Surviving an Affair: How One Couple Overcame Infidelity

cropped view of person clutching blanket while second person kneels in apologetic stanceAlex traveled frequently for work. Ashley never questioned what he did on his business trips. She trusted him. When Alex revealed he’d been having an affair with a coworker with whom he traveled, Ashley was devastated. Her entire world crashed in on her. At first she felt shock and disbelief. How could this have happened to her? Was this really happening? Every morning upon awakening, it hit her—waves of pain pounding down on her heart. It was a nightmare she couldn’t shake.

The hurt and sadness were overwhelming. The grief felt as if “something” had died. And then she realized: it was her innocence. She would never again have that feeling of carefree and absolute trust in her partner.

Anxiety and panic stalked her even when she wasn’t thinking about it. Her mind raced with questions: “Was my 19-year marriage a sham? Did Alex ever really love me? How could he have done this to me? Where was the trustworthy, loyal man I married? Do I really know who he is?”

Within the first three weeks, she lost nine pounds. She couldn’t eat. Sleeping through the night was a challenge. She felt depressed. Every television show seemed to be about infidelity. She couldn’t get away from it.

Alex, for his part, felt terrible. The weight of his guilt was almost unbearable. He watched Ashley’s suffering and did his best to comfort her. She vacillated between wanting to be held closely and desiring to shove him away. He beat himself up daily. Desperate to save his marriage, he finally convinced Ashley to go to marriage counseling with him.

Bob and I saw them in co-counseling as a team. On their first therapy visit, we listened to their heart-wrenching story and saw two people “dripping in pain.” They asked us if there was hope to save their marriage. We told them yes, that we’d worked with many couples who’d come in as the result of an affair; if they did the necessary work and persevered over time, their marriage could not only survive, it could be stronger than it was before the affair. We asked them to borrow our hope until they felt it themselves.

Over the next 18 months, they came to weekly sessions. In the safety of our therapy room, we helped them face and walk through the pain they experienced. Alex honestly answered any and all questions Ashley had, even when it felt punishing and at times arduous. He patiently listened to and empathized with her anger and hurt, even when every cell in his body wanted her to move on from it.

Alex reflected upon how and why he’d made the choices that almost ended his marriage and family. He faced his feelings about his father cheating on his mother and expressed how disappointed he was in himself since he never wanted to be “that guy.”

Ashley worked hard on learning how to express herself in a way Alex could hear. She became less critical and owned her thoughts and feelings. She asked for what she needed instead of expecting Alex to read her mind.

She allowed herself to feel empathy for Alex’s pain when he described his feelings of self-loathing and disappointment in his behavior.

Ashley learned about the meaning of forgiveness; it didn’t mean forgetting what happened or condoning Alex’s behavior. Forgiveness meant letting go of her anger and pain about the affair, so she could move forward.

When a partner’s affair is exposed, there is a seismic shift in the foundation of their relationship. Without warning, the earth trembles and large cracks appear. Though the shaking may last only for seconds, the aftershocks are felt for days, weeks, and months. The ground is forever changed.

The two of them explored the history of their marriage and how insidiously they drifted apart, became more like roommates, and took each other for granted. Their primary focus on raising kids and building careers resulted in less time and attention to their marriage. They faced the fact their marriage became vulnerable to an affair as a result, though Alex owned the choice he made to stray.

Together, Alex and Ashley discussed ways to create a deeper connection, emotionally and sexually. They learned to communicate more genuinely and express themselves authentically even in the most difficult times. They learned to manage conflict instead of escalating or avoiding it. They worked on creating habits of connecting daily and appreciating each other. They opened up about their sexual needs and desires even though it was awkward at first.

When a partner’s affair is exposed, there is a seismic shift in the foundation of their relationship. Without warning, the earth trembles and large cracks appear. Though the shaking may last only for seconds, the aftershocks are felt for days, weeks, and months. The ground is forever changed.

Though some couples separate, there is a great chance of survival if both partners have the earnest desire, patience, and emotional fortitude to do the work. Therapy helps couples face the trauma together, work toward understanding and forgiveness, and create an even deeper connection than existed before.

It took time, work, and patience, but Alex and Ashley both agreed it was worth the effort. They were grateful they had not impulsively separated.

It’s not easy, by any stretch of the imagination, but couples can and do survive affairs. If your relationship has been rocked by infidelity, take your time before making any impulsive decisions. Find a therapist who specializes in marriage, affairs, and relationships for yourself and/or you and your partner.

Note: Names and details have been altered to protect confidentiality.

© Copyright 2016 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.

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  • Amelia

    Amelia

    September 30th, 2016 at 7:34 AM

    She is much stronger than me. I don’t think that I would have ever survived that.

