Infidelity—unfaithfulness in a marriage or committed relationship—can severely strain a relationship and each of the partners. One partner’s affair can leave the other person feeling devastated, alone, betrayed, jealous, confused, and aggrieved. Sometimes, an affair ends a relationship, and other times couples are able to repair the relationship and may be stronger as a result. Whether the relationship weathers the storm or not, an affair changes everything.
Affairs happen for myriad reasons. Although 99% of married adults in the United States expect sexual monogamy in their relationships, studies suggest that at least 20% will engage in extramarital sex at some point. All relationships require feelings of stability and security, physical and emotional intimacy, and companionship. When any one of these is deficient, one or more partners is likely to feel dissatisfied, and this can increase the odds of infidelity.
Adultery doesn’t always occur as a result of relationship dissatisfaction, though—sometimes a partner may enter an affair based on personal dissatisfaction or for the personal gratification of obtaining an ego boost, a new sexual experience, or shared emotional intimacy.
Some of the reasons a person may engage in infidelity include:
Statistically, men are almost 80% more likely than women to have engaged in adultery, and living in a larger city increases the odds that an incidence of infidelity occurs by almost 50%. Infidelity is also more common among the young, with twice as many cases of infidelity reported among those aged 18–30 compared with those over the age of 50.
Some researchers point out that sexual monogamy is not common in the natural world. It is, in fact, constructed by humans as an ideal that tends to conflict with the biological desire for multiple sexual partners. Still, we continually aspire to such ideals, and many cultures throughout the world demand sexual fidelity by harshly punishing those who stray. The manner in which couples recover from infidelity will depend in large part on their cultural background and their personal or religious values surrounding infidelity.
Many couples pursue therapy to determine whether or not to continue the relationship after an affair and to process their feelings surrounding the incident. The couple’s choice to either maintain or end the relationship will be respected and the therapist will serve the couple’s goals. Therapy can help each partner express their emotions and needs in a safe space, reveal each partner’s level of commitment to the relationship, teach the partners skills for repairing trust, and guide the couple through the process of healing.
A therapist can also help clarify the true nature of the relationship by encouraging an open evaluation of the relationship’s strengths and weaknesses. If unhealthy patterns exist, such as codependency, emotional abuse, or repeated affairs, the therapist may call these into question. In addition, therapy can help those people who feel they are to blame for their partners’ infidelity to work through those feelings and obtain new perspectives.
Although there are no steadfast rules for determining how quickly or whether a couple will recover from an affair, experts agree that healing can occur within two years, though some couples may take longer and others recover sooner. There is no concrete timeline for recovery, though, and the length of time it takes is directly related to what happens immediately after the affair is discovered. Other factors influencing the recovery process include each partner's communication skills, tolerance for conflict, capacity for honesty, acceptance of personal responsibility, and attachment style. Just as each relationship is distinct from another, the process of recovering from infidelity will vary from one couple to another.
Recovery typically progresses through the following phases:
Next, couples can embrace the new relationship they have created. After working with a therapist, couples will likely have stronger, more genuine bonds. Trust may still be difficult for the betrayed partner, and each will have difficult days understanding why the affair happened and accepting that the previous life they knew has been changed forever. But by practicing techniques learned in therapy, couples can continue to develop an open, honest, and new relationship, free of the encumbrances of the affair.
When a partner engages in repeated affairs, several issues are called into question. Were there issues leading to the first affair that were never addressed? How was the first affair handled? Was the offender genuinely remorseful? Did he or she take responsibility for his or her actions? Did the other spouse acknowledge his or her jealousy, dependency, anger, or even denial? Any of these unresolved issues can contribute to the recurrence of infidelity. Hilary Silver, LCSW has observed in her practice that repeated affairs tend to occur as a result of love or sex addiction and that "The behavior is a compulsion rather than a statement about the state of the relationship."
Partners experiencing multiple infidelities must explore both the pre- and post-affair factors, identifying any behaviors, communication, and emotions exhibited, and each partner’s role in the relationship before and after. Partners should be honest with their feelings of hurt, guilt, and shame. In order to protect the relationship from future infidelities, the foundation must be solid after the affair, not riddled with doubt and insecurity.
Last updated: 06-25-2014
Infidelity / Affair Recovery Articles