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updated May 01, 2010

Infidelity: Mending your marriage after an affair

  • SUMMARY
  • Infidelity causes intense emotional pain, but an affair doesn't have to mean the end of your marriage. Understand how a marriage can be rebuilt after an affair.
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MayoClinic Logo
Filed under: Boomer's Health

(MayoClinic.com) Few marital problems cause as much heartache and devastation as infidelity. Money worries, health issues and disagreements about children can strain a relationship — but infidelity undermines the foundation of marriage itself. Divorce isn't necessarily inevitable after infidelity, however. With time to heal and a mutual goal of rebuilding the relationship, some couples emerge from infidelity with a stronger and more honest relationship than before.

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Defining infidelity

Infidelity isn't a single, clearly defined situation — and what's considered infidelity varies among couples and even between partners in a relationship. What may be acceptable for some couples may be unacceptable for others. Similarly, what's tolerable for one partner in a relationship may be intolerable for the other. For example, is it infidelity if your partner is attracted to someone else but doesn't act on it? Is an emotional connection without physical intimacy considered infidelity? What about online relationships?

Many factors can contribute to infidelity, from low self-esteem or discontent with the marriage to addiction to sex, love or romance. Generally, a person who's having an affair:

  • Experiences a strong sexual attraction to someone other than his or her partner
  • Keeps the relationship a secret, often resorting to lies and deception
  • Feels a stronger emotional connection to the person with whom he or she is having an affair than to his or her partner
Discovering an affair

The initial discovery of an affair can trigger a range of powerful emotions for both partners — shock, rage, shame, depression, guilt, remorse. You may cycle through all of these emotions many times in a single day, one minute vowing to end the marriage and the next wanting desperately to save it. At this point, it's important to take one step at a time:

  • Give each other space. The discovery of an affair can be intense. It's often helpful to take a "timeout" when emotions are running high.
  • Seek support. Share your feelings with trusted friends and loved ones or a spiritual leader or counselor. Objective, nonjudgmental support can help you clarify what you're feeling and put the affair into perspective.
  • Take your time. Avoid delving into the intimate details of the affair right away. Take time to absorb the situation, postponing any discussions with your partner until you can have a constructive conversation.
Mending a broken marriage

Recovering from an affair is a difficult and ongoing process. Still, it's possible to survive an affair. Consider these steps to promote healing:

  • Be accountable. If you were unfaithful, take responsibility for your actions. End the affair, and stop all interaction or communication with the person.
  • Be honest. Once the initial shock is over, discuss what happened openly and honestly — no matter how difficult talking or hearing about the affair may be.
  • Consider shared goals. It may take time to sort out what's happened and to consider whether your relationship can heal. If you share a goal of reconciliation, realize that recovering the marriage will take time, energy and commitment.
  • Consult a marriage counselor. Seek help from a licensed counselor who's trained in marital therapy and experienced in dealing with infidelity. Marriage counseling can help you put the affair into perspective, identify issues that may have contributed to the affair, learn how to rebuild and strengthen your relationship, and avoid divorce — if that's the mutual goal.
  • Restore trust. Go to counseling together to confirm your commitment to the marriage and to prevent secrecy from continuing to erode your relationship. If you were unfaithful, you may be anxious to put the affair behind you and move forward — but it's important to let your partner set his or her own timetable for recovery.
  • Forgive. Infidelity is emotionally devastating. Forgiveness isn't likely to come quickly or easily, but it may become easier over time.
Moving forward

Not every marriage affected by infidelity can — or should — be saved. Sometimes too much damage has been done or reconciliation remains elusive. However, if both of you are committed to rebuilding your relationship and you have the strength and determination for the task, the reward may be a partnership that grows in depth, honesty and intimacy.

©1998-2013 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). Terms of use.
Read this article on Mayoclinic.com.


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