13-Steps Guide to Surviving Infidelity As a Couple (Science-Backed)

dealing with infidelity

Surviving infidelity is not easy.

Discovering an affair is a traumatic event, and to heal properly, you must approach it as the traumatic event that it is.

This is a guide to survive infidelity as a couple and to build a stronger relationship together. Or, at last, to give it your best shot.

This guide is not to move on by yourself or detach yourself from your partner. Those may be valid choices in certain circumstances, but they’re not what’s discussed here.

couple hugging tight

How to use this guide

The guide is backed by some of the best researches and experts’ opinions in the field.

One above all: Shirley Glass, author of Not Just Friends, one of the best books I’ve read about relationships.

The numbered titles are the steps you need to take in chronological order.

The smaller titles are aimed at either the unfaithful partner (in blue) and the betrayed partner (pink).
But don’t let the colors confuse you: the steps are the same whether the cheating partner is male or female.

I recommend you share this guide with your partner as well. Two people doing the right thing is not twice the healing power, it’s 10x.

#1. Start Well: Confess The Affair

When betrayed partner corners the unfaithful spouse, the cheater responds in four different ways. Here in order of worst to best:

  1. Denial only make the recovery harder and further erodes trust
  2. Stonewalling, communicates he doesn’t care enough to reply
  3. Staggered disclosures: drags the pain further and prolongs the pain
  4. Full honesty: the only way to go

Unfaithful Partner: Admit It

Immediate honesty is the best way to face the problem head on and rebuild trust.

Betrayed Partner: Channel The Rage

Nobody says it’s easy, but I’m talking about what’s useful for recovery here, not what’s easy.
The betrayed partner can make things easier for the unfaithful partner to share the truths by avoiding some common, bad reactions:

Anger is a normal feeling, what’s unuseful to recovery though is to launch into the worst offenses you can muster.
Exaggerated rage will also push your partner into a bigger wall of denials and stonewalling, which will delay full revelation and recovery.

Example

In the movie This Is 40 the husband finally admits he has been hiding the truth for years because of her furious reactions.

It’s not so uncommon, and you want to avoid that.

The Ideal Scenario

If you can muster to communicate love and understanding right off the bat, that immediately takes you into full healing mode.
Here’s an example of what a betrayed partner told her husband (I paraphrase):

Betrayed partner: If she can make you happier, then you should go. If you want to work on our relationship, I love you and  I’m ready

The husband was aghast and immediately valued her so much more. Both went to work on it and not only saved their marriage, but improved it.

Note: I’m not suggesting that you should the same or that it’s the best way to react. I wouldn’t react like that in a million years.
But I am saying that if your goal is healing and you still have a functioning relationship, that might be the quickest way to jump into healing mode.

2. Don’t Give up right away!

The first knee-jerk reaction after a betrayal is to abandon the relationship. While understandable, it’s best not to jump to emotionally-driven, rush conclusions.
Give it at least three more months before deciding. And if afterwards you still feel like leaving, then you know your decision is rational.

Unfaithful Partners: Don’t Jump Ship (just yet)

The unfaithful partner is caught between a rock and a hard place.

The pain and suffering that he caused at home on one side and the tough choices he needs to make between the affair or the relationship.

Statistically speaking leaving the marriage to build a relationship with the affair partner is rarely the best solution.
You carry the unresolved issues with you and second marriages have an even higher divorce rate than first marriages (Hatherington, 2003).
And marrying the affair partner has even higher divorce rates.

Betrayed Partner: Don’t Slam The Door

Shirley Glass, with decades of clinical experience curing unfaithful couples, says that the regret for not having done enough to save the marriage of extremely common.

Partners who quit too soon find out that being alone is harder and that they miss their partner more than they ever thought they would.

Giving up right after cheating is buying high and selling low!

3. Arm Yourself of Patience

Healing from cheating takes some time, some effort and some resolve. Sometimes more than some. As they say, love is not for the faint of hearts. You can do it.

Unfaithful Partners: Trust Takes Time

The unfaithful partner cannot stand to be under heavier scrutiny.

He often resorts to saying things like:

Unfaithful Partner: You gotta trust me. It’s either you trust me, or you don’t.

But there’s no “trust button” in people. Trust takes time.
And lemme be frank: you broke that trust, now you gotta accept it takes time to rebuild it.

Betrayed Partner: It’ll Be Up & Downs

Be ready that you will experience up and downs.

Some days you’ll feel fully healed, but then the day after you’ll feel like a fool for staying with a partner who cheated.

Especially if your partner hasn’t fully come back to you emotionally yet you’ll be worried and insecure.

During the final stages of recovery it will be mostly steps forward. But then you’ll have sometimes a step backwards cancelling all the gain you’ve done. Unluckily negative experiences carry more powerful than positive ones.

