebuilding" is equally weighted on both sides of the scale.

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Rebuilding after infidelity takes time and effort

Surviving infidelity and recovering from the pain is no more and no less promising than cutting the cord and walking away. Even with the most fervent and mutual effort, it takes time.

Rebuilding trust takes time. The betrayed spouse will have a very difficult time learning to discern what's real and trustworthy again.

Meanwhile, the cheating spouse will be largely responsible for making trust possible in the face of that doubt and insecurity.

The first thing that has to happen is that cheating has to stop. Period. Unequivocally. No being "just friends," sending Christmas cards, or checking in on social media.

For people whose affairs have gone beyond the purely sexual to affairs of the heart, that’s a tall order. Severing all ties with the affair partner can be like a divorce in itself.

In situations like this, the cheating spouse really is between a rock and a hard place. They may feel completely paralyzed by the imperative decision at hand and may not be able to make it.

That indecisiveness can become the decision in itself, often leaving everyone involved alone to pick up the pieces of their own lives.

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Honesty is key

For couples committed to surviving infidelity, uncompromising honesty is essential.

That means the betrayed spouse gets to ask seemingly endless questions during the slow crawl back to trust. And it means the cheating spouse has to answer.

Imagine the humility, shame, and utter discomfort of having to answer questions you once did everything in your power to hide from. And imagine the yearning and need to know what you really don’t want to know.

It’s easy to see how couples often don’t survive being at such odds.

Couples also have to deal with the underlying issues that made their relationship or marriage vulnerable in the first place. Both partners must own their individual contributions to the weakness of the relationship.

Easier said than done when you’re the one whose spouse has violated the most essential ingredient of marriage. Surely, all fault and blame belong with the cheating partner.

But, here is where splitting hairs is not only warranted, but imperative.

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Both partners must take responsibility for their part in the relationship.

There's never an excuse for cheating. And responsibility for the choice — even if it didn’t "feel" like a choice — to cheat belongs to the person who cheated. 

But responsibility for the relationship or marriage belongs to both partners. Plain and simple.

That means that in the midst of shouldering the insult of being betrayed, the slighted partner has to step up and look within.

In the context of a struggling marriage in which spouses are going to couples therapy to work on their issues, that may not seem unusual. But when you’re the one who trusted a traitor, being thrust into the fire of self-inspection hardly seems fair.

This component of surviving affairs and infidelity is about each partner owning their own stuff. Nothing more, nothing less.

It's an exercise that, in a healthy marriage, is ongoing. It maintains humility, compassion, self-accountability, and even self-empowerment in a relationship.

It also keeps the relationship honest, so its issues can’t hide behind denial, blame, and distractions.

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Each partner must be mutually invested in the relationship to heal infidelity

The importance of mutual self-examination while working to survive infidelity is that it reminds both partners that they are mutually invested in the marriage.

The good. The bad. All of it.

And it's precisely the courage to acknowledge these issues that empower the relationship to take the necessary steps to heal itself.

Finally, the couples that make it decide that they're going to make it. They know things will never be the same. But, they also know that’s not necessarily a bad prognosis.

They realize they got to this place through the accumulation of little things — little omissions, little offenses, little denials. And they realize they have an opportunity to learn and grow — if they’re willing to take it.

They also have the opportunity to create something that is a testament to the commitment they should have made but didn’t. Until now.

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Mary Ellen Goggin offers relationship coaching for individuals and collaborates with her partner Dr. Jerry Duberstein to offer private couples retreats in Portsmouth, NH. 

This article was originally published at Free and Connected. Reprinted with permission from the author.