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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To be clear, the person who had the affair shoulders that blame alone. But, in Spring's experience, the other partner has played some role in creating the rift between them. And recovery requires effort from them both. "You don't just patch the marriage back up together. You learn from it," she says, and "can grow from it."

Most affairs don't result from lust, as fleeting attractions are a normal part of human biology, according to John Gottman, marriage researcher and psychologist, in his new book, What Makes Love Last. He posits that affairs stem from a lonely marriage. Fisher, however, argues that roughly half of adulterers report happy marriages and may simply stray for some excitement.

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Whatever the case, couples who want to stay together in the wake of an affair often require therapy to examine its cause. So, let's consider this hypothetical example that Spring outlines: Say the person who strayed was a man who felt inferior to his wife, whose career is skyrocketing. He would require personal therapy to rebuild self-esteem, she says, and his partner would respond with "caring behaviors" like focusing on him instead of her iPhone, asking about his day, or telling him that he's a great father.

Meanwhile, he must hear her "hurts with an open heart"—and offer a meaningful apology. "I'm sorry" doesn't cut it, she says. Spring prescribes a written apology detailing contrition for the extent of his harm. It might go something like this, she says: "I understand that you used to experience yourself as an attractive, competent, successful human being, and since my affair you can't get out of bed in the morning, and if you've lost interest in everything including our kids, and you resent me for this, and I understand, and I'm sorry."

[See Is Couples Therapy Right for You?]

Transparency by the cheating party can help marriages recover, according to a study by extramarital affairs expert Peggy Vaughan that's referenced in What Makes Love Last. Her survey of 1,083 people whose spouses were unfaithful found that when the betrayer answered questions about the affair, the relationship survived 86 percent of the time. If the betrayer refused to respond to questions, the survival rate dropped to 59 percent.

"The person who's been adulterous has to be willing to answer any question that the offended party wants to ask, and then, at some point, the offended party has to say to themselves, 'OK, I will never bring this up again,'" advises Fisher, who says that, for some couples, "17 years later, they're still talking about it, and that is not useful. You've got to rebuild."

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According to Spring, it takes more than answering questions from the betrayed party to get things right. To rebuild trust, the betrayer "redraws the boundary" around him and his wife, ejecting the mistress from their inner circle, she explains. For example, on receiving an E-mail from the mistress, he immediately tells his wife and asks her how to respond. She'll tell him to trash it, because "the best response is no response," and he does this, Spring says. "That's how you earn trust—because the person you have the secret with is the person you're closer to."

Along those lines, guard against gossip, Berman says. It's one thing to vent to a friend about your situation, but denigrating your spouse will only rend you farther apart.

And how about trying to prevent the affair to begin with?

Speak up. Talk about what's bothering you. And listen to each other, Spring says. He might keep his feelings pent up because "when he tells her, nothing good comes of it. She's taught him, 'don't complain to me I don't want to hear it.'"

Try to pick the right partner, Fisher says. And once you do, remember to experience new adventures together, she says, so that "excitement and sex are in the home instead of out of the home."

[See: How to Survive a Breakup—Especially on Valentine's Day.]