Life Is Short, Have a Marriage: Surviving Ashley Madison

hand with wedding ring on keyboardYou’re afraid to look, but there’s a nagging feeling you should. Your relationship with your husband has grown distant in the past couple of years. You don’t go on dates anymore. If you have sex once a month, that’s a lot.

You give in to temptation and search for him on the Ashley Madison hack list, expecting to be relieved when you find he’s not there. You enter his information, click search, and hold your breath.

OMG.

You can’t believe it.

He’s there.

Since the identities of millions of members of Ashley Madison—a site that facilitates infidelity under the motto “Life is short, have an affair”—were revealed, therapists (myself included) have received numerous calls from people who found partners on the site. But they’re not the only ones seeking help; Ashley Madison members anticipating being found out by their partners are also reaching out.

Couples face an arduous challenge after the discovery or confession that one partner has cheated. Trust, the foundation upon which relationships are built, falls into a sinkhole.

I’ve witnessed excruciating anguish from couples affected by infidelity. Shock, denial, grief, rage, guilt, shame, fear, remorse, and self-loathing are common responses. Sudden death has befallen the relationship that existed before the infidelity.

In the therapy room, partners say things like:

  • “I can’t believe this is happening. My entire world has imploded.”
  • “I wake up thinking this is a bad dream, but it’s not.”
  • “Does this mean our entire marriage was a lie?”
  • “I don’t know who you are.”
  • “I’m so ashamed. I wish I could take it back.”
  • “I didn’t mean to hurt you. I never thought you’d find out.”
  • “I hate myself. I never thought I’d be ‘that person.’ ”

Many people maintain that if their partner ever cheated, they would leave; that is, infidelity is a deal-breaker. Yet when it happens, decisions about separating are not often so simple. Finding out you’ve been betrayed doesn’t mean your love for the person evaporates. And if you have children, choosing to separate or divorce is a more complicated decision.

Couples in marriage counseling because of infidelity begin a long road to recovery. In the first session, I tell them the statistics are against them. In her book, Not “Just Friends”: Rebuilding Trust and Recovering Your Sanity After Infidelity, Dr. Shirley Glass states that only 35% of marriages survive an affair. I also let them know that coming to therapy shows courage and hope, and that couples can and do recover if they commit to the work it takes.

The marriage a couple had before infidelity wasn’t working; a new relationship must be forged one day at a time. It must be deeper, more authentic, and more intimate than the previous relationship. The new foundation will rest upon growth resulting from the painful journey of communicating about the affair and what happened to the marriage, with the therapist as a guide.

This process is not for the faint of heart. It takes tremendous strength to walk this path, especially when others around you may be asking why you haven’t left yet. I have tremendous respect for couples who take this journey.

Here are five keys to saving your marriage after Ashley Madison (or any affair, for that matter):

1. Work with a Trained Marriage Therapist for at Least Six Months to a Year

Find a therapist who has been trained in and specializes in working with relationships and infidelity. Couples must talk through the details of the affair; its impact on the non-affair-having partner; and the remorse of the partner who cheated. Then there is the task of figuring out why the affair happened:

  • Why did the partner look outside the relationship?
  • What was the meaning of the infidelity?
  • What was missing from the marriage?
  • What baggage from each partner’s past contributed to the distance in the relationship?
  • How intimate was the emotional and sexual connection?
  • What will ensure that the connection will become deeper and more authentic over time?

2. Stop Perpetrating Further Hurt Upon Each Other

One of the hardest parts of the recovery process is to cope with pain expressed as anger. The non-affair-having partner may feel justified in expressing intense rage at his or her partner in session and at home, and expect the affair-having partner to just take it. Of course feelings of anger must be expressed, but doing so in a destructive or abusive way perpetrates more harm.

Partners must find constructive ways to release rage, talk about their feelings, and use self-soothing techniques when they feel their anger is escalating. Deep breathing, taking a timeout, talking with an individual therapist, journaling, or physical activity are just a few examples to lower the physiological responses of anger.

3. Dig Beneath the Anger to Find the Hurt, Sadness, and Pain

Anger is the easiest feeling to express; it elicits a sense of strength, control, and power. However, anger is a fraud. Right beneath its surface is pain, hurt, and sadness.

When a person expresses intense anger, I ask, “What are you sad about?” Inevitably, the person wells up with tears. A remorseful partner can more easily empathize with hurt and sadness than anger. Therein lies the deepest connection.

4. Practice Effective Communication and Conflict-Management Skills

Using the skills of listening, expressing empathy, being assertive, and managing conflict is vital in this process. A relationship therapist can coach couples on these skills. These are the tools that will serve to build more authenticity and depth in the new, post-affair relationship.

5. Harness the Patience of a Saint

Couples who engage in this work must have more perseverance and determination than they’ve had before. Rebuilding of the new relationship happens one brick at a time. In this day and age, where people expect immediate gratification, the challenge can be daunting.

Recovering from infidelity isn’t easy, but it is worth the effort. You can discover a relationship, a connection, an authenticity that you’ve never had.