Note: healing comes first in frequency of occurrences and only later in intensity. This means that months down the road as you think you’re getting better… BAM! There comes a flashback of stinging pain, anger or disgust.
Don’t worry: eventually also the intensity will dissipate, but it takes longer.

quote to deal with affair

4. Answer Honestly… 

Hiding from uncomfortable truths is a natural human reaction. But you have to face up to the issues if you want to solve them.

Unfaithful Partner: Open Up

The unfaithful partner has a key role in the healing process. He must stay close to the partner and let her know he will answer any possible question.
In the beginning share the basics, such as:

  • The identity of the affair partner
  • How you met
  • How long it lasted
  • Where did you meet

Refusing to share the identity is a common, major mistake. It protects the lover and keeps the spouse on the outside.
For the unfaithful partner sharing the story also helps close the affair. Daniel Wegner indeed shows that past relationships that remain secret increase desire and make the partner appear more appealing (The Allure of Secret Relationships, 1994).

Share Ambivalence

Unfaithful partners fear that sharing their ambivalence and emotional entanglement will upset their spouse and forestall any improvement.
Well, it will upset your spouse most likely, but the honesty will also rebuild trust. And rebuilding trust is the most important thing right now.

Overcoming Ambivalence

Here’s what you can do to overcome relationship ambivalence:

  • Picture your life with the affair partner 5, 10 and 20 years from now
  • Do you two want the same things?
  • Does the affair partner what children? And you?
  • Do you think the traits that attract will annoy you later on (likely)?
  • How’s your relationship going to be without the excitement of secretly?
  • What if your affair will be on the same trajectory as your current relationship?
  • Would you still divorce if it weren’t for the affair partner

Sources:
The importance of transparency and answering all questions is backed by Peggy Vaughan’s survey of 1.083 betrayed partners.
86% of couples stayed together and 72% rebuilt trust when the unfaithful partner answered all the questions. Only 59% stayed together and 31% rebuilt trust when the unfaithful partner refused to answer questions.

Note: there was a link to the survey, but the webmaster moved the page.

5. … But Wait on Graphic Details

It’s natural that the betrayed partner will obsess, and it will often be over the most painful bits of information.

Such as either graphic sexual details or the evidences of love such as texts, gifts or letters.
It’s best to tread lightly here.

Unfaithful Partner: Open to Share.. But in Time

Unfaithful partner should say they are open to share everything their spouse want to know. They should share right away all the main parts of the affair. But they should avoid the graphic details.
Say something like this:

I will tell you everything you want to know. I am concerned though the details will only bring unnecessary pain to you and harm our recovery. I’d rather wait a few days. And then if you still want to know, I’ll tell you.
OK for you?

Betrayed Partner: Test & Wait

In most cases getting all the graphic details is a mistake. And the craving usually disappears as the relationship improves.

Ask yourself whether the details will really help you move on. And if you are unsure, start with a single painful detail. If it helps you heal, then get more. If it only brings you pain without any further improvement, then drop it.

Example:

He feels good as soon as he hears it. But it’s only because of the rush of winning the argument. The trauma will likely only be bigger for him now that the details are burned in his mind.
He would have most likely bounced back quicker without the graphic details.

6. Do a Clean Break

Healing cannot start in an unsafe environment: a clear cut with the affair partner is a fundamental step to restore safety and moving forward together.

Unfaithful Partner: Cut All Affair Contacts

The unfaithful partner must cut any relationship with the unfaithful partner.

  • If your partner so prefer, have the last call in front of them
  • If it’s a colleague, make it clear it’s only business from then on
  • If you stumble upon them, share all meetings with your partner
  • If you meet them with your partner, stay close to your partner

If you cannot manage a clean break you must be honest about your ambivalence. When you are honest, you also get closer to your relationship partner because you break walls of secrecy. And, even if through pain, you become more of a team.

Betrayed Partner: Ask for Proof

You don’t have to, but if it makes you feel better it’s fair for the betrayed partner to ask to be present when the last communication of break up is sent.
If at all possible it’s also fair for the betrayed partner to ask that the cheating partner stops attending whatever activity is shared with the affair partner.

7. Mourn & Use Social Support

Take some time to mourn and grieve.
It’s important that you don’t speed this process up to heal properly. This is valid for both the cheater and the cheated.

Unfaithful Partner: Mourn & Share

Few people will give you the benefit of the pain. They’ll point finger and add you deserve it. But keep those understanding people close: they’re precious.

Your mourning is about the ending of the affair relationship.

Betrayed Partner: Mourn & Share

Share your grief with some good friends.
For women it’s important an important element of health and mental strength to have other female friends (Gottman, The Man’s Guide to Women). It helps in healthy relationship and it helps even more now that you need support.

In this phase strive to view the affair partner as a human being as well. Demonizing the affair partner is unhealthy for you, for your relationship and also for your partner: it’s an easy way to let them off the hook.