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    September 30th, 2016 at 10:54 AM

    Amelia, Thanks for your comment. Often we don’t know how strong we are until we are tested. Not that any of us would choose whatever difficulty or trauma we experience; But when that event happens most people rise to meet the challenge and become stronger. Take care, Lori

  • Lauren

    Lauren

    September 30th, 2016 at 12:33 PM

    I was the one who cheated in my relationship too.
    We as a society too often think that it is only men who are being unfaithful but from my experience there are just as many unhappy women out there doing the same thing to their significant other. I had a hard time admitting that I had been unfaithful but when there was finally nowhere left to run I had to admit to it.
    We broke up and he has never once called or spoken to me again. We had a good thing going but I just let the moment get away from me and ruined it all.

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    October 1st, 2016 at 2:23 PM

    Lauren, You are correct. There are an increasing number of woman who have affairs, especially with so many women in the workplace. So sorry to hear that your partner didn’t try to work things out. I know that the person in your shoes also experiences much pain, guilt and shame. And it hurts a lot. What we see in practice is that it is more likely for men to end relationships when there’s an affair than women. The silver lining is that this you will carry this learning into your next relationship. Thanks so much for sharing and being vulnerable. Take care, Lori

  • Lauren

    Lauren

    October 3rd, 2016 at 9:18 AM

    Do you know what? There IS and and I think that alot of it I have put on myself just because of how bad I ultimately felt over my behavior. I have beat myself up a lot over it.

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    October 4th, 2016 at 3:16 PM

    Lauren, Part of the healing is to work on forgiving yourself. Forgiving doesn’t mean that what happened was ok. It means that you own it, feel it and then let go of the anger at yourself. Lori

  • Sunny

    Sunny

    October 3rd, 2016 at 7:05 PM

    Reading this made me angry on her behalf. Alex felt guilty? Oh, poor Alex. Good that she can forgive. But how can she not resent him for the rest of their lives?

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    October 4th, 2016 at 3:29 PM

    Sunny, I know it is hard to understand how anyone could work through and forgive their partner for betraying their trust and marriage vows. When clients have chosen the path of forgiveness, it’s when their partner is extremely remorseful, fully owns the pain they created, and is willing to do “anything” to save their marriage. That is the foundation needed for a couple to face the pain together, rebuild trust (of course it is never the innocent trust they felt before), and grow a deeper connection. When there is a family unit, children, and many good years together, leaving is not that simple. The affair is not the only thing that defines the relationship. Scars can heal if people do the work. Hope that helps you understand. Take care, Lori

  • Roger

    Roger

    October 4th, 2016 at 8:29 AM

    I was so sad and angry when I found out that my wife had cheated on me after being married almost 25 years. How could she ruin all that we had ever had together by doing something like that? I thought that we had a great marriage up until that very point when I found out. Now nothing that she could do would change how I feel about her and we are currently going through a divorce.

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    October 4th, 2016 at 3:37 PM

    Roger, I hear your pain. Yes, after 25 years it is hard to believe that a partner could do that. If you thought you had a great marriage up until that point, then she was likely not being authentic with you during the time leading up to the affair. It is very sad. There certainly are many people who feel the way you do, that an affair is the ultimate deal breaker. I respect and appreciate that. Thanks for sharing. Take care, Lori

  • Roger

    Roger

    October 5th, 2016 at 10:16 AM

    She made me feel to blame, said that if I would have paid more attention to her over the years then this would have never happened. I think that was maybe her way of trying to make herself feel better about her actions that she chose.

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    October 5th, 2016 at 11:11 AM

    Roger, it does sound like she is blaming you, and many people in her position say that. Though both partners are responsible for the state of the marriage, the person who chooses to have an affair is totally responsible for that choice. The fact that she chose to have an affair is not your fault in any way. She could have chosen to talk to you or go to marriage counseling, or to say “if we can’t fix these issues, I will leave the marriage.”

  • Kim

    Kim

    October 6th, 2016 at 9:21 AM

    Huge issue for me: he still compartmentalizes There is his work personality and no one has yet to be told we are divorced and dating. There is his new family personality for those few family members that know divorced and dating (due to my insistence that he told them he cheated). There is the old family personality for those family who still do not know. How do I trust the new and improved ex when he is still fine with the jelkyl Hyde personalities?? His cheating gutted me and ended our marriage. Still dating because I in fact did love him. He appears to now feel empathy for the first time in his life.

    Is this enough???

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    October 7th, 2016 at 12:41 PM

    Kim, Sounds like You are questioning if this is enough. It also sounds like he still only shows parts of himself to others and isn’t being fully genuine and authentic. “Love is not enough.” Love is a feeling. Authentic love is shown in the actions people do everyday to honor and respect their partner. I would pay attention to what he is doing to show you he truly loves you. And if you aren’t in therapy already, it sounds like that would be a good idea. Best, Lori

  • Virginia

    Virginia

    October 7th, 2016 at 10:50 AM

    I will not say that I took responsibility for his actions but I did have to own up to the fact that part of why he did what he did was because he was not getting everything that he needed from our relationship.
    I was distant, caught up in my own work and my own worries and I did not give him the attention that he needed.
    I am not accepting all of the blame because of course he is the one who made the decision to be unfaithful but I don’t think that he and I could have started to repair the damage that was done without both being open to the fact that it took two of us to create this.

