No, You Don’t Have to Leave Your Cheating Spouse

Couple lies in bed, backs to each other. Person with short hair faces away from camera, person in floral dress with shoulder-length hair and bangs rests head in hand with serious expressionIf infidelity has happened to you (emotional, physical, or both), you don’t have to go running to an attorney right away. Of course, separation or divorce is always an option, both now and in the future.

If you are like many people who have been betrayed, you may be in a state of shock and disbelief and feel as if your entire world has been turned upside down. Perhaps you have always told yourself you would never stay with someone who had an affair, that you don’t deserve to be treated this way and you shouldn’t have to put up with it. Perhaps you have always believed you would end your marriage in a heartbeat, simply out of self-respect.

And now the topic seems to be everywhere—on television, on the radio, or just among others who talk about “kicking a cheater to the curb.” If you have disclosed the infidelity to friends or family, it is not uncommon for well-meaning loved ones to advise leaving right away, or perhaps to offer a spare bedroom or the name of an excellent lawyer.

But you also don’t instantly stop loving this person, and the word “cheater” does not encompass the complexity or entirety of who your partner is.

As a couples therapist, I am often asked for my advice in these situations about whether to leave. My answer is always the same: “This is a highly personal decision that is not mine to make.” That said, I do recommend that people give themselves permission to slow down and gather information in order to make a grounded and thoughtful decision.

We know from Dr. John Gottman’s research that someone who has been betrayed by their primary romantic partner very often experiences symptoms consistent with posttraumatic stress (PTSD). We also know it is unwise to make major life decisions when in the midst of a crisis and not thinking clearly. Among other things, these PTSD symptoms may include intrusive thoughts of text or email exchanges, disturbing visual images of sexual acts, mood swings, irritability, and an inability to experience positive emotions.

These symptoms can make it nearly impossible to continue to function. Betrayed partners often find themselves doubting what is real and what is not, especially when there has been denial and defensiveness from the person who did the betraying. There can be a loss of trust in their partner, and even in their own perceptions, feeling as if they have failed in their ability to judge the character of their spouse.

As with any trauma, safety and self-care need to be the priorities. Step one is to normalize your full range of emotions and pain. It is normal to want to leave, and it is normal to feel a whole range of reactions including anger, anxiety, depression, suspiciousness, and general overwhelm. It is also normal to want to stay to work things out.

Although recovering from an affair can be very difficult work, there are many times couples find themselves in closer, more intimate partnerships as a result of healing together. Mental health professionals witness this on an ongoing basis. Perhaps neighbors, members of your community, or family have overcome this ordeal and are now happier together, unbeknownst to you.

It is important to recognize you are not alone. Although 90% of Americans say adultery is morally wrong, many families have secrets behind closed doors. One study found that approximately 23% of men and 19% of women in heterosexual marriages have had sexual affairs. These statistics are consistent with many other studies, although it is difficult to gather data about affairs because of the inherent secrecy and stigma of the issue. It may be more prevalent than studies show.

As unbearable as this pain is, and as difficult as it may be to see a way to get past it, a common mistake is a belief you have to “get out quick.” It is rarely this simple. You might still be in love, have children, or be living a life together that is integrally intertwined. Whatever your situation, there is often a confusing mix of strong emotions and feelings of ambivalence.

As you are weighing your options, you might only be looking at two extremes: (1) separation or (2) trying to forgive and move on. We have learned from relationship researchers that these extreme options are too difficult for most people in the immediate aftermath of such a traumatic event.

A third option is to make the decision together with your partner. A couples therapist or other professional trained in affair recovery can help the two of you process what happened, provide education, and give you a safe space to explore your options. You don’t have to know what you want before asking for help. Much of what we do is to guide couples in the decision-making process. You might benefit from learning what the journey would look like and hearing more about where your partner is emotionally. Your feelings might change as a result.

Although recovering from an affair can be very difficult work, there are many times couples find themselves in closer, more intimate partnerships as a result of healing together. Mental health professionals witness this on an ongoing basis. Perhaps neighbors, members of your community, or family have overcome this ordeal and are now happier together, unbeknownst to you.

There are, of course, other times couples decide to peacefully dissolve their union. This can be done respectfully and thoughtfully, especially if they wait until after the initial shock of the trauma. Energy can be placed into co-parenting—if there are children—or amicably separating property, thus reducing the risk of harm for all parties.

Ultimately, this decision lies with you and your partner. If you take your time to find clarity and make an informed and grounded decision, you may be more likely to feel the sense of peace you desperately seek.