Keep Family Out

It could be a bad idea to involve your family. It will be hard for them to forgive your partner in case you decide to stick together.
And keep the children out.

8. Rebuild Intimacy And “We Spirit”

The steps you have taken so far aim to rebuild intimacy in the relationship. The affair is highly damaging because it puts a human wedge between you two.
It creates a stronger, more intimate bond with the affair partner and keeps the spouse on the outside.

You need to cut with the affair partner and share everything with the spouse because that way you move the affair partner out and you rebuild the bond with your spouse.

Understanding the theory is important so that you can put all the practical steps in perspective.

Little Red Riding Hood Knocking at Her Grandmother’s Door
Stop keeping your partner out!

9. Be all in

In Shirley Glass’ clinical sample, 80% of couples starting therapy with high commitment to save the relationship stayed together.

Less than half of couples who started with low commitment made it together at the end of the therapy.

Here are some arguments to motivate you and throw more resources and faith into the relationship:

Unfaithful Partner: Understand Affair is Unreal

Your affair wasn’t real.

When the affair is discovered it’s common to say “I love you but I’m not in love with you” to the spouse. And it’s common to think “you’re in love” with the affair partner.

But that’s likely to be superficial love –the limerence period-. Part of it is fueled by the secrecy and by the idealization of the romance.
You get to see the best of your affair partner without the downside, which creates an unrealistic image.  As they say, the grass on the other side is always greener because you don’t have to mow it.

Also keep in mind we often pick affair partners who are different than our spouses or different from ourselves. If that’s the case, experience shows that we will resent those same traits later on (Harville Hendix, Getting the Love You Want).

At the end of the day, I can’t tell you what to do. But if you want to choose what’s most likely to be good for you, that might be to relish the experience you had and stick with your long term relationship.

Betrayed Partner: Overcome Ambivalence

Here are a few exercises to help you decide and overcome ambivalence:

  • Imagine a future without your partner: how does it feel like?
  • Picture family events without your partner
  • How would your children feel differently?
  • What would you miss about the relationship?

The grass is always greener when you don’t have to mow it

10. Swap Bitterns for Kindnes

We have seen in a previous article that negative vicious circles are a leading cause of break ups.

And affairs are very likely to lead to vicious circles.
The betrayed partner feels the need for revenge and the unfaithful partner avoids the spouse to avoid the negativity and the feeling of guilt.

Unfaithful Partner: Empathy & Boundaries

As we’ve seen the unfaithful partner can get impatient when trust takes time.

He would want to be welcomed with open arms, but that takes time.
And to accelerate the process, he must make an effort to resume caring.

If the unfaithful partner cannot manage caring, it can be a sign of lingering emotional attachment to the affair partner.

Set Boundaries for Disrespect

The unfaithful partner must set boundaries if he’s dealing with continuous verbal abuse.
Crying requires your shoulder, calling you a scumbag for days on end requires you to set boundaries
Here’s one way you can put it:

Cheating Partner: This affair has been disastrous on you, I know. I wish I could undo it… But I can’t. But that doesn’t give you any right to verbally abuse me.
I want to help you and I want to get back on track, but that behavior only pushes me away.
I want that you make sure this is the last time you use those words with me.

Setting boundaries of respect is something you do for both. Research shows that one put down will undo hours of kindness (Cliff Notarius, 1994). Also read: meanness has no place in relationships.

Betrayed Partner: Out Meanness, In Kindness

It’s not uncommon the betrayed partner holds back on any warm or caring gesture.

It’s because they can feel as if any sign of kindness is a sign of forgiving.
What’s also common is a sense of entitlement. In the worst cases the cheated partner feels that their pain gives them a free pass to disrespect and demand without giving.

While that’s completely understandable, it’s super helpful if the betrayed partner moves out of this mindset as soon as possible.
Resuming caring also helps overcoming ambivalence on both sides.

There can’t be no final healing until caring resumes

Tips For Kindness

  • Go First

Both partners look at the other partner for signs to stay and work at it harder. One must make the first move.
Instead of waiting for the other, start yourself!

  • Treat Kindness as In The Moment

Separate in your mind forgiveness from kindness. Treat all affection as “in the moment”. If you feel you need a hug, go for it: it doesn’t mean the cheating didn’t hurt you or that you are forgiving it (not yet, at least).

  • Fake It Till You Make It

Behavior can sometimes proceed and lead the way for feelings to follow. Start giving even if you don’t exactly feel like it and see if that helps (chances are it will).

Choose happiness over righteousness!

11. Explore the Affair History

Trauma experts Diana and Louis Everstine say that telling the story is an essential part of the recovery (Strategic Intervention for People in Crisis).

And Judith Herman proposes to review the trauma by analyzing the life before the trauma and the circumstances leading to the traumatic event (Trauma and Recovery).

The best time to get into analysis mode is once you’ve established a safe enough environment. These are some of the questions you want to explore:

  • Why did you get involved with someone else?
  • Did you think about me
  • What was missing with our marriage
  • Did I do anything wrong?
  • What does your betrayal say about you

Both partners should work as a team to find out the answers.

How to Improve the Relationship

Introspection and understanding is helpful per se, but it’s even more powerful when you can use it to address the weaknesses of your relationship.
Here are some examples of what you can address:

  • Find new roles

The allure of an affair is to try on new roles for us. For example a serious partner might enjoy being more free spirit with a younger partner.
The relationship couple then can try on new roles together instead of looking outside.

Example: I really liked the example of A Walk on The Moon, where the betrayed husband -an overly serious “square”- shows his willingness to work on the relationship by changing the tune and dancing to a rock song.

  • Sexual liberation

Sometimes a partner can feel freer with an affair partner. But sex doesn’t have to stay the same just because a couple has long been together. This can be an opportunity to look for more liberated sexual expressions.

  • Equalize give and take

If there was an imbalance between who gives most in the relationship it’s a great occasion to build a more equitable relationship.

  • Empathic listening

A common refrain among betrayals is that the affair partner understands them better. And feeling accepted after years of no emotional connection can be supremely attractive.
But emotional intelligence and empathic listening are  something the couple can learn and implement in their relationship.

You must be the opposite of this couple:

When you’re in a relationship like the one Warren was in you’re an easy prey of emotional affairs!

12. Finally, Forgive

If you execute together all the steps so far, they should naturally lead, eventually, to forgiveness. Forgiveness is not essential for personal recovery but it is essential for healing as a couple.
These are the overarching steps you have achieved: so far

  1. Let go of anger
  2. Create empathy and understanding
  3. Create shared meaning

Now, if hasn’t come naturally already, you can consider making a conscious effort to forgive.
Studies show that commitment to relationship will help you forgive , and that forgiveness will further move you towards full healing (Ysseldyk, R., & Wohl, M. J. A. (2012)
Here’s a post fully dedicated to forgiving:

13. Further Help

The steps outlined so far are “essential” and basics. But of course, there’s always more you can do.
Here are more tips to stay together after an affair:

  • Focus on the positive shared past (reminisce, tell stories, look at old pictures together)
  • Imagine a positive future after all the turmoil
  • Don’t do solo therapy or you recreate distance (single therapy only to work out ambivalence)
  • Men should ask about emotional involvement first and women about sexual involvement
  • Reclaim territory: when ready you can experience the crime scenes together, holding hands
  • Reclaim memories: do with your spouse what you did with the affair partner, but better and bigger (power move!)
  • Build a shared vision of monogamy: the libertine partner should converge towards the stricter values
  • If it’s all too difficult a period of separation might help
  • From what you’ve learned, cheat proof your relationship
  • Destroy the memories of the affair together as symbolical rite of passage

Here is an example of destroying the signs of the betrayal:

When Healing is Difficult

For completeness of information, here are instances when staying together happens less frequently:

  • The affair is both sexual and deeply emotional
  • Unfaithful men describing the affair more emotional than sexual
  • Both partners had affairs (around half relationship ended in this case)
  • Unfaithful wives are childless and younger than 31 YO
  • When cheating happens early (conversely long term couples are more resilient, Gottman)

If you weren’t happy to begin with, this an excellent article on deciding whether to break up or not.
And don’t be discouraged if you’re in any of the above categories: that’s only indicative.

Surviving Infidelity: FAQ

Here are some of the most frequently asked question when it comes to affairs:

  • How long does it take to overcome cheating?

It depends -you didn’t see this coming, did you :)-.
If it’s a deep emotional wound it’s unrealistic to expect healing in less than a year. It could be years to fully heal, but here’s the good news: most of the times things get progressively better.

  • Is it easy?

No, it’s not.
It’s much, much better if the cheating partner cooperates. And it helps a lot if both partners know what they’re doing (use this guide for that).

  • Will things ever be the same?

No, your relationship will never be the same again after you discover an affair.
But asking for “the same” is the wrong approach: a relationship always evolves, even without any cheating.
And your goal should not be to come out of the affair with the same. That’s weak sauce. Your goal should be to come out of it with a better relationship. As much as you don’t believe it right now for many couples an affair was the catalyst for a (much) better relationship.

  • Can you stay together?

There’s no guarantee, but yes you can: many couples do that. And many couples manage to build a stronger relationship, too.

Even Gottman reviewing the literature in The Science of Trust concludes that the prognosis of healing from betrayal is good when both partners are willing to make the journey.

SUMMARY

Affairs are a traumatic event. But you will get through it and many couples manage to build stronger and happier relationships.
This article showed you how to survive relationship infidelity.

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