In the aftermath of an affair, many partners ask the question, “can a relationship survive an affair”? Whether you’re in a long-term partnership or a legally defined marital union, many betrayed partners wonder if staying together is a plausible option to consider.
Mining for some specific details about the infidelity is a good place to start. Affairs happen for many different reasons, inquiring as to the why can give a good indication of whether trying to work things out after an affair is a reasonable consideration.
Why do people cheat? Even those of us specific to this industry could spend days discussing the whys. When you ask your cheating partner why it happened, a few common themes can present themselves.
One is a general lack of boundaries, combined with an unanticipated opportunity or proposition. A one-night stand can be put into this category, especially if alcohol was involved. The theme here is that the relationship did not have any horrific, out of the norm, problems, and it was a one-time occurrence. The cheating husband, wife or partner does not come down on the betrayed to blame him/her, there is a clear and present, “oh my God, what did I do, this was a huge f*** up!”
We’d say salvaging this sort of situation has a good prognosis. If the betrayed partner wants to offer the opportunity because the overall relationship has been positive, respectful and it feels worth the effort.
We say the ball is in the betrayed spouse’s court. If the unfaithful is willing to make the effort to genuinely engage in some affair recovery counseling, groups and ride the roller coaster of emotions the betrayed partner will need to process, then it looks good.
These scenarios do not deal with an unfaithful spouse trying to re-write the history of the partnership either, he/she feels deep regret, embarrassment and horror at what has happened. The unfaithful here has a pretty solid sense of self, can tolerate the intensity of pain and angry in the betrayed spouse and isn’t fighting against a lot of narcissism.
If an unfaithful spouse has a high degree of self-centered behaviors, like being defensive when the betrayed spouse is angry or sad, or just plain out of control, then the recovery of the marriage or partnership can be more difficult.
Sometimes underlying issues come to surface after an affair is discovered, like the unfaithful has been suffering from depression, low self-esteem, PTSD or anxiety. So then we have a case where the unfaithful can be less available to support the betrayed in the recovery of the relationship, because he/she has some pre-existing conditions that can sabotage the efforts.
It’s like having a ship that’s going down, and the ship that’s trying to save it also has been hit. For a marriage to survive infidelity in this instance, intervention needs to be serious for both the unfaithful and the betrayed and the betrayed needs to be aware of the added elements needed for a full recovery to be possible.
In the above two examples we would be dealing with trying to recover a marriage after an affair where there has only been one betrayal. One betrayal and an unfaithful with low level pre-existing pathology, or one betrayal and some pre-existing pathology.
Overall in both these situations, you still have a highly motivated unfaithful spouse who cherishes the relationship and the betrayed partner and is not ambivalent or negative about the marriage.
When ambivalence and negativity are added to the equations, from the unfaithful partner’s side, the marriage healing process can get dicey and long. Another instance that can make healing after infidelity complex is when serial infidelity has been the norm.
Other elements that make the prognosis less appealing is an unfaithful spouse with low motivation, high levels of pre-existing pathology, especially narcissism. It doesn’t mean these relationships are not worth fighting for, often in these situations when children are involved a betrayed spouse will still make a choice to at least attempt for a certain period of time to restore the marriage. When kids are involved this can add the much-needed perseverance and patience for a betrayed spouse.
Another reason a betrayed partner might still feel the marriage is worth trying to save even when compulsive sexual behavior is present, is if the pattern of childhood abuse and neglect in the unfaithful spouse’s past has been disclosed.
Many betrayed spouses can detach from the sexual betrayals and see it as sexual addiction, and with help, learn to understand how the childhood wounds creating a maladaptive coping mechanism that can be addressed. A team of professionals specialized in sexual addiction is key to any situation where chronic infidelity has been revealed.