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    October 7th, 2016 at 12:44 PM

    Virginia, Well said! Both partners are responsible for the relationship. But when one person chooses to cope with their dissatisfaction in the form of an affair, the responsibility for that is on him. Thanks for sharing. Lori

  • Zaki

    Zaki

    October 21st, 2016 at 4:27 AM

    Good day

    He cheated and i found that he has been cheating since we met, i always thought he was different from other guys that made me love him more. When i found out i was shattered, like Emily i lost weight, hated him. “He blamed me” so we decided to work things out but its difficult on my side and cant completely get over it and forget about it. I’ve lost interest in him cant kiss him, i dont think I will get over what he has done, but i wish to. Lori what are the steps i can take in healing myself. I want to be happy again and atleast try to trust again.

  • Sandra

    Sandra

    November 6th, 2016 at 3:20 AM

    i dated my husband for 4 years and have been married to him for 11 years now. Very recently i got to know that all along he has been having feelings (not emotional he says) for another woman all these years (even while we were dating) and they have been flirting and writing lovey dovey messages to each other on and off. it was a long distance affair until recently they decided to go a step ahead when they got a chance to meet up and go ahead with their carnal desire they have been talking about all these years. I had seen the flirty messages twice (only from the woman) while we were dating and he convinced me that its all one sided and he was surprised by those messages which is y i let it go. 2 years ago i came across messages where they expressed how much they loved each other and i was devastated. This time again my husband convinced me saying how sorry he was and promised me not to be in touch with her thereafter. he even informed the woman who is apparently married herself tha i found out about those messages and would not stay in touch.. We moved on and i never once brought it up again. I took it as a lesson and started being more attentive to my husband blaming myself for his behaviour thinking this was a one time thing where he reciprocated to her feelings….Just a month ago i found out that he met her twice when she was visiting the city we lived in and during one of those times they booked a room to be together. my husband feels guilty and has promised yet again not to be in touch with her again. I dont want to reconcile with my husband after this but think should continue being in this relation for the sake of my kids. I am shattered to no end and going through a roller coaster ride myself. Do you think there is hope when you know your husband has been cheating on your for 15 long years and has consistently lied without any remorse

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    November 7th, 2016 at 9:11 AM

    I’m so sad for your pain. What you have been through is devastating. First, let me say that a partner choosing to have an affair is NEVER the fault of the betrayed. Your husbands choice to carry on an affair for the entire length of your relationship (especially after he was discovered, apologized and recommitted) doesn’t provide any evidence that he will stop the relationship with the other woman. When a partner genuinely feels guilty, they end the affair relationship, or seek professional help to end it if they have difficulty. I am a pro-marriage therapist (meaning that if there is any way to save a marriage couples should try that first). However, in the situation you described, it’s likely betrayal will continue. If that is correct, the relationship crosses a line into one that is emotionally abusive. That is not a healthy environment for anyone or for their children. I would suggest you seek the guidance of an individual counselor to talk about how you should proceed. Take care, Lori

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    October 29th, 2016 at 11:25 AM

    Zaki, My heart goes out to you. It’s not uncommon when cheating is discovered that the betrayer turns it around and blames their partner. A partner is NEVER responsible for their significant other cheating. We do have a part in creating the relationship, and a responsibility to tell our partner when we are dissatisfied so the issues can be worked out. But the choice of a partner to cheat, no matter what issues are going on between a couple, has nothing to do with the partner they betrayed. The only way for the two of you to move on from this is for him to own his behavior, take full responsibility for the pain he caused and go to therapy to work through the betrayal. If not it will always be between the two of you and trust cannot be re-established. I would recommend you see an individual counselor to work on this if he won’t go with you. Take care, Lori

  • Cindy

    Cindy

    January 26th, 2017 at 11:11 PM

    Great artical. Two years ago my husband caught me cheating. As someone mentioned its not always the husband, there are many unhappy women or some like me want a change or other experiences . I had become involved with the owner of the salon I work at and her husband for more then a year. I did’t have the heart to end our relationship which had been failing me for along time. I had talked to him many times about how I felt and nothing ever change or no action on his part followed through. He had the opportunity to change jobs so he didnt have to travel so much and be home more often, he turned it down. I spent many weekends on my own with the gal I worked for and her husband, One night they joked at the bar about us being together which I said ‘sure’! This became a very passionate affair, a year into it my husband came home a day early and caught us. He was heart broken and still wanted to try to make it work. I came clean telling him how long we had all been together. I asked him to move out two weeks later. I’ll always Love him, we’ve kept in touch and have actually become better friends since.

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