Infidelity: Can Couples Move Past It?

How to heal from an affair—and prevent one.

Close up of young couple fighting
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Try screaming into a sink full of water; it absorbs the sound.

That's an exercise that relationship guru Laura Berman suggests to couples coping with infidelity. The need for, and agony of, such a release reflects both the immense trauma of romantic betrayal and its flip side: the deep capacity of human love.

But given the emotional toll it takes, can anyone truly get past an affair? Can trust ever be restored? Should it be?

For Helen Fisher, a Rutgers University anthropologist who studies the biological underpinnings of love, her male partner's affair 15 years ago didn't end their relationship. But it certainly changed it. "You can get over it. You can get over all of the feelings; but in my experience, you never forget it," she says. "You've got to have enough pulling you toward the relationship to want to make this thing work," she says, "but romantic love is one of the most powerful brain systems on earth." In fact, it fires up the same neurological response as serious addiction—"a perfectly wonderful addiction when it's going well, and a perfectly horrible addiction when it's going poorly."

Fisher, who has studied 42 societies around the world, theorizes that humans have evolved three distinct drives—for sex, romantic love, and the stability of attachment—all of which can coexist for what anthropologists consider the ultimate human drive: propagating the species at any cost. When it comes to adultery, that cost can run quite high—from excommunication to execution, in some cultures. However, multiple lovers have given humans a "dual reproductive strategy," Fisher explains. So, for example, the prehistoric woman might have exploited a liaison to confuse her child's paternity and gain resources for her brood, or perhaps another lover created a back-up plan should her primary partner fall out of a tree.

[See: 10 Ways Your Health Might Sink Your Sex Life.]

In other words, we've inherited an operating strategy that—should we choose to employ it—may help our species survive. But it hardly helps us sustain monogamous bliss. "We want to feel all of [these drives] for one person, but it doesn't always work out that way. So we are perfectly capable of being married to one person, while having a wild affair with someone else," Fisher says. Of course, our neurological ability to romantically multi-task doesn't mean we want to or should. As Fisher puts it, "just because you'd like to murder your boss, you don't do it. You smile politely and walk by."

Over the last 20 years, the proportion of Americans who say they have ever cheated on their spouse has hovered at 20 to 25 percent of men and 10 to 15 percent of women, according to findings published in 2010 by Deborah Carr, a sociologist who is also at Rutgers. However, more recent data from the General Social Survey, conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, has indicated patterns by demographics, she says. One of which is that the gender gap is narrowing among younger people. One quarter of men ages 65 and older say they have cheated, compared with less than 10 percent of their female peers. But among Americans ages 18 to 24, 12.9 percent of women have cheated, versus 15.9 percent of their male counterparts.

No matter how the data break down, no one wants to feel like a statistic. But an affair has precisely that kind of effect on the betrayed party, robbing his or her own sense of identity.

[See: How One Woman Gamed The Online Dating System.]

"It's not just a loss of trust or fidelity. Hurt partners experience a basic loss of self ... it's shattering," says Janis Abrahms Spring, a clinical psychologist whose 1997 book, After the Affair, was re-released this week in a second edition that includes a chapter on "cyber-affairs."

"Couples can rebuild a marriage or a committed relationship after an affair, but it takes work," Spring says, noting that trust and forgiveness "must be earned by the offender through bold, heartfelt, meaningful acts of repair, and the hurt party also has to take a 'fair share' of responsibility for how they may have created a state between them that made room for someone else to come in between."