References:

  1. Gottman, J. M., & Gottman, J. S. (2016). Healing a Relationship from an Affair-Research Training Manual. The Gottman Institute.
  2. Gottman, J., & Silver, N. (2012). What Makes Love Last? How to Build Trust and Avoid Betrayal. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc.
  3. Mark, K.P., Janssen, E., & Milhausen, R.R. (2011, October). Infidelity in heterosexual couples: demographic, interpersonal, and personality-related predictors of extradyadic sex. Archives of Sexual Behavior. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21667234

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  • Liz

    Liz

    January 5th, 2017 at 9:22 AM

    Once I found out that my husband was having an affair I was completely devastated. I didn’t even know how to function anymore.
    It took us a long time to figure it all out, even whether or not we could ever work together again as partners.
    You feel like you have been punched in the gut and I will admit that there are still days when I struggle with my new reality. But we have chosen to try counseling so we will have to wait and see what the outcome will be.

  • Laura Silverstein

    Laura Silverstein

    January 5th, 2017 at 12:46 PM

    Liz, thank you so much for sharing your story. It is so helpful for others to know that they are not alone in recovering from something that is often accompanied with privacy and/or shame. Wishing you the best in your process of healing.
    Warm regards, Laura

  • serenity

    serenity

    January 6th, 2017 at 12:34 PM

    I don’t think that you have to leave them but you do have to be willing to forgive them and until you can do that then it is never going to even stand a chance of working.

  • Laura S.

    Laura S.

    January 7th, 2017 at 10:53 AM

    Well said, Serenity, forgiveness in a situation such as this is a very difficult thing to do! Sometimes it’s easier to start with a willingness to sit down and hear each other out before even contemplating what forgiveness might look like.

  • Elizabeth

    Elizabeth

    January 8th, 2017 at 10:56 AM

    Am in dis situation my husband was a cheater and abusive man and using alcohol too much after drinking beating me and going out with girl and comes home next day,don’t like my friend expect me tobe alone all tym,am really confused bcos using professional can’t help us blame me all tym. A want to quiet dis marriage am process of devorce now,a struggle with depression now and my kids too not coping at school,a need your advice

  • Rick

    Rick

    January 7th, 2017 at 11:35 AM

    Well I had to leave mine because it turned my stomach and made me physically sick every time I thought about her with the other man. She humiliated me and she broke up my family. Those things alone seemed to me like yeah, those are good reasons to end this.

    It was obvious to me that in our case she didn’t care enough about me and about our boys to stay faithful so why should I stay with this person who just didn’t seem to want to be there anymore?

  • Anue N.

    Anue N.

    January 7th, 2017 at 3:33 PM

    Once a cheater always a cheater! Advice like this is what keeps the problem alive and thriving, and of course marriage counselors in business. If the cheater’s knew they would be left for cheating they would consider the higher stakes a little more seriously.

    It is never too early to begin teaching your children the fine art of how to love them but forget them.

  • Anue N.

    Anue N.

    January 7th, 2017 at 3:36 PM

    “Furthermore, the “intactness” of a marriage is absolutely no indicator of the health of a marriage, nor its noxiousness to a child.” ~ Arthur Kornhaber MD

  • Nellie

    Nellie

    January 9th, 2017 at 4:35 AM

    I have been on both sides. I have been cheated on and sadly I have also strayed myself. I don’t feel good about either but I can tell you that there was a lot more guilt and animosity toward myself when I cheated than I ever felt toward him when he did.

    I feel like I lost a little bit of myself when I got down to his level. It was supposed to feel good, paying him back for what he did to me but now I know that this will make you feel just as bad, if not even worse.

  • Bart

    Bart

    January 9th, 2017 at 8:44 AM

    Oh no I had to leave. I didn’t even have it in me after that kind of betrayal to even want to try to work things out. That was too much for me and looking back it probably would have been unfair to all of us for me to suggest counseling and trying to work things out because I think that in the end, regardless of the process, I would have always come to the same conclusion that the marriage needed to end.

  • meg

    meg

    January 9th, 2017 at 2:22 PM

    I just assumed that alright, you are cheating so you must want out

  • Caterina

    Caterina

    January 10th, 2017 at 11:15 AM

    There is no you have to do this or you have to do that, just know that the only thing that you have to do is look out for yourself and take care of yourself. You shouldn’t worry about what other people think that you should or shouldn’t do. If the marriage means that much to you, then of course you need to fight for it. Go to counseling and work together and build a stronger foundation with one another than what you had before. But if it doesn’t feel right then you should not feel compelled to stay. There are often things in life that for your own balance and sanity, they just have to be left behind.

  • karl t

    karl t

    January 13th, 2017 at 10:48 AM

    Every marriage is different and every person who goes through this is going to experience things differently than perhaps another person would. All of this is alright and it is totally normal.
    What is not ok is the feeling that some people have that they have to stay, that they don’t have another choice. There is always another choice, another option. Now it might not always be easy but there is always going to be another option out there for you.

  • jayne

    jayne

    July 18th, 2018 at 11:37 AM

    But also, you cannot repair a marriage after an affair completely alone. It does annoy me to keep reading articles about how to stay I be your marriage and overcome what has happenened when the perso that has had the affair shows neither remorse nor are they willingly to end the affair. Sometimes it is the end and people shoukd not be made to feel bad when they have to walk away in order to preserve their self respect and dignity.

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