“More marriages might survive if the partners realized that sometimes the better comes after the worse.” —Doug Larson

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lori Hollander, LCSW-C, BCD, therapist in Owings Mills, Maryland

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 15 comments
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  • Cara

    Cara

    September 11th, 2015 at 3:47 AM

    I guess that in some ways I want to know and then again what would I honestly do if I found out that he had created an account?

  • trey

    trey

    September 13th, 2015 at 8:33 AM

    If you choose to not know then you are trying to bury your head in the sand and pretend that there is no problem. But if you have this nagging feeling, this little suspicion then you have to know that perhaps something is not right or you would never even consider that this could be happening to you.

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    September 13th, 2015 at 11:33 AM

    Cara, That is a very good question. Some people would rather just not know. Knowing means a person would likely want to do something about it. That is a big decision. Thanks for your comment!

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    September 13th, 2015 at 11:36 AM

    Trey, I agree if you have a nagging feeling it’s a good idea to check in with your partner about your relationship. Thanks for your input!

  • Johnna

    Johnna

    September 14th, 2015 at 10:26 AM

    A good friend of mine found out that her husband was actively cheating on her due to this scandal. I think that in large part she has been so traumatized because this was not something that she found out on her own, but with the added shame of finding out with thousands of other people. She wonders f there was something that she did to cause him to do this to her and I think that she is just so embarrassed about the whole thing that she is even questioning everything in life right now.

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    September 15th, 2015 at 5:35 AM

    Johnna, so sorry to hear about your friend’s experience and the pain it has caused her. And yes, the fact that this is so public has added an extra layer of shame. Please tell your friend that she did not do anything to cause her husband to cheat. The responsibility for the state of the marriage belongs to both partners; if one or both spouses are unhappy there are many ways to address it without deceit. The responsibility of one partner going outside the marriage, and having an affair, belongs 100% to that partner.

  • Stephanie

    Stephanie

    September 15th, 2015 at 10:33 AM

    I know that there SHOULD be all these ways to make it work after something like this but I am not that saint who could easily get over it.

    I would feel so naturally hurt and betrayed that I think that I would very much struggle with someone cheating on me like that.

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    September 15th, 2015 at 1:32 PM

    Stephanie,
    You are not alone. There are many couples whose marriages do not survive after an affair. There is nothing “wrong” with that decision. For some people the fracture in trust is just too much. It is truly a very personal decision.

  • Stephanie

    Stephanie

    September 16th, 2015 at 10:57 AM

    Thanks for saying that Lori. I might be wrong, who knows, because I have never walked in those shoes. I just did not want anyone to think badly of me because this was my initial thought about the whole thing.

  • Susangh

    Susangh

    January 28th, 2016 at 7:46 AM

    At least these men were cheating with real humans. Mine was happily cheating with his hand and online porn until he got fired for it. Now THAT is humiliating. He is just a pulse and a paycheck to me now. Trust and love are gone forever.

  • Ellen

    Ellen

    January 23rd, 2017 at 9:20 AM

    Hey Susan,
    I’ve been thinking about you. I hope you’re doing well. Hopefully you’ll be notified that I replied to your comment.

    Ellen

  • Susangh

    Susangh

    January 23rd, 2017 at 4:17 PM

    Thanks for thinking of me. I am doing well thanks to the miracle of EMDR therapy, Mr. Yuck has stopped being defensive (offensive) and takes full responsibility for making our marriage a shambles and a sham through his behaviors. Now I have to get used to not walking on eggshells. Feels so different. I recommend EMDR highly for sex addicts who are ready to do the deep work on themselves.
    Hope you are doing well.

  • Ellen

    Ellen

    January 24th, 2017 at 10:39 AM

    Susan…I’m soooooo glad to hear that. Things are going well here, also due to the miracle of EMDR. My husband did a week-long outpatient intensive with lots of EMDR and I did a little with my therapist also. We still have a lot to work on, but I don’t think we’ve ever been in a better position to heal this marriage. If you feel like you need some support on your end, I highly recommend Infidelity Survivors Anonymous. The phone meetings are really helpful for me.

    Take Care,

    Ellen

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    January 28th, 2016 at 9:47 AM

    Susan, I am so sorry for your pain. I hope you have support and/or get counseling for yourself; or for the marriage if there is any chance for repair.
    Take care,
    Lori

  • Susangh

    Susangh

    February 2nd, 2016 at 11:07 AM

    Thanks Lori. He is working in 12-Step for sex addiction and is in group with a CSAT. I found there isn’t much support out there for the emotional abuser’s victim when interpersonal relational trauma is treated as sex addiction. The Al Anon model used for sex addicts’ wives blames the victim and tells her to detach from him to work on herself alone. Meanwhile, in “recovery,” the SA gets to continue to be self-absorbed and ignore the painful emotional damage he did to his wife and marriage.
    The blessing for me was when he laid hands on me I was able to get him out of the house with a protective order. That got his attention, but he immediately stopped my access to the only family funds, his income. Amazing how many consequences had to befall him before he understood that the whole mess is based on his need to control me and the information that affects my freedom to choose to be with him. Gaining power and control over me through lies and secrets is how he held me captive and oblivious to his sexual betrayal of me. I want to place a Mr. Yuck sticker on him because he disgusts me. As for the marriage, well, I’ve detached